Christian von Mechel (1780)

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 von 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.

Christian von Mechel(2) (1737-1817) was engraver, art expert and seller of prints in Holbein's own city, Basel.

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 von Mechel. To begin with, von 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(3) 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:

There is no doubt that Crozat's sale took place in 1741. The drawings are No. 796 in the catalogue: »796: Quarante-six idem: sçavoir la suite du triomphe de la Mort qui a été gravée en bois sur ces Desseins; ils sont à la plume, & ont autrefois appartenu à Jean Boerckhorst ou Langhen-Jan, Peintre Hollandois […]«.

Nevertheless, Douce is not the only one to think it happened in 1771. The same holds true for experts like Woltmann: »Bei Versteigerung der Sammlung Crozat (1771) kamen sie an den Geheimen Rath Fleischmann zu Straßburg«.(4) Langlois says the same (Essai historique, vol. 2, page 86, footnote), and so does a later owner of the drawings, Ambroise Firmin-Didot (Essai typographique et bibliographique, page 61, footnote 2). Incidentally, the latter referred to Ch. Mechel as "Charles Mechel".

To make the confusion complete there was in fact a Crozat's sale in 1771, namely Louis Antoine Crozat (1700-1770), nephew of Pierre Crozat.

The genuine Rubens drawings

The duchess's bedpost has no mark.
Mechel, Duchess

Douce ends the section by wishing that an expert had examined the drawings. This was to happen when the Holbein-expert Alfred Woltmann examined them (presumably while they were owned by Ambroise Firmin-Didot) and concluded that they were not by Holbein (see previous footnote(4)).

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 (picture to the right), 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, 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, the Expulsion, the king, the bishop and the old woman are missing. But Coxe is certainly not right in asserting that Mechel should have copied these 4 pictures after Hollar.

The triumph of Richess
Mechel, Wealth

Conversely, von 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.

One gets the suspicion that von 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«.

The Two Versions

Mechel's first attempt at a frontispiece from 1771.
Mechel: Frontispice

Douce wrote that von Mechel started his work in 1771, but apparently this had been a sort of a "dry run".

M. de Mechel had begun this work in 1771, when he had engraved the first four subjects, including a frontispiece totally different from that in the volume here described. There are likewise variations in the other three. He was extremely solicitous that these should be cancelled.
(Douce, The dance of death exhibited, page 135)

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

The frontispiece is, as Douce says, totally different from the later edition, and the year 1771 is engraved. The other three scenes are those from The Old Testament. To the right is "After the Fall", and as one can see the motive is laterally inversed but the scene is still closer to Holbein's original and Ruben's drawing than von Mechel's final picture, where Eve has been placed far away in the background.

Even though Douce only mentions these four scenes, there is one more sheet in his collection, which shows king, emperor, queen and empress. These look like the final result from the 1780-edition except that the sequence (the positions on the sheet) is different.

Douce also states that von Mechel had borrowed the drawings for two years:

Prince Gallitzin […] sent the drawings to him, with permission to engrave and publish them, which was accordingly done, after they had been detained two years for that purpose.
(Douce, The dance of death exhibited, page 135)

But if von Mechel had borrowed them for two years starting in 1771, then it's odd that he didn't publish the plates before 1780.

Coxe, who had seen the drawings, and who was well acquainted with von Mechel, writes in 1776 that von Mechel was in the process of making engravings of the drawings: »Mr. de Mechel, a celebrated artist of this place, is now employed in engraving them after the original designs; a work which cannot fail of being highly acceptable to the admirers of the fine arts« (pp. 441-442).

How could von Mechel work with the drawings in 1776 if he had returned them in 1773? One explanation could be that von Mechel had hurried to get the drawings copied before handing them over to the owner again. And this brings us to the next topic:

Who made the copper engravings?

Schellenberg: Portrait of Christian von Mechel
Mechel, de Mechel

As we have just seen, there has been doubt for hundreds of years as to who created the "Dessins originaux", which were the basis of von Mechel's engravings. But there is also uncertainty about who made the engravings.

In his book on Holbein, Ulrich Hegner claims that the drawings were first copied by "a good draftsman" and subsequently etched by a "handyman" at von Mechel's workshop.

