Jean-Baptiste Descamps

Selfportrait, c.1762

Jean-Baptiste Descamps (August 28, 1714 – June 30, 1791) was a French writer on art and artists, and painter of village scenes. He later founded an academy of art and his son later became a museum curator.


Descamps was born in Dunkirk, and trained by his father to become a Jesuit. He preferred to study art and became a pupil of Pierre Dulin, Nicolas Lancret and Nicolas de Largillierre at the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in Paris.[1]

Accompanying Charles-André van Loo on a trip to England in 1740–1741 after his training,[1] he formed an acquaintance with Pierre-Robert Le Cornier de Cideville, the friend of Voltaire. Le Cornier de Cideville, anxious for the honor of his native town of Rouen, persuaded the young artist to select it as the place of his future residence. Once settled in 1741, Descamps set up a studio and helped his new friend found a tuition-free art school in 1749, the Academy of Rouen.[2] The school followed the basic ideas of the Philosophes of the Enlightenment. This school was to play a key role in the development of pictorial art in Normandy, and Descamps would direct this academy until he died.[1] When Descamps wrote a memoir about this school for the French Academy, he was awarded a prize in 1767.[3]

Besides his son Jean Baptiste Marc Antoine Descamps, his pupils were Michel Duplessis, Charles Eschard, François Godefroy, François Gonord, Etienne de Lavallée-Poussin, Charles Louis François Le Carpentier, Noël Le Mire, Jean Jacques Le Veau, Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier, and Jean Jacques Lequeu.


Allegory of the discovery of America
Painting attributed to Jean-Baptiste Descamps.

Descamps painted popular genre subjects in the manner of Jean-Baptiste Greuze.[3] He became a member of the Académie Royale in Paris in 1764 and exhibited works at the Salon of 1765.[3]

As a teacher, he began writing instructional works, most notably his French translations of artist biographies by Karel van Mander and Arnold Houbraken in his 4-volume La Vie des Peintres Flamands, Allemands et Hollandois. He hired Charles Eisen to illustrate these works with engravings of the artists accompanied by examples of their work. Most of the portrait engravings are copies after Houbraken's originals.

The Lives of Flemish, German, and Dutch painters

Though the RKD records his artist membership in 1764, Descamps was already a literary member of the Académie Royale des Science when he published his La Vie... series of painter biographies in the 1750s and by the time he published his third volume in 1760, he was also a member of the Académie Impériale Franciscienne.

Churches of Flanders and Brabant

In 1769 he wrote the book Voyage pittoresque de la Flandre et du Brabant, which describes the towns and principal churches of Flanders and Brabant with their artworks.[7]

Through these works he renewed the interest in the Old Flemish masters, especially Hans Memling and Jan van Eyck. They also had the adverse effect of being used by the French Revolutionary Army, after their invasion of Flanders in 1790, to requisition the best paintings for transport to the Musée Central des Arts in the Louvre, Paris.

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  1. 1 2 3 Jean Baptiste Descamps (I) in the RKD
  2. Ecole Royale, Gratuite et Académique de Dessin, de Peinture, de Sculpture et d'Architecture
  3. 1 2 3 Descamps, Jean-Baptiste in the Dictionary of Art Historians
  4. La Vie des Peintres, Volume II on Google Books
  5. La Vie des Peintres, Volume III on Google Books
  6. La Vie des Peintres, Volume IV on Google Books
  7. Voyage Pittoresque (text online in French) on Google books
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