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A highly decorative politically motivated calligraphy darwing in the immediate run-up to the French Revolution, made by the French ‘Master Calligraphers’ during the era, and one of the early images of spectacles, in the form we know today. 

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This highly deatiled calligraphy drawing depicts the careless joie de vivre at the end of the 18th century, just before the French Revolution, with people in ridiculous costumes and wigs overeating, playing music, dancing with dogs and enjoying themselves, as the ominous political creatures and angry crowds with poles are approaching from the sides.

The man on the right-hand side, dancing with dogs, is wearing spectacles, what is one of the earliest images of the eyewear, as we know it today. Only in the beginning of the 18th century did spectacles as we would understand them start to appear. 

The Dating & Attribution of the Work

While the work is undated, extensive evidence indicates that it dates from the 1780s, the period in the immediate lead-up to the French Revolution.  First, the piece is composed in the mature artistic style consistent with the French maîtres écrivains in the circle of the Bureau académique d’écriture.  This style was practiced for only brief period, during which the 1780s marked the apogee.

The clothing, hairstyles and wigs are all consistent with the period in question.  The subject matter, showing the common people being corrupted and turning upon themselves, also reflects the mood as expressed in literature and art in immediate pre-Revolutionary France, imagery that was not common before or after that period.

The ink and paper used is also consistent with the period.

During the period in question there were very few artists who were capable of drafting such an elaborate work of penmanship, and virtually all of these individuals were either members of the Bureau, or independent practitioners who operated within the Bureau’s orbit.  As the work of the maîtres écrivains is not especially well researched, many of the calligraphers working in Paris during the 1780s have not been identified, let alone properly studied.


A Brief History of the Maîtres Écrivains

The anonymous artist who drafted the present composition, was almost certainly associated with the Bureau académique d’écriture, a royal chartered society, founded in 1779, that functioned as a professional organization for the maîtres écrivains.

Calligraphy was highly valued at the French Royal court during the Medieval and Renaissance eras, although its importance was challenged during the early age of print.  That being said, calligraphy remained integral to creating legally codified court documents, and during the 16th Century, the primary role of the maîtres écrivains was to draft originals of important official documents, as opposed to creating works of scriptorial art.  This gave the calligraphers a key, yet uncelebrated role, in the royal bureaucracy.  While senior court officials oversaw calligraphers, for centuries they were never organized into a guild or group of any formal nature.

A major court scandal was responsible for the organization of maîtres écrivains into a formal organization for the first time.  In 1569, Pierre Hamon, the chief calligrapher and former tutor to Charles IX, was executed for high treason.  It is now generally thought that Hamon was innocent, the victim of an elaborate frame-job by his political enemies; however, but the long list of charges against him included accusations of forgery of official documents.  From that point, it was felt that the court calligraphers should be united into a formal body under strict royal supervision.

In 1570, the king chartered the corporation of the Experts écrivains, formally the Communaté des Experts écrivains Jurez.  Its members were permitted to bear the title secretaries ordinaires du Roi.  The corporation was added to the roster of medieval guilds, it members were to meet regularly, and the technical standards of their work were to be regulated by the University of Paris.  Moreover, their activities were to be supervised closely by the Parliament of Paris, especially to guard against the possibility of forgery of official documents.

While the écrivains continued to perform their role, and their corporate charter was regularly renewed, their status suffered under the proliferation of printing, poor pay, neglect and rivalry from the grammar schools.  Calligraphy continued to decline in profile and importance, and although Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the French chief minister from 1665 to 1683, was a great enthusiast of calligraphy, he often bypassed the corporation, soliciting the services of external écrivains.  

Calligraphy commenced what was to be a lengthy nadir in the late 17thCentury.  It was, frankly out of touch with the Baroque and Rococo artistic and social sentiments, and while the maîtres écrivains continued to fulfill the role of drafting originals of seminal documents, their fears of forgery had long dissipated, and their activities were relegated to been seen as mere formalities and embodiment of the lower art.