Diese Folge von Zeichnungen ließ Mechel unverzüglich durch einen guten Zeichner 1) copiren und durch einen Handlanger seiner Werkstatt stechen durch welches doppelte Medium von dem Holbeinischen Urbild nur noch ein Schatten übergeblieben ist. […]

1) Rudolph Schellenberg von Winterthur

(Ulrich Hegner, Hans Holbein der Jüngere, 1827, pp. 323-324)

According to a footnote "the good draftsman" was Rudolph Schellenberg (1740-1806). Schellenberg was employed by von Mechel for a while (picture to the left), and he later published his own dance of death: Freund Heins Erscheinungen in Holbeins Manier, although he later became better known for his pictures of insects.

Hegner suggested that this double copying — from the drawings via Schellenberg via "the handyman" to the engravings — could explain why the engravings were only "a shadow" of Holbein's image. As an example, Hegner mentions the scene in Paradise, where Eve is sitting elegantly reclined like one of [the French painter François] Boucher's family.

It does not appear that Hegner has seen these drawings, but he is right that Eve is sitting much more reclined on von Mechel's plate than on Holbein's original woodcut. Hegner is also right that the engraving deviates from the drawing (even though he hasn't seen it). In fact von Mechel's first attempt was much better in this respect, but both the 1771- and the 1780-editions omit the bull's head behind the monkey on Eve's right side, which Rubens had included.

"van Morcheln"
Mechel, van Morcheln

Douce hadn't seen the drawings either, but he was angry over Hegner's claim that von Mechel hadn't engraved the plates himself.

Soon afterwards, and with very good reason, he doubts the originality of the drawings, which he says M. de Mechel caused to be copied by Rudolph Schellenberg, a skilful artist, already mentioned as the author of a Dance of Death of his own invention; and proceeds to state, that from these copies De Mechel employed some inferior persons in his service to make engravings; advancing all this without the accompaniment of any proof whatever, and in direct contradiction to De Mechel's authority of having himself engraved them. An apparently bitter enemy to De Mechel, whose posthumous materials, now in the library at Basle, he nevertheless admits to have used for his work, he invidiously enlarges on the discrepancies between his engravings and the Lyons wood-cuts, both in size and manner; and then concludes that they were copied from the wood-cuts, the copyist allowing himself the privilege of making arbitrary variations, especially in the figure of the Eve in the second cut, which, he says, is of the family of Boucher, who, in spite of Hegner's opinion, is regarded by better judges as a clever painter.
(Douce, The dance of death exhibited, pp. 241-242)

Douce's attack on Hegner takes up several pages (see the page about Nieuhoff Piccard for more examples). Douce says that Hegner's claim is: »in direct contradiction to De Mechel's authority of having himself engraved them«, but he doesn't himself bring any arguments to the table.

Can we assume that von Mechel has produced the plates, just because his name is written at the bottom? No, we cannot — the name only shows that he was the owner of the workshop.

Precisely von Mechel was notorious for taking credit for the work of his people.

The frontispiece was designed by Dunker in 1772
Mechel, Frontispiece

[…] he learned much at Wille's studio, above all urbanity, the ability to deal with rich clients, and a feeling for the art market. Within a short time the businessman and art dealer in him were at least the equal of the artist. While still in Paris he had begun signing his name to many works produced by talented apprentices in his studio and selling them as his own.
(Lionel Gossman, Basel in the Age of Burckhardt, 2002, page 47)

One of his former employees, Anton Balthasar Dunker, wrote a scathing parody in which "Christian van Morcheln" (the morchella / true morkel) was a chef who was too lazy to cook, but happily took the credit (picture to the right). When a prince was to have a feast one day, each of the many chefs wrote his own name on the plate with the dish he had created, but "van Morcheln" was jealous and scratched their names out.

Dunker knew what he was talking about, because he was — uncredited — the designer of Christian von Mechel's frontispiece.

Legally, von Mechel was in his good right to do so (by comparison, Walt Disney has not drawn a single Disney comic strip either), but this means that today we cannot judge whether Hegner or Douce were right.

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 fond 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). Even Hegner sang the praise of the sheath, as opposed to the other prints in the dance of death, which "were of a very different worth": »Hier erkenne man auch im Mechelschen Stiche noch den Holbeinischen Geist, weil der Kupferstecher sich eines bessern Vorbildes zu erfreuen hatte, als bei mehrern vorermeldeten Zeichnungen, von denen Mechel selbst gestehen mußte, daß sie von sehr ungleichem Werth seyen«.

