Clark Art Exhibition

Promenades on Paper: Eighteenth-Century French Drawings from the Bibliothèque nationale de France

By: - Nov 29, 2022

The Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) is a vast and encyclopedic library collection, so extensive that some areas of its holdings have yet to be fully explored. In partnership with the BnF, the Clark Art Institute opens the first exhibition ever presented of the National Library of France’s eighteenth-century French drawings. 

The exhibition, Promenades on Paper: Eighteenth-Century French Drawings from the Bibliothèque nationale de France, includes a selection of eighty-four studies, architectural plans, albums, sketchbooks, prints, and optical devices that expand our understanding of drawing as a tool of documentation and creation in the age of Enlightenment. These extraordinary works of art span the domains of natural history, current events, theater design, landscape, and portraiture. Displayed together, they immerse audiences in the world of eighteenth-century France—a world shaped by invention, erudition, and spectacle. Works by celebrated artists of the period such as François Boucher and Gabriel de Saint-Aubin are featured alongside exquisite drawings by unexpected practitioners, including female printmakers, royal children, and visionary architects. Promenades on Paper: Eighteenth-Century French Drawings from the Bibliothèque nationale de France is on view at the Clark Art Institute from December 17, 2022 through March 12, 2023. The exhibition then travels to the Musée des Beaux-arts de Tours, France, and will be on view from May 12 through August 28, 2023.

“The Bibliothèque nationale de France is one of the world’s greatest libraries, with astounding collections that go far beyond books,” said Olivier Meslay, Hardymon Director of the Clark Art Institute.  “We are honored that the BnF chose to partner with the Clark to provide the opportunity to share these exquisite drawings with the world. We are deeply indebted to the Getty Foundation for its support that made possible the extensive research for this exhibition. It is very exciting to have the opportunity to be on the forefront of bringing these magnificent works on paper to the public for the first time.”

The exhibition was conceived in a collaborative partnership between the Clark’s curatorial staff and that of the BnF. A grant from the Getty Foundation’s Paper Project initiative supported the work of Clark-Getty Curatorial Fellow Sarah Grandin, who spent time in Paris working alongside BnF library colleagues combing through its extensive collection of drawings. 

“The decision to focus on eighteenth-century drawings was made in recognition of the fact that these works are among the least known of the BnF’s art collections,” said Anne Leonard, the Clark’s Manton Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. “Whereas the BnF’s seventeenth-century and nineteenth-century French drawings have been documented in separate exhibitions and catalogues, even field specialists are largely unfamiliar with the eighteenth-century material. Visitors of all kinds can look forward to many delightful surprises in this exhibition.” 

The Clark’s exhibition comes at a moment when the BnF’s holdings are garnering new attention. The BnF’s Richelieu site in central Paris recently reopened after a twelve-year renovation and significant reinstallation that is providing greater public access to the twenty-two million objects and documents held in its collection. 

“We now have an even greater appreciation for the depth and significance of the materials and resources in the library’s holdings,” said Esther Bell, Deputy Director and Robert and Martha Berman Lipp Chief Curator of the Clark. “Working on this exhibition with the BnF’s team has been an amazing process of discovery and an incredible learning opportunity—truly a curator’s dream.”

Grandin, Leonard, and Bell all worked on the project in collaboration with a team from the BnF including Corinne Le Bitouzé, Conservateur général; Pauline Chougnet, Conservateur en charge des dessins; and Chloé Perrot, Conservateur des bibliothèques. 


One of France’s oldest cultural institutions, the BnF traces its origins to the first royal library, founded by Charles V in 1368. It was not until the reign of Louis XIV (1643–1715), however, that it actively began collecting prints and drawings. The library’s print cabinet was established in 1667 with the purchase of cleric and scholar Michel de Marolles’ staggering assemblage of over 120,000 works on paper, the starting point of a collection of prints, photographs, and posters that is now estimated at over 15 million images. Since then, numerous collectors and practitioners have donated or sold drawings to the BnF. Their proclivities—topographic views, architectural visions, portraits, and historical events—shaped the department’s varied graphic archive, which now boasts close to 200,000 drawings. Over centuries, the BnF sought to assemble the most complete holdings of textual and visual sources in France. Consequently, the library’s collection is unique in the sweeping overview of subjects it covers through drawings. 

"The existence of 200,000 drawings in the Département des Estampes of the BnF can be a surprise to many,” said Corinne Le Bitouzé, deputy head of the prints and photographs department of the BnF. “Their presence among the huge collection of printed images housed in the department is easily explained when you understand the BNF’s long history and the nature of the collection, which is to be a library made of images, no matter what technique was used." 

The process for selecting works of art for the exhibition “was one of excavation: rooting out drawings hidden in boxes and albums full of prints organized by subject, artist, or collector,” said Grandin. “The chosen works reflect both the fascinating history of the BnF’s collections and the rich variety of drawing practices in eighteenth-century France.”  


