The pope is available in two versions - with or without the two devils.
echel's frontispiece (to the left) has the promising subtitle
»Gravé d'après les Dessins originaux de Jean(1)
In the same vein, there's a line at the bottom of each plate:
»D'apres les dessins de J. Holbein«.
What the book claims then, is that the plates are engraved after Holbein's original drawings
- the same drawings that Hans Lützelburger
once used when he cut the original woodcuts.
But Mechel's plates are not based on Holbein's original drawings.
On the other hand it was later (much later) discovered that
they are copies of drawings made by the very young Peter Rubens.
Mechel (1737-1817) was engraver, art expert and seller of prints in Holbein's own city, Basel.
Common logic tells us that he must have been related to those Mechel-brothers, who published
George Scharffenberg's copy of Holbein's dance of death
all through the 18th century.
Georg Wilhelm Fleischmann
(1693-1776) had bought some drawings from the estate after the great art collector
Pierre Crozat (1665-1740). The drawings were catalogued as genuine Holbein-drawings,
and Fleischmann offered them to Mechel.
To begin with, Mechel rejected the offer, maybe because he realized that
they weren't genuine. Later on he had second thoughts —
and he obtained permission from their new owner to copy them.
met Mechel in person and recounts a long story about how
Mechel was permitted by the new owner (the Russian ambassador in Vienna, Prince Galitzine)
to copy those drawings
that he originally had refused to receive.
There seems to be some confusion among the experts here:
Later reproductions are a bit "fuzzy".
Click on the picture to see how sharp they can be.
Uli Wunderlich (Ihr Müßt alle nach meiner Pfeife tanzen, page 180-181)
says that Fleischmann had offered Mechel to buy the drawings (»zum Kauf«).
Francis Douce says the drawings were offered as a gift:
»[…] de Mechel having
emphatically expressed his admiration of them whilst
they were in the possession of M. Fleischmann, that
gentleman very generously offered them as a present to
Wunderlich says the offer was given in
1741 - the same year that the estate efter Crozat came up for auction,
and that 30 years passed from Mechel rejected the offer, until he finally got his fingers on the drawings in 1771
(»Dreißig Jahre danach nahm sich Mechel schließlich doch noch des Konvoluts an
[…] Spätestens 1771 wurden ihm die Zeichnungen zur Publikation zur Verfügung gestellt«).
This is hard to believe since Mechel was only 4 years old in 1741.
Douce places the sale of Crozat's estate as late as 1771:
»[…] M. de Crozat,
at whose sale, about 1771, they were purchased by Counsellor
Fleischmann of Strasburg«.
This too sounds odd: This would not only mean that it took 31 years from Crozat died before his estate came up for auction,
but a little later Douce informs us that when Mechel started copying the drawings the same year, 1771,
Fleischmann was now
»much advanced in years
and his memory much impaired«.
That is to say that in 1771 Fleischmann was sound enough to buy the estate after
one of France's greatest art historians, but at the same time he was
"much advanced in years and his memory much impaired".
Kristin Lohse (in the Book Rubens copies Holbein) wisely refrains from commenting on prices and dates.
Douce ends the section by wishing that an expert had examined the drawings.
This was to happen in 1839, when the Holbein-expert Alfred Woltmann examined them and concluded that they
were not by Holbein.
Mechel ought to have figured this out himself:
First of all: if Lutzelbürger had cut the blocks after these drawings,
the result would have been laterally reversed (mirror images), but these drawings are not reversed.
This should be obvious to Mechel,
who was an engraver himself.
The second reason is the initials HL on
the duchess' bedpost.
This is the mark of the woodcarver Hans Lützelburger, which he
added when he cut the blocks.
Naturally, Holbein's original drawings wouldn't have included a woodcutter's mark.
Mechel has removed these initials on his copperplate, which isn't unusual per se.
It's very common that the different copyists remove the woodcutter's mark,
but this shows that Mechel was well aware that HL was a woodcutter's mark
— a mark that shouldn't be found on an original drawing.
On Holbein's original woodcuts, the wood carver Hans Lützelburger has added his initials.
Rubens has copied the initials.
Mechel has deliberately removed the woodcutter's mark.
ne can't dismiss then, that Mechel has been very well aware that the drawings weren't genuine.
Furthermore, 4 of the plates (see below)
are not from "the original Holbein-drawings",
but are copied from somewhere else. Additionally, half of the pictures are laterally reversed
and Mechel has introduced some inexplicable changes,
like moving the cardinal indoor.
The title of his book,
»Gravé d'après les Dessins originaux de Jean Holbein«
is beginning to sound a bit hollow.
In the 1970ies it was discovered that the fake Holbein-drawings were
genuine Peter Rubens-drawings.
Holbein doesn't finish the bone because it reaches the edge of the picture.
Rubens finishes the bone and changes the angle of the bone and Death's arm.
Mechel copies Rubens. Both artists let Death raise his arm so much that the face is visible.
Holbein lets Death turn his face away.
Rubens turns the head, so one can see Death's big grin.
Mechel copies Rubens.
The triumph of Poverty
ouce tells about the drawings,
»Mr. Coxe proceeds to say that four of
the subjects in M. de Mechel's work are not in the
drawings, but were copied from Hollar. It were to be wished that he had specified them«.
So Douce quotes William Coxe for saying that 4 of Mechel's pictures are not taken from the drawings in question.
This is true enough, because if one compares Mechel's copperplates with the drawings
that are in the sketchbook today, the Expulsion,
the king, the bishop
and the old woman are missing. Coxe might then be right that they were missing
in the 1770ies,
but Coxe is certainly not right in asserting that Mechel should have copied these 4 pictures
The triumph of Richess
Conversely Mechel hasn't copied The escutcheon of Death, which is of an inferior quality
(and which today is not attributed to Rubens)
and neither has he copied the 5 drawings of boys.
On the other hand Mechel included two full page copies of The Triumph of Riches and
The Triumph of Poverty, even though
they are copies of Federico Zucchero's copies of Holbein's paintings.
These two works had nothing to do with neither
»originaux Holbein«, Rubens or dances of death.
They just happened to be part of the collection that
Fleischmann years ago had bought at the sale of Crozat's estate,
and one gets the suspicion that de Mechel has titled his work
»le Triomphe de la Mort«
only because he wanted to bundle the dance of death
together with »le Triomphe de la Richesse« and
»le Triomphe de la Pauvreté«.
Holbein's dagger sheath
owever, Mechel did own a single 100% genuine Holbein-drawing — and that was
Holbein's pen and wash drawing of a dagger sheath.
Christian de Mechel made a masterly copperplate of the drawing, so after all there is some
»Dessins originaux de Jean Holbein«
over the book.
Today Holbein's drawing of the sheath is stored at the Berliner Bauakademie.
Copies of Mechel
Deuchar's frontispiece from 1788.
Helmuth's frontispiece from 1836.
few years later, in 1788, David Deuchar published a dance of death.
The frontispiece was a copy of de Mechel's (picture to the left). Deuchar also copied
Mechel's engraving of the dagger-sheath, and he
translated the descriptive letterpress of the 46 scenes into English.
With later publications of Wenceslaus Hollar
and of the fake Bewick, Deuchar's descriptions were copied
— the descriptions that he had taken from Christian de Mechel.
In 1836 Christian de Mechel's engravings were copied
by Carl Helmuth (picture to the right), who also copied the descriptions of the 46 engravings
and translated them into German.
In contrast to Deuchar, Helmuth readily pointed out that he was copying de Mechel.