The Chimera

Jean Louis Desprez (French, 1743–1804)

Catalogue Raisonné

Baudicour 6, state 1


Sheet: 29.4 x 37.4 cm (11 9/16 x 14 3/4 in.) Image: 27.6 x 35.7 cm (10 7/8 x 14 1/16 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique


Not On View


Europe, Prints and Drawings



Desprez was born in the Burgundian town of Auxerre. He studied architecture and won the Prix de Rome in 1776. He left for Italy the following year and remained there until 1784. During his stay Desprez’s interests shifted somewhat from architecture to architectural draftsmanship and illustration. His operatic flair is evident in “The Capture and Burning of Selinus by Hannibal” of 1783-84. Shortly after he made that dramatic etching, King Gustav III summoned him to Stockholm to lead his staff of set designers. Within four years, Gustav appointed him principal architect to the Crown.
The fifth state of the print bears an inscription describing the subject. Victor Carlson transliterated it as follows:
“The beast, born in the burning sands of Africa, lived in the ruined palace once belonging to Masinissa (ca. 240-148 B.C.), the former ruler of Numidia, a retreat which the chimera left only to devour animals and unwary travelers. Neither land nor sea could contain the monster, who moved ceaselessly over both in his unending hunt. Here, a blazing sun and an arch describe the chimera’s African habitat; the ground is crawling with reptiles and strewn with the remains of victims.”
The Eighteenth Century is often characterized as celebrating frivolous indulgence and military valor; yet, it was also an age that ventured into the terrifying darkness of the sublime. Desprez collaborated with Francesco Piranesi and was clearly familiar with the work of his father, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose architectural fantasies provided the model for the chimera’s home. The elder Piranesi’s prisons also crystallized the zeitgeist that Desprez here reinterprets in bizarre figural form.
“The Chimera” bears a lightly scratched inscription, faint to the limits of legibility, apparently reading “desprez del Rom.” This places the etching sometime between 1777 and 1784.


Lightly scratched in plate at lower left corner: desprez del Rom
Verso upper edge in graphite pencil: [unclear inscription]
Verso right in graphite pencil: 4297


Sold Paris, Drouot (Brissonneau), 23 November 2005; to Hill-Stone, Inc. (New York); from whom purchased by MFA, 22 March 2006.

Credit Line

Katherine E. Bullard Fund in memory of Francis Bullard