Winding throughout the exhibition is the theme of the promenade, or stroll, centered on the experience of an individual beholder. In the eighteenth century, the public promenade emerged as a site of urban leisure in which a blend of social classes could engage in the pleasures of spectatorship. The activities of walking, looking, and sketching were closely related and often intertwined. It is only because so many artists recorded their embodied experiences that today we, too, can witness this vibrant panorama of French eighteenth-century life.

For example, promenading was central to the garden design François-Joseph Bélanger (1744–1818) made for a mansion built by the playwright and financier Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Bélanger liked to show his clients the effects of the surprising views that guests would discover as they strolled through the estate. In his drawing The Garden of Beaumarchais (1788), the artist provides viewers with glimpses of garden follies like temples, pavilions, and bridges that can be discovered while walking through the garden. 

In 1794, Jean-Baptiste Hilair (1753–1822) executed a total of ten highly finished views of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. The serene promenaders and charming ambience in The Orangerie in the Jardin des Plantes and The Vegetable Garden in the Jardin des Plantes give no hint of the Terror of 1793–94, an exceptionally violent period of the French Revolution that was then engulfing the capital. One result of the change from monarchy to republic was that these royal grounds, along with their natural history collection and plant specimens, became a public museum of national history. It was to be a place of instruction in botany, mineralogy, and zoology; a beacon of scientific discovery; and a site of recreation for all French citizens.


In eighteenth-century France, people produced and collected drawings at a startling new pace. Speaking to members of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1732, the comte de Caylus, an antiquarian and art patron, lamented that artists were drawing too much and too often, to the detriment of painting. A vast trove housed at the BnF in Paris suggests that this diagnosis of drawing’s popularity was well founded. Highlights from the library's encyclopedic holdings reveal the extent to which drawing became an all-consuming pursuit during this period. No longer limited to the painter's studio, it emerged as an autonomous mode of creation. 

Drawing was the foundation of artistic training in eighteenth-century France.  At the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, aspiring painters drew before nude models, and their finished products were known as académies, underscoring the place of figure drawing at the heart of academic pedagogy. Those working outside official institutions—including women—could learn and practice drawing through the use of manuals and anatomical treatises, which circulated widely in printed form. Landscape sketching was another primary element of drawing practice, which many artists perfected during travels and study in Italy, particularly in the countryside around Rome. Later eighteenth-century inventions such as the physiognotrace—a tool for tracing a sitter’s profile—offered mechanical assistance, which put drawing within reach of a wider range of practitioners.

In a virtuoso sheet from c. 1751, Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725−1805) demonstrates his thorough command of the académie. His combination of red and black chalk convincingly renders the warmth and luminosity of a flesh-and-blood individual. According to an anecdote related in an inscription on the mount, the director of the Académie de France in Rome, Charles-Joseph Natoire, criticized this figure drawing—to which Greuze retorted, “You would be happy if you could do one equal to it.” 


Learning to draw was deemed an essential element of education for children born into high-ranking families in France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By the age of nine, Louis XV was receiving instruction in draftsmanship three days a week. Five drawings executed by the young Louis around the age of seven are included in the exhibition. The architectural details and sophisticated deployment of figures can be explained by the fact that Louis XV was working directly after models by the late printmaker and drawing instructor Sébastien Leclerc (1637–1714). 

Like his grandfather Louis XV, Louis XVIII studied drawing as a young prince. He copied a young woman milking a cow directly from a frontispiece designed by Charles-François Silvestre, (1667–1738), who belonged to a dynasty of printmakers and royal drawing instructors who produced many models for amateur artists to imitate. The royal library began actively collecting drawings and prints by non-professionals in the second half of the eighteenth century. 

When Marie-Clotilde de France, granddaughter of Louis XV, visited the print cabinet at the royal library shortly after her fourteenth birthday, she was so enraptured by the selection of works on display that her entourage reportedly had to tear her away at the end of the day. She gave a pen-and-ink landscape (1773) to the library as a token of her appreciation and to leave a trace of her skill for posterity.


In the eighteenth century, drawings frequently functioned as models for prints that enjoyed wide circulation. Because printmaking was a highly specialized art, in some ways more akin to metalwork, artists often entrusted their designs to trained professionals. Prints derived from drawings might serve as frontispieces or illustrations to printed books; they might also be sold independently or gathered into recueils (collective portfolios or albums) before being offered for sale. During this period, which saw the emergence of new methods of printmaking, such as aquatint, the development of a market for printed reproductions that imitated drawing’s effects went hand-in-hand with the rise of drawings as a coveted and collectible category of art.

