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Francois-Philippe Charpentier

French engraver, inventor, and mechanician (1734-1817)

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Charpentier, FRANCOIS-PHILIPPE, a French engraver, inventor, and mechanician, b. at Blois, 1734; d. there July 22, 1817. His father was a bookbinder, a poor man who made many sacrifices that his son might attend the Jesuit College at Blois; but after young Charpentier had studied there a few years he was compelled to leave and work to support himself. He chose to pursue the art of engraving as best suited to his talent and inclination, and entered the atelier of an excellent copperplate engraver in Paris whom he very soon surpassed. Charpentier is celebrated, however, far more for his inventions, which revolutionized reproductive art, than for his own work with the burin or in aquatint. His first discovery was that of a purely mechanical process for engraving in aquatint (gravure au lavis) and in color. Wash-drawings and water-colors were copied with marvellous exactitude, sketches, by the great masters were reproduced by his machine, and thus otherwise unknown art was placed within the reach of the people. Charpentier made many beautiful and effective plates with his new appliance, and then sold the secret. That admirable engraver and great patron of art, Count Caylus, was one of the first to use the new machine.

Louis XVI gave him the appointment of “Royal Mechanician” (Mecanicien d’Roi), and provided a studio for him in the gardens of the Louvre, where he used the burning-mirror for melting metals without fire. He invented a fire-engine which was very generally adopted and, in 1771, a machine for drilling metals. Another invention for mechanical engraving was one which enabled lace-manufacturers to engrave in a few hours elaborate patterns and designs which formerly had required at least six months’ work of the burin. Charpentier’s device for lighthouse-illumination so pleased Louis XVI that he offered the inventor a pension and a place as the head of the Department of Beacons, asking him to fix the price for his discovery. Charpentier refused the pension and suggested that the office be given to a younger man, saying that he would “prefer freedom in order to devote himself to the development of his ideas”. He received a thousand crowns for his discovery. During the Directoire he made an instrument for boring six gun-barrels at once, and a machine to saw six boards simultaneously. For these the government paid him 24,000 francs and named him director of the Atelier de perfectionnement, established at the Hotel Montmorency. Charpentier received many flattering offers from Russia and England for his labor-saving devices, but refused them all. Pious, generous, simple, credulous, Charpentier was the dupe of beggars and schemers, many of whom affixed their names to his inventions and made fortunes thereby. He died as he had lived, in poverty. The chief extant works of his, all prints, are: “Education of the Virgin”, after Boucher; “Death of Archimedes”, after Ferri; “Shepherdess”, after Berchem; “Descent from the Cross”, in color, after Vanloo.


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