Signed V.D.(1) and B.V.(2).
Black chalk, pen and brown ink, brown wash
Two drawings on one mount: (1) 220 x 160 mm. (8 5/8 x 6 in.) (2) 211 x 160 (8 x 6 in.), overall mount size: 390 x 515 (15 3/8 x 20 in.)
Baron Vivant-Denon, on his original mount.
Probably Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelley and Percy Bysche Shelley, Lady Shelley-Rolls, her sale Christies London, 5 December 1961.
Denon is most justly remembered as the artist who accompanied Napoleon to Egypt in 1797. He was entrusted by Napoleon to assemble a team of artists, archeologists, linguists and scholars to study the antiquities of Egypt for the first time since Antiquity. The results of his findings were published in 1798 in the monumental Voyage la Haut et Basse Egypt, a series of lavishly illustrated books which were to have a profound impact on French, and indeed international (including American) taste. It was during this expedition that Jean-Marc Champollion discovered the Rosetta Stone which enabled him to decipher and translate ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Denon was one of the founders of the Louvre Museum, and was responsible for saving many works of art and monuments of French culture from destruction during the French Revolution.
Denon executed these powerful drawings in 1794-5 at the height of the Reign of Terror during the French revolutionary tribunals. It depicts the same man drawn at a few minutes apart. Denon drew about thirty depictions of aristocratic defendants, being judged or taken to their execution at the guillotine, all of which are laid down on the same type of mount as the present sheets. A group of twenty drawings on seven mounts are currently in the Louvre, and the rest were dispersed at auction in London in 1961 .
This sheet captures with a sort of grisly fascination the fear and resignation of an unknown man facing certain death on a hot August afternoon during the Reign of Terror in 1794. The drawing possesses the immediacy of a courtroom reporter, which indeed Denon was, and in fact, only two days before this drawing was done, Denon had himself narrowly escaped death at the hands of the same tribunal. Only the intervention of his fellow artist Jacques-Louis David, a member of the tribunal, had saved him.