The highly polished drawing History Stopping Time (c. 1725–26) by Charles-Antoine Coypel (1694–1752) depicts Clio, the muse of History, as she tries to stop Time from absconding with a fistful of royal medals. Engraved by celebrated printmaker Charles-Nicolas Cochin (1715–1790), the image served as a frontispiece for Augustin Anselme de Sainte-Marie and Honoré Du Fourny’s Genealogical and Chronological History of the Royal House of France, a nine-volume series that documents the history of the French court.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, vues d’optique (optical views) became fashionable. These were printed views usually of topographical landscapes (plazas, palaces, gardens, ports, or churches) that were colored using a brush or a stencil and viewed through an optical device called a zograscope. Zograscopes were made of a biconvex lens with a short focal distance and a mirror tilted forty-five degrees, both mounted on a stand. When the vue d’optique is placed on a table, reflected by the mirror and seen by the viewer through the lens, the image depicted appears farther away and deeper, giving the viewer the impression of a three-dimensional vista. A 1760 drawing-and-print pair in the exhibition depicting patrons of the Caffé d’Alexandre in Paris exemplifies the kind of site-specific spectacle that was popular in this genre.


Few designed works—whether a building, a stage set, or a piece of furniture—would ever have seen the light of day if not for drawing’s capacity to generate, refine, and share artistic ideas. Many surviving drawings from eighteenth-century France served exactly this purpose: to envision and describe an architectural, sculptural, or decorative object, often with the intent to convince a patron to go forward with a proposed commission. Some drawings document works that have since been lost, damaged, or destroyed, giving them inestimable historical value; others record ideas for designs that were never realized but still offer precious insight into an artist’s creative powers. This is the case with drawings by Étienne-Louis Boullée (1728–1799) and Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757–1826), for whom paper was a vital support on which to imagine monuments to their philosophical ideals; on the page, they were unfettered by the material constraints of a real building project. Both architects donated their drawn archives to the BnF to preserve their visions for posterity. 

When the architect Boullée was called upon to propose a new building for the Bibliothèque royale (as the BnF was then known), he imagined a monumental vessel with a vaulted, coffered ceiling and an opening to the sky, containing four levels designed to hold books. The spectacular appearance of the project and the timeless grandeur embodied by the figures in antique dress accompanied a concrete, pragmatic vision: The panoptic view afforded by a single gallery would help prevent theft and allow for quick transfer of books among the various levels. Boullée’s proposal did not convince the controller general of finances to commit the funds, however, and thus, Boullée’s vision of a large reading room in New Hall for the Library (1785) was never built. 

Among more than four hundred drawings sold at the sale of the estate of architect François-Joseph Bélanger, eighteen were designs for fireplaces. The drawing Chimney with Egyptian Décor (after 1780), proposing a fireplace to be built more than five meters high in pink granite, makes direct reference to ancient works of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art that were known in Europe by the 1760s. In particular, the discovery of Egyptian antiquities in Pompei and Herculaneum prompted a new interest among artists during the second half of the eighteenth century. 

As part of the renovation of Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the draftsman and decorative sculptor François-Antoine Vassé (1681–1736) was tasked with designing two chapels facing the nave. Design for the Altar of Notre-Dame de Paris (1718) shows his ideas for one dedicated to the Virgin Mary, an elaborate structure that some consider his greatest artistic achievement. Vassé’s use of color in the drawing indicates the variety of materials to be employed—most prominently, the veined application of red and green watercolor to represent colored marble. 

On the left side of his drawing The Small Synagogue (1797–99), Jean-Jacques Lequeu depicts the holy ark of a synagogue, which is the cabinet where the torah scrolls (scriptures used for public worship) are kept. The right side of the sheet shows an altar of the Theophilanthropists, a new religion that was encouraged between 1797 and 1799 by the revolutionary authorities to combat Catholicism. Designed almost symmetrically, the two sanctuaries echo one another. Their simplicity and refinement belie contentious debates around the place of religion in society as well as the limits of Jewish emancipation in 1791.


The drawings in this exhibition offer a vital link to events and issues of eighteenth-century France, from the extraordinary to the everyday. In many cases, artists were not working in an official capacity but independently recording what they observed. They took up their drawing tools to document urban spectacles like diplomatic visits, festivals, and hot-air balloon launches, as well as the convulsions of political change and revolutionary violence. Among more commonplace events, art sales, street vendors, and period fashions also attracted artists’ interest and became immortalized for future generations. Additionally, drawing proved an ideal medium for illustrating diverse natural history specimens in meticulous detail. The drawings included in the exhibition document everything from historic events to scenes from life and amusing looks at fashions and fascinations of the era.

Born into a dynasty of artisans, Gabriel de Saint-Aubin (1724–1780) was one of the most exhaustive draftsmen of the eighteenth century and a fixture in the sales rooms of Paris. For the last two decades of his life, Saint-Aubin populated the margins of sales catalogues (and also Salon livrets and guidebooks) with sketches of works of art on the market, along with descriptive and occasionally satirical inscriptions and annotations. In a 1776 sale announcement recently acquired by the BnF, Saint-Aubin sketched nearly all of the paintings described, while adding information about scale and quality. During the 1770s, at the height of this activity, it is likely that Saint-Aubin attended a sale each week.