An attempt to revive the statues of calligraphy was made upon the reconstitution of the corporation into the Académie Royale des écrivains in 1727.  This new organization was to fulfill the role of the former corporation, except that its activities were to be supervised by the Lieutenant-General of Police of Paris.  It must be noted that Lieutenant-General was more than a mere police chief by modern standards, he was also the regulator of the guild system in the French capital, as well as being major source of patronage for artists and craftsmen.  However, the Académie proved to be a paper tiger and its members continued to wallow in neglect.

A true revival of calligraphy in France occurred during the Enlightenment Era.  The work of the maîtres écrivains, which was predicted on formal, elegant lines of beauty appealed to contemporary aesthetics.  After generations, finely executed documents with magnificent pictorial initials were back en vogue.  Beyond dry legal texts, noblemen coveted royal letters patent elegantly drafted by maîtres écrivains on parchment. 


In 1762, on the orders of Louis XV, the Académie Royale des écrivains was reorganized and accorded much greater official status and funding.  It was formally elevated to the rank of the other académies royales, given generous financial resources and made an active institute of teaching, providing formal instruction on artistic draftsmanship, grammar, mathematics and paleography.  Made up, in part, by maîtres écrivains themselves, its administrative staff included a director, a secretary, a chancellor, an archivist, four professors and as many assistants.  Principals of the reinvigoratedAcadémie included François Nicolas Bédigis, René Potier, Charles Paillasson and H. F. Pelletier. 

Meanwhile, a strong tradition of calligraphy thrived in the Duchy of Lorraine, which, until 1766, was a separate state from France, manitiang its own court.  Under the reign of Stanisław (Stanislas) I Leszczyński, who was both King of Poland (1705 – 1766) and Duke of Lorraine (1737-66), the arts flourished at the ducal court at Lunéville.  It was in this environment that a young local artist, Jean-Joseph Bernard (1740 – 1809), developed into the era’s most talented calligrapher.  While only in his early 20s, Bernard rose to become the Master Calligrapher to Stanislas’s court.  One of Bernard’s great strengths were his exquisite drawings, mainly portraits, entirely comprised of penmanship that far transcended the normal remit of the medium.  Many of Bernard’s surviving original artworks are preserved today at the museum of the Château deLunéville, although, tragically, some of these were destroyed by a fire in 2003.  In 1766, upon Stanislas’s death, the Duchy of Lorraine was inherited by Louis XV, and absorbed into France.  This left Beranrd without a role, compelling him to move to Paris, whence he became known as ‘Bernard de Paris’, and where his style greatly influenced the the work of the maîtres écrivains in the capital.  

During the 1770s, the revival of calligraphy in Paris went from strength to strength.  The maîtres écrivains received royal and noble commissions, not only for creating documents, but for drafting portraits and small works of art.  During this time a distinct style emerged, embracing many of the elements evident on the present composition, notably the construction of the human visage thorough pen strokes, clothing and architectural elements made through fine hachures, while the works were often framed by oval or round borders built of waves of ink.  That being said, the artistic oeuvre of the maîtres écrivains was generally confined to small-scale portraits and decorative illustrations; the present composition stands out for being far larger, more technically complex and content-rich than other known works. 

Notably, the new king, Louis XIV (reigned 1774-91), and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were known to be great admirers of new style of calligraphic portraiture, and they were the subjects of many of the finest such works.  On January 23, 1779, by letters patent, Louis XVI transformed the Académie Royale des écrivains into the Bureau académique d’écriture, making it into a formal office of the Crown, with increased funding.  Remaining under the supervision of the Lieutenant-General of Police of Paris, the Bureau was given an office on rue Coquilliere.  The Bureau was to be run by an executive board and was have 24 members and 24 associates.  The maîtres écrivains were to meet every Thursday, hold tutorial sessions for students twice a month, as well as convening sessions for the public with the same regularity.  They held their annual congress in the autumn and many of their meetings were convened at the Bibliothèque royale.  The Bureau published a collection of it transactions, Les Mémoires du Bureau académique d’écriture (Paris, 1785).  Key members of the Bureau included Jean-Joseph Bernard, Charles Paillasson, Jean-Etienne d’Autrèpe, Alexis-Joseph Harger, Simon Denis Dessalle and Valentin Haüy.  

