Ideal Courtiers, Real Courtiers


Full image.



Jean Duvet, French, 1485–ca. 1562
A Unicorn Purifies a Spring with its Horn, ca. 1555
Gift of Paul Ehrenfest (Class of 1932) and Elizabeth K. Ehrenfest


Born in Dijon, the son of a goldsmith, Duvet so excelled at his father’s profession that he attracted the notice of François I himself, who name him orfèvre du roi, goldsmith to the king. By 1519, Duvet is fairly certain to have traveled to Italy either on his own initiative or as a soldier with the invading armies of François I, because his engravings are imbued with a distinct Italian flavor.


During the late 1540’s, Duvet began a series of engravings all unified by the theme of the unicorn. In this scene, generally accepted as the first in the series, all the animals of the forest are shown patiently waiting for the unicorn to purify their spring—poisoned by a serpent—with his horn. This ideal of purity is also an ideal associated with the nobility, in both a racial and moral sense (“purity of the blood”, ethics of the chivalrous behavior.) 


The forest setting, the animals, and the flowing water all show their debt to etchings made at Fontainebleau; however, these elements are recast in Duvet’s distinct personal style. Many of the animals are presented in rather static poses reminiscent of heraldry, which makes perfect sense when we realize that Duvet spent much of his time working coats of arms on metal objects in his capacity as royal goldsmith.