David Hess (1770–1843)

David Hess (1770–1843)

David Hess (Zurich 1770 – 1843 Unterstrass)

‘La Vanité’

Pen and grey ink, watercolour, framing lines in brown ink and brown wash, image size 181 x 128 mm (7.1 x 5 inch), sheet size 232 x 163 mm (9.1 x 6.4 inch)

Private collection, The Netherlands


David Hess was born in Switzerland.1 He followed the family tradition and embarked on a military career, serving from 1787 to 1796 in Holland with the so-called Schweizergard (Swiss Guards), who are best known for the protection they have offered to the Pope in the Vatican to this day. Before 1874, when foreign military service was outlawed by the Swiss Constitution, the Swiss Guards were based at various European Courts. Hess witnessed at close quarters the massacre of his fellow guardsmen by French Revolutionary troops and remained a critic of post-Revolutionary politics for the remainder of his life.

Hess expressed his strong visions and opinions in his literary writings and in a series of powerful caricatures. He was particularly critical of the Dutch ‘Bataafse Republiek’ (Batavian Republic), modelled on post-Revolutionary France. In 1795 a collection of twenty policital caricature prints after his drawings was published in London, entitled Hollandia Regenerata, criticizing Napoleon’s rule (see fig.).2

The 1795 prints show a strong awareness of the work of the celebrated English caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827). The influence is also apparent in the present drawing, which is likely to have been made around 1795, possibly while Hess was still in Holland – he returned to Zurich in 1796.3 The young lady is dressed according to the latest fashion, inspired by ancient examples from the Roman Empire, which served as a source of inspiration to Napoleon’s designers, admiring herself in a large mirror in the Directoire style. Drawings by Hess are very rare; a drawing in brown ink is preserved in the Zentralbibliothek in Zurich (see fig.).4


1. For the artist, see Ernst Eschmann, David Hess (1770-1843), sein Leben und seine Werke, doct. thes. 1910, and Margarete Pfister-Burkhalter, Hollandia Regenerata: een reeks spotprenten door David Hess (1770-1843), 1944.

2. The work was published in England anonymously, to protect the involved parties; it was possibly published by William Humphrey and possibly engraved by James Gillray. Illustrated here is Plate 11, the etching (in red ink) ‘Comité van Noodlydende’ (‘Committee of the Needy’), 275 x 220 mm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, inv. no. BI-B-FM-096-11.

3. The provenance from a Dutch collection might indicate the drawing was executed before Hess’s return to Switzerland.

4. Pen and brown ink, 230 x 158 mm, Handschriftenabteilung FA David Hess, inv. no. 59.2.7.

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David Hess (1770–1843)
David Hess (1770–1843)
David Hess (1770–1843)
David Hess (1770–1843)
David Hess (1770–1843)
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