CAT 162. W. French after Antoine Pesne. G.F. Schmidt & Frau. The Engraver. Museum in Berlin. Leipzig and Dresden: A.H. Payne, 1871. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.
Georg Frederic Schmidt (1712-1775) had studied at the Berlin Academy as an engraver. In 1736, after six years in the Artillery Corps, he pursued a career as an engraver in Paris, where he received commissions from the portrait painter Hyacinthe Rigaud and was “admitted to membership of the French Academy, despite the official prohibition against Protestants.” Schmidt was appointed “principal engraver to the King of Prussia” in 1743, but the Second Silesian War delayed his arrival in Berlin until 1746, two years before he and his wife sat for the portrait by Pesne (“Georg Frederic Schmidt,” 49).
Pesne’s portrait of G. F. Schmidt & Frau is a triple portrait if you count the cat clinging to the back of the chair on which Schmidt is sitting. At the center of the image is the book Schmidt is holding, so carefully rendered in French’s engraving that the title of the story being read appears to be something like “La . . . Impossible.” In his catalog entry for the original painting in 1958, Ekhart Berckenhagen identifies the story as “La chose impossible,” from the Contes of La Fontaine. He also indicates that the painting had been destroyed by a firestorm during World War II in May 1945. Berckenhagen declares that Pesne’s painting was engraved by A. H. Payne for Payne’s Royal Museums in Berlin c. 1852. This engraving by W. French was published by A. H. Payne in volume 1 of Adolph Görling’s Deutschlands Kunstschätze in 1872.
Immediately below the book Schmidt is holding in Pesne’s painting, Schmidt is pointing to his finger to something on the copper plate he has been engraving with the implements that share the foreground space with the flowing fabric of Frau Schmidt’s gown. When I examined Melville’s copy of the engraving at the Berkshire Athenaeum, I wondered whether the way in which Schmidt points his finger at the plate signaled some kind of joke about being able to engrave with a fingernail. My curiosity was satisfied when reading “The Impossible Thing,” an English translation of the story by La Fontaine featured in the painting.
“La chose impossible” is a verse narrative in which a husband who sells his soul to the devil is saved by his wife when she plucks from her own self something the devil is unable to make “flat” and “straight”: the “curl” of a pubic hair (La Fontaine, 2: 193-95). The Contes of Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695) are elegant, often erotic variations on stories by authors such as Boccaccio, Ariosto, and Rabelais. Their tone of “graceful license” inspired responses by other French artists of Pesne’s generation, including Boucher; Lancret, “the imitator”; and Pater, “the pupil of Watteau” (La Fontaine, vii).
Pesne’s use of this particular story as the centerpiece of his portrait of Schmidt and his wife suggests a relaxed intimacy among the painter and his subjects whose feeling translates into the engraving as well. The long straight whiskers Pesne gives to the cat would seem to be his own playful twist on the “impossible” thing in the conte. Melville owned a copy of La Fontaine’s Fables with illustrations by J. J. Grandville, whose animals are dressed in Victorian clothing (Sealts no. 314a; see MBB 3.6). William French (1815-1898) was an English engraver active throughout the Victorian age. His engraving after Claude’s The Flight into Egypt (CAT 134) was published in Payne’s Royal Dresden Gallery in 1845.