Guillaume Courtois (Guglielmo Cortese) (1628–1679)

Guillaume Courtois (Guglielmo Cortese) (1628–1679)

Guillaume Courtois (Guglielmo Cortese) (St Hippolyte, Franche-Comté 1628 – 1679 Rome)

Figures Dancing

Pen and brown ink, brown wash, over sketch in red chalk, fragmentary watermark, 124 x 386 mm, (4.9 x 15.2 inch)

Inscribed ‘Poussin’ (pencil, verso)

Private collection, France


Guillaume Courtois, known in Italy as Guglielmo Cortese and as ‘il Borgognone’, hailed from Franche-Comté, in the east of France, bordering Switzerland, and is thought to have come to Italy with his artist-brother Jacques (1621–1675) in the mid-1630s, when still a child. According to the biographer Filippo Baldinucci (1624–1697), Guillaume entered the studio of Pietro da Cortona (1596–1669) at the tender age of ten; modern scholars however believe that Guillaume actually remained with his itinerant brother during this period, who specialised in battle scenes. Guillaume’s first major commission were frescoes for the nave of S. Marco, Rome, 1653-57. In 1656 he painted a fresco of the Battle of Joshua in the Galleria di Alessandro VII in the Palazzo del Quirinale at Rome, working under Cortona, who supervised the decoration of the room. These projects impressed Rome’s rising artistic star Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), who obtained commissions for Courtois to paint frescoes in three of his churches between 1660 and 1668. The artist also painted figures in the works of Abraham Breughel and Gaspard Dughet.

Courtois was a prodigious draftsman and large groups of his drawings have survived in the print rooms of the Instituto Nazionale per la Grafica, Rome,1 and the Kunstmuseum, Düsseldorf.2 Ann Sutherland Harris has described Courtois as ‘one of the most attractive draughtsmen of his generation’.3 Preparatory drawings are generally in chalk, whereas compositional designs tend to be in pen and ink and wash.

The present animated drawing would seem to fall in the latter category. The exact meaning of the dancing figures is unclear; they could be attending a Bacchanalian feast or revel, but they are also reminiscent of the Biblical subject of the Adoration of the Golden Calf. A famous picture of this subject by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) has similar dancing figures (see image).4 The picture was probably known to Courtois, either in the original or through reproductive prints. Like Courtois, Poussin spent most of his life in Rome; the younger painter must have been highly aware of his famous countryman and Poussin’s influence is noticeable in Courtois’s oeuvre. At some point, the present work was even attributed to Poussin.

In terms of technique and handling, our drawing is closely related to Courtois’s study for The Apostles at the Tomb of the Virgin in the Kunstmuseum, Düsseldorf (see last image).5 It is a first compositional thought for the artist’s fresco of the same subject in the church of S. Maria dell’Assunzione, Ariccia, of 1664-66. The simplified and highly geometrical handling, short-hand indication of faces and the painterly brown washes are highly comparable. Our drawing is likely to date from around the same period.


1. See S.P. Valenti Rodinò, Disegni di Guglielmo Cortese (Guillaume Courtois) detto il Borgognone nelle collezioni del Gabinetto Nazionale delle Stampe, Rome 1980.

2. See D. Graf, Die Handzeichungen von Guglielmo Cortese und Giovanni Battista Gaulli, Kataloge des Kunstmuseums Düsseldorf, Düsseldorf 1976.

3. Ann Sutherland Harris, ‘Guglielmo Cortese’, in Jane Turner (ed.). The Dictionary of Art, London 1996, vol. 7, p. 903.

4. Ca. 1633-34; oil on canvas, 153.4 x 211.8 cm, National Gallery, London, inv. NG5597.

5. Pen and brown, ink, brown wash, over sketch in chalk, 126 x 340 mm; inv. FP 352. See Graf (op. cit.), vol. I, p. 31, no. 21; vol. II, p. 21, repr.

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Guillaume Courtois (Guglielmo Cortese) (1628–1679)
Guillaume Courtois (Guglielmo Cortese) (1628–1679)
Guillaume Courtois (Guglielmo Cortese) (1628–1679)
Guillaume Courtois (Guglielmo Cortese) (1628–1679)
Guillaume Courtois (Guglielmo Cortese) (1628–1679)
Guillaume Courtois (Guglielmo Cortese) (1628–1679)
Guillaume Courtois (Guglielmo Cortese) (1628–1679)
Guillaume Courtois (Guglielmo Cortese) (1628–1679)
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