Christian von Mechel

Mechel, Frontispiece
The pope is available in two versions - with or without the two devils.
Mechel, The Pope

M echel's frontispiece (to the left) has the promising subtitle »Gravé d'après les Dessins originaux de Jean(1) Holbein«. 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 Georg 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.

Later reproductions are a bit "fuzzy". Click on the picture to see how sharp they can be.
Mechel: The blind man

Francis Douce(2) 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:

Mechel's first attempt at "After the Fall" from 1771 was laterally inversed.
Mechel: After the Fall

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. Half of his own prints are reversed (see e.g. the peasant further down), but as long as "the original drawings" were locked away, nobody was able to call him on this.

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.
Holbein: H L
Rubens has copied the initials.
Rubens: H L
Mechel has copied the decoration (which has been laterally reversed like the rest of the scene). He has deliberately removed the woodcutter's mark.
Mechel: Not H L

O 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.
Holbein's Simolachri de la morte: Soldier
Rubens finishes the bone and changes the angle of the bone and Death's arm.
Rubens: The Soldier
Mechel copies Rubens. Both artists let Death raise his arm so much that the face is visible.
Mechel 1780: Soldier

The peasant: Holbein lets Death turn his face away.
Holbein's Imagines Mortis: Peasant
Rubens turns the head, so one can see Death's big grin.
Rubens: Peasant
Mechel copies Rubens. Notice that the result is laterally reversed.
Mechel 1780: Peasant
The triumph of Poverty
Mechel: The triumph of Poverty

D 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 after Hollar.

The triumph of Richess
Mechel: 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

Mechel, dagger sheath Mechel, dagger sheath H owever, Mechel did own a single 100% genuine Holbein-drawing — and that was Holbein's pen and wash drawing of a dagger sheath.

Christian von Mechel made a masterly copperplate of the drawing, so after all there is some »Dessins originaux de Jean Holbein« over the book.

Douce, who seemed to be rather found of Mechel, writes, »M. Mechel has added another print on this subject, viz. the sheath of a dagger, a design for a chaser. It is impossible to exceed the beauty and skill that are manifested in this fine piece of art« (page 133).

Today Holbein's drawing of the sheath is stored at the Berliner Bauakademie.

Copies of Mechel

Deuchar's frontispiece from 1788.
Deuchar's frontispiece
Helmuth's frontispiece from 1836.
Helmuth: frontispiece

A 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 von Mechel.

In 1836 Christian von 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.

In 1858 Mechel's frontispiece was copied in the publications of Henri Léon Curmer.

Resources and Links

Mechel 1780: Frontispiece
The Fall
Mechel 1780: The Fall
Mechel 1780: Expulsion
After the Fall
Mechel 1780: After the Fall
The Pope
Mechel 1780: The Pope
Mechel 1780: Emperor
Mechel 1780: King
Mechel 1780: Cardinal
Mechel 1780: Empress
Mechel 1780: Queen
Mechel 1780: Bishop
Mechel 1780: Duke
Mechel 1780: Abbot
Mechel 1780: Abbess
Mechel 1780: Nobleman
Mechel 1780: Canon
Mechel 1780: Judge
Mechel 1780: Lawyer
Mechel 1780: Senator
Mechel 1780: Preacher
Mechel 1780: Priest
Mechel 1780: Monk
Mechel 1780: Nun
Old woman
Mechel 1780: Old woman
Mechel 1780: Physician
Mechel 1780: Astrologer
Rich man
Mechel 1780: Rich man
Mechel 1780: Merchant
Mechel 1780: Sailor
Mechel 1780: Knight
Mechel 1780: Count
Old man
Mechel 1780: Old man
Mechel 1780: Countess
Mechel 1780: Noblewoman
Mechel 1780: Duchess
Mechel 1780: Peddler
Mechel 1780: Peasant
Mechel 1780: Child
Mechel 1780: Soldier
Mechel 1780: Waggoner
Mechel 1780: Gambler
Mechel 1780: Robber
Blind man
Mechel 1780: Blind man
Mechel 1780: Beggar
Mechel 1780: Drunkard
Mechel 1780: Fool
Mechel 1780: Scabbard
Mechel 1780: Scabbard
The Pope
Mechel 1780: The Pope
Mechel : Basel
Mechel 1771: Frontispiece
Mechel : Holbein
Mechel : Holbein
Mechel : Jesus
de Mechel
Mechel : de Mechel
Mechel 1784: Mechel

Further Information

Other interpreters of Holbein's dance of death

Footnotes: (1) (2)

Jean Holbein . . .: If you wonder why Hans Holbein is sometimes called Jean in French and John in English, the explanation is that all three names derive from Johannes.
Francis Douce: The Dance of Death exhibited in Elegant Engravings on Wood, 1833, pages 134-135

Up to Holbein's great dance of death