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Works Thomas Girtin

The Porte Saint-Denis, Viewed from the Suburbs: Possible Colour Study for Plate Ten of Picturesque Views in Paris


Primary Image: TG1877: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), The Porte Saint-Denis, Viewed from the Suburbs: Possible Colour Study for Plate Ten of 'Picturesque Views in Paris', 1802, watercolour and pen and ink on paper, 23.6 × 48.8 cm, 9 ¼ × 19 ¼ in. Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris (D.5868BIS).

Photo courtesy of Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris (CC0 1.0 Universal)

Print after: Thomas Girtin (1775–1802), soft-ground etching, The Porte Saint-Denis, Viewed from the Suburbs, 29 September 1802, 23.2 × 49.2 cm, 9 ⅛ × 19 ⅜ in. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (B1977.14.20215).

Photo courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (Public Domain)

Thomas Girtin (1775-1802)
  • The Porte Saint-Denis, Viewed from the Suburbs: Possible Colour Study for Plate Ten of Picturesque Views in Paris
Medium and Support
Watercolour and pen and ink on paper
23.6 × 48.8 cm, 9 ¼ × 19 ¼ in


Object Type
Studio Watercolour
Subject Terms
City Life and Labour; Panoramic Format; Paris and Environs; River Scenery

Catalogue Number
Girtin & Loshak Number
474i as 'La Rue St.-Denis'
Description Source(s)
Museum Website


'Baur'; bought by the Museum, 1890

Exhibition History

Paris, 1946, no.158, catalogue untraced; Calais, 1961, no.69; Paris, 1966, no.112, catalogue untraced; Paris, 1983, no.47, catalogue untraced; Paris, 1994, no.1

About this Work

Unlike for all of the other soft-ground etchings that Girtin produced for his Picturesque Views in Paris, no on-the-spot pencil drawing survives for plate ten, depicting the Porte Saint-Denis (see print after TG1877b). The tracing that Girtin made as part of the soft-ground etching process has survived, however, and it may be that in this one instance the print was based on a watercolour, rather than an outline drawing, and this might account for the artist’s uncharacteristic use of pen and ink to define the buildings and their complex architectural details. Whether or not there was once an outline for this scene as well, it is clear from a letter the artist sent to his brother, John Girtin (1773–1821), that the watercolour was not sketched on the spot. Referring to his sketching practice in relation to the Paris drawings, the artist noted that he had ceased ‘to skech on a Large scale, and to Colour on the spot’, adding that to do so ‘would have been very tedious’ (Girtin, Letter, 1802).1 The highly complex groups of figures seen here are clearly not the result of working in the field, however. Though the drawing could at least have been begun outside, I suspect that another simple outline drawing of the architecture once existed and that, like the similarly proportioned study for plate nine (TG1876), this would have been assembled from three upright sheets worked in a camera obscura. It seems likely, therefore, that the exceptional role played by the figures in the final print – which might not have simply been improvised on the plate, as seems to have been the case elsewhere with the Paris views – prompted Girtin to add an extra stage in its production, creating what is in effect a study for the final print. 

The Porte Saint-Denis, Viewed from the Suburbs: Tracing for Plate Ten of 'Picturesque Views in Paris'

Girtin’s soft-ground etching (see the print after, above) was published separately from the finished aquatint, on 22 September 1802. To create this autograph print, the artist first produced his tracing, reversing the image in the process (see figure 1), and then, using the tracing as a template, impressed the lines onto an etching plate coated in a tacky ground of an acid-resistant mix. Lifting the tracing and taking away the ground where the lines had been pushed in, he would then have immersed the plate in acid, which would have bitten into the unprotected areas. Cleaned up, the plate, with the etched lines now according with the direction of Girtin’s original drawing, could then be used to print from. Such a complex procedure employed by a novice printmaker like Girtin no doubt required a number of proof stages, though none seem to have survived in this case. 

The view of the Porte Saint-Denis from the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis, looking south, is unique amongst the Views in Paris for turning away from the river Seine and concentrating exclusively on a street scene, which is confined within a narrower compass. The seventeenth-century triumphal arch is where Girtin, travelling from the north, would have entered Paris, and perhaps there is a deliberate echo here with a view of his native city, St Paul’s Cathedral, from St Martin’s-le-Grand (TG1396), though the similar range of figures seen here occupy a street that is characteristically straight. The gate’s role as an entry point for British visitors no doubt accounts for its popularity as a subject with other artists at this date, including Henry Edridge (1768–1821) (see TG1892 figure 1), David Cox (1783–1859) and Joseph Farington (1747–1821), the last of whom also summed up the attractions of the view. ‘Approaching the gate the view to a painter’s eye is picturesque’, he wrote, ‘the forms, & variety & colour of the buildings & the Arch, which is lofty, make an assemblage very well calculated for a picture … The Houses are of Stone or Plaister – which is a better color than the English brick walls for the pencil’ (Farington, Diary, 30 August 1802). Girtin’s larger view of the monumental gate (TG1892), taken from the south west at the corner of the Boulevard de Bonne-Nouvelle and the Rue de Cléry, was, in contrast, almost certainly made on the spot. 


The Porte Saint-Denis, Viewed from the Suburbs: Possible Colour Study for Plate Ten of ‘Picturesque Views in Paris’



The Pont au Change, the Théâtre de la Cité, the Pont Neuf and the Conciergerie Prison, Taken from the Pont Notre Dame: Pencil Study for Plate Nine of ‘Picturesque Views in Paris’


1795 - 1796

St Paul’s Cathedral, from St Martin’s-le-Grand



Paris: Porte Saint-Denis and the Boulevard Saint-Denis


by Greg Smith

Place depicted


  1. 1 From a letter to the artist’s brother, John. The only surviving letter from Thomas Girtin includes crucial evidence about the artist’s work in Paris and is transcribed in the Documents section of the Archive (1802 – Item 2).

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