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 von Mechel's / Dunker'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 von Mechel.

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

Gå fremad

Read more about Christian von Mechel's drawings, which turned out to be designed be a young Peter Rubens.

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
van Morcheln
Mechel 1780: van Morcheln
Mechel 1780: World
Mechel 1780: Poverty
Mechel 1780: Wealth
Mechel 1780: Frontispiece

Further Information

Other interpreters of Holbein's dance of death


Hans Holbein (1526) - so-called proofs
Hans Holbein (1538) - the originals
Heinrich Aldegrever (1541)
Heinrich Vogtherr (1544)
Vincenzo Valgrisi (1545)
Arnold Birckmann (1555)
Juan de Icíar (1555)
Valentin Wagner (1557)
Jiří Melantrich (1563)
Georg Scharffenberg (1576)
Leonhart Straub (1581)
David Chytraeus (1590)
Peter Paul Rubens (ca. 1590)
Fabio Glissenti (1596)
Eberhard Kieser (1617)
Rudolf and Conrad Meyer (1650)
Wenceslaus Hollar (1651)
De doodt vermaskert (1654)
Thomas Neale (1657)
Johann Weichard von Valvasor (1682)
Erbaulicher Sterb-Spiegel (1704)
Salomon van Rusting (1707)
T. Nieuhoff Piccard (1720)
→ Christian von Mechel (1780) ←
David Deuchar (1788)
John Bewick (1789)
Alexander Anderson (1810)
Wenceslaus Hollar (1816)
"Mr. Bewick" (1825)
Ludwig Bechstein (1831)
Joseph Schlotthauer (1832)
Francis Douce (1833)
Carl Helmuth (1836)
Francis Douce (1858, 2. edition)
Henri Léon Curmer (1858)
Tindall Wildridge (1887)
Thy Grief (2022)

Mechel had copied Rubens.
Rubens, Peasant
Deuchar copied Mechel's frontispiece.
Deuchar, Frontispiece
Curmer copied Mechel's frontispiece.
Curmer, Frontispiece

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3) (4)

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.

In French the name is Chrétien de Mechel. He was also known as van Mechel, De Mechel, Mecheln etc., and sometimes the "de" was left out.

He was the son of a cooper and thus not of nobility.

Francis Douce: The Dance of Death exhibited in Elegant Engravings on Wood, 1833, pages 134-135

Alfred Woltmann, Holbein und seine Zeit (Th. 2), 1868, page 410.

Die angeblichen Originalzeichnungen, welche den Kupferstichcopien Chr. v. Mechel's zu Grunde lagen, hatten aus dem Besitz des Malers Jan Bockhorst gen. Langhen Jan später ihren Weg in das berühmte Cabinet Crozat zu Paris gefunden. Daß sie früher in der Arundel'schen Sammlung in England gewesen, läßt sich nicht nachweisen, und daß W. Hollar's Stiche ebenfalls nach ihnen gemacht seien, ist falsch. Schon Hegner (S. 323) hat das widerlegt. Bei Versteigerung der Sammlung Crozat (1771) kamen sie an den Geheimen Rath Fleischmann zu Straßburg, später an den russischen Fürsten Gallizin, der sie Mechel zum Stechen lieh. Daß sie, wie allgemein behauptet wird, an die kaiserliche Sammlung zu Petersburg gekommen, ist irrtthümlich. Sie haben ihren Weg in die reiche Sammlung des Herrn Ambroise Firmin Didot in Paris gefunden. Die 44 Blätter, etwas größeren Formats, sind ungleiche, zum Theil geistvolle Copien späterer Zeit, nach den Holzschnitten gemacht, was schon das Vorkommen des Monogramms HL beim Blatt der Herzogin beweist. Manche Abweichungen kommen vor; dem Narren ist eine Kindergruppe beigegeben. Schon Mariette, der die Zeichnungen im Katalog Crozat für Holbein ausgab, spricht an einer andern Stelle von ihnen als Arbeit des Bockhorst (Abecedario). -- Es ist überflüssig, nach Originalzeichnungen zu suchen; diese befanden sich auf den Holzstöcken selbst.