"Les avantures de Telemaque fils d’Ulÿsse & c."

Thanks to the Marie Jeanne Dauchy Fund, which purchased the album during an auction organised by Arenberg Auctions on May 25th 2018, this major work in the art of drawing from the former Southern Netherlands can now be preserved in its entirety.

The suite of 86 drawings, made by the Brussels artist Richard van Orley (1663-1732), recounts the adventures of Telemachus, the son of Ulysses. Already in the 18th century, early biographers of Orley were praising the album as a masterpiece.

Richard van Orley and his brother Jan were among the leading artists of their generation. Although he principally made drawings, Richard van Orley is also known as a miniaturist and engraver.

The story of Telemachus is preceded by a self-portrait and a medallion of the artist, aged 58, where he depicts himself brimming with self-confidence, together with the inscription “Effigie de Richard van Orleÿ, dessignateur à Bruxelles. agée de 58 ans an 1721. dessigez par luÿ meme” (Effigy of Richard van Orley, draughtsman from Brussels, aged 58 years old in 1721. drawn by himself). Apart from one engraving, this is the only known portrait of the artist.

The drawings illustrate the novel "Les Aventures de Télémaque" (the Adventures of Telemachus) by François Fénelon, published in Paris in in 1699. The work is a didactic account of Telemachus’s adventures, destined for the education and amusement of the young Duke of Burgundy, Louis de France (1682 – 1712). However, it is also an implicit criticism of the autocratic policies of his grandfather, Louis XIV. Fénélon, who was Archbishop of Cambrai, fell from grace following the book’s publication, although this did not prevent it from achieving considerable success and numerous editions and re-publishing.

Given the unusually high number of images, in landscape format, it is rather unlikely that the series was created as a project of book illustrations. Perhaps the artist’s intention was to engrave the drawings on copper and publish them as prints, but the engravings were never made.

Van Orley was a past master in the art of creating complex, narrative compositions in which dream and imagination dominate. His drawings are characterised by a profusion of characters and events, a sense of dramatic effect and backgrounds of exceptional delicacy. The scenes portrayed, which are extremely narrative, generally form part of a grandiose setting and are somewhat analogous with the tapestry cartoons of Van Orley’s brother, Jan.

The artist’s technique, in pen and brown and grey ink wash, shows great virtuosity. It represents the height, not only of the artist’s work, but also of drawing per se in the former Southern Netherlands during the first half of the 18th century. In 2003, Alain Jacobs summarised the exceptional qualities of this series as follows: “With this suite (of drawings), which is still fully part of the Baroque language thanks to the dynamic flow and poetic lyricism of each composition, his taste for fantasy and the formal and cultural references drawn from the various artistic trends of the 17th century, Richard Van Orley brought the art of illustration to a high degree of perfection. A mature work, it represents, through its ambition, originality and graphic qualities, the synthesis of van Orley’s art. Created contemporaneously with Watteau’s masterpieces, the suite of Telemachus’s Adventures reflects the precious and refined taste of unfolding Rococo culture …”.

More information about the Marie Jeanne Dauchy Fund (in French) 
Website of the Royal Library of Belgium

Album of 86 drawings
Material / technique: 
Pen on paper, bound in leather
17 x 23.4 cm (drawings), 25 x 38.5 cm (album)
Type of acquisition: 
Acquired by the Marie Jeanne Dauchy Fund
Year of acquisition: 
Depository institution: 
Royal Library of Belgium