The members of the Bureau continued to fulfill royal and noble commissions for calligraphic documents and artworks right up to the Revolution.  Ironically, while the privileged classes were responsible for funding their work, many of the maîtres écrivains, including Jean-Joseph Bernard, were public supporters of the Revolution.

The Revolutionary hierarchy was not overly enthusiastic about the work of the maîtres écrivains, which they considered to be decadent and elitist.  In particular, the portraits of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette made by Bureau members would have been especially ill starred in the new France.  Seeing that their work was unappreciated, in December 1791, the Bureau applied to the National Assembly to be permitted to continue to serve the government with the drafting of official documents (although, left unsaid, it was assumed that their courtly artwork was to cease).  Their request was only partially successful.  Individual Bureau members continued to receive commissions for drafting official documents (although not as many as before); but it seems that the Bureau was formally dissolved by 1794.  From 1796, the maîtres écrivains reorganized themselves onto a new academy that went by a series of changing names: first, the Société académique d’écriture, de vérification et d’institution nationale; then the Société libre d’écriture, de verification et des belles-lettres; and finally, the Société libre d’institution de Paris.

Following the Revolutionary period, Jean-Joseph Bernard found employment as the official calligrapher to Napoleon Bonaparte, although his work did not enjoy the same profile as it did before the Revolution.  Changing artistic tastes, as well as the acceptance of manuscripts made in a common secretarial hand, as well as printed works, as official documentation saw the death knell of official calligraphy in France.  The last meeting of the successor to the Bureau académique d’écriture occurred in 1811.  Following that, as James M. Wells wrote, “The writing-masters, like the old soldiers they were, apparently never died, but simply faded away”.


References: Cf. V. Advielle, ‘Notices sur les calligraphes Bernard, dit de Paris, et Bernard, dit de Melun, et sur le chevalier de Berny, calligraphe et économiste du XVIIIe siècle’, in Réunion des sociétés des beaux-arts des départements, vingt et unième session, 20-24 avril 1897 (Paris: 1897), pp. 155-187; H. C. Barnard, The educational work of the parisian Maitres-Écrivains, in British Journal of Educational Studies, vol. 9/1 (1960), pp. 39-47; L. Biot (ed.), Bernard: portraitiste en trait de plume: musée du Château, Lunéville, Meurthe-et-Moselle – Inventaire général des monuments et des richesses artistiques de la France, Commission régionale Lorraine (Metz, 1994); J. Bonzon, La corporation des maîtres-écrivains et l’expertise en écritures sous l’Ancien Régime (Paris, 1899); T. Franz, ‘Jean-Joseph Bernard (1740-1809), un artiste singulier au musée du château de Lunéville’, in Le Pays lorrain, no. 90 (mars 2009), pp. 19-24; J. Hébrard, ‘Des écritures exemplaires: l’art du maître écrivain en France entre XVIe et XVIIIe siècle’, in Mélanges de l’École française de Rome. Italie et Méditerranée, no. 107 (1995-2), pp. 473-523; C. Mediavilla, Histoire de la calligraphie française (Paris, 2006); C. Métayer. ‘La communauté des maîtres écrivains de Paris et l’enseignement de l’écriture sous l’Ancien Régime: dans la destinée de l’art calligraphique’, in Historical Papers Communications historiques, un choix des meilleures communications présentées au Congrès annuel de la Société historique du Canada, Hamilton, 1987, (Ottawa, 1988), pp. 23-43; C. Métayer, ‘Normes graphiques et pratiques de l’écriture: Maîtres écrivains et écrivains publics à Paris aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles’, in Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, 56e Année, no. 4/5, Pratiques d’écriture (Jul. – Oct., 2001), pp. 881-901; J.M. Wells, ‘The Bureau Académique d’Écriture: A Footnote to the History of French Calligraphy’, The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 51, no. 3 (Third Quarter, 1957), pp. 203-13. 

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