Around 1780, hairdressers began pioneering styles that were increasingly complex and voluminous as a demonstration of their creativity and skill. The Amorous Ploy, or the Toilette à la Mode (1780), by an unknown artist, depicts a boisterous scene in which a young woman’s locks are sculpted into a sky-high hairdo by industrious putti. In fact, the bucket of feathers being hoisted to the top of her coif carries a letter destined for her secret lover—an operation explicitly revealed in verses that were published with the print version of the image. Apart from caricaturing the moral implications of women’s fashion, this drawing also satirizes the pretensions of the hairdresser’s art. 

In the striking drawing The Night of 9 and 10 Thermidor in the Year II (1795–96), by Fulchran-Jean Harriet (1776–1805), where torches and candlelight cast powerful shadows, a group of armed figures burst into a room to apprehend Maximilien Robespierre and other key leaders of the Terror of 1793–94. The following afternoon, the Revolutionary Tribunal condemned Robespierre and twenty-one others to death. They were guillotined that day on the Place de la Révolution, where Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette had been executed the previous year.


By the end of the eighteenth century, drawing had so thoroughly proved its documentary value that an entire team of artists and engineers proficient in drawing were recruited to General Napoleon Bonaparte’s military expedition in Egypt to illustrate the desirability of their conquest. In 1798, Napoleon attempted to cut off Britain’s overland trade route with India by seizing control of Egypt. Accompanying him on this military expedition were over 150 scholars—mostly engineers—whose mission was to document every aspect of Egypt, from its antiquities to its natural wonders and modern-day residents. 

While the French eventually evacuated in 1801 after their defeat at the hands of British and Ottoman forces, they returned with nearly a thousand drawings that would form the basis of the Description de l’Égypte (Description of Egypt, 1802–1822)a twenty-three-volume compendium encyclopedic in its ambitions. A fundamental purpose of the state-sponsored publication was to legitimize Napoleon’s imperialism through a display of French intellectual prowess, and through a depiction of Egypt as a territory worth annexing due to its rich history. 

In the abundance of details they archive, images in the Description de l’Égypte suggest that Napoleon’s academic emissaries saw themselves as valiantly preserving, rather than violently pillaging, a civilization in decline. While recording eroding pharaonic monuments for posterity, the draftsmen depicted the country’s living citizens with an ostensible ethnographic precision inflected with subjective pathos. This cache of drawings, housed at the BnF since 1829, is at the origin of two powerful cultural constructs that defined how Europe imagined the Eastern world: the field of Egyptology, and the Orientalist mode of (mis)representation in art and literature.Executed by André Dutertre (1753–1842), one of the most prolific artists of the Egyptian expedition, the drawing Temple of Karnak, Colossus of Ramses II (1798–1817) reveals French astonishment at the tremendous size of the monuments of the Nile Valley. At the lower left of the sheet, a European man raises his eyes toward the colossal statue at the temple of Amun, later identified as representing Ramses II, a powerful pharaoh in Ancient Egypt. The portfolio under the man’s arm suggests how drawing was marshalled as a countermeasure to these artifacts’ ruination. The image captures the condition of the statue—without head or arms—before its restoration by Egyptian archaeologists in the twentieth century. 

Grandin presents an opening lecture on the exhibition on Saturday, December 17 at 2 pm in the Clark’s auditorium. A full series of public programs is scheduled throughout the run of the exhibition. Details are available on the exhibition’s microsite at

Promenades on Paper: Eighteenth-Century French Drawings from the Bibliothèque nationale de France is co-organized by the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. It is curated by Esther Bell, Deputy Director and Robert and Martha Berman Lipp Chief Curator; Sarah Grandin, Clark-Getty Curatorial Fellow; and Anne Leonard, Manton Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs from the Clark, and by Corinne Le Bitouzé, Conservateur général; Pauline Chougnet, Conservateur en charge des dessins; and Chloé Perrot, Conservateur des bibliothèques from the Bibliothèque nationale.

This exhibition is made possible by Jessie and Charles Price. Major funding is provided by Elizabeth M. and Jean-Marie Eveillard, the Getty Foundation through its Paper Project initiative, and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. The exhibition catalogue is made possible by Denise Littlefield Sobel. 

The exhibition is accompanied by a 272-page catalogue edited by Bell, Grandin, Le Bitouzé, and Leonard with contributions from Charlotte Guichard, Meredith Martin, and Pauline Chougnet. The catalogue, published by the Clark and distributed by Yale University Press, is available through the Clark’s Museum Store at