Fables choisies is considered by many to be one of the greatest illustrated books ever published. Representing the pinnacle of 18th-century French illustration, the Library's copy is one of a limited edition of 100 copies printed on Holland paper. A four-volume work so lavish its publisher was bankrupted, this edition features an illustrated frontispiece and 275 copper plate engravings.
Jean de La Fontaine's fables were first published between 1668 and 1694. Partly based on Aesop's fables, they were written during the reign of Louis XIV. Featuring poems about industrious ants, brave lions and carefree grasshoppers, these fables not only mock the court of the Sun King but contain moral lessons about living wisely and well.
The designs for the engravings were produced by Jean-Baptiste Oudry, director of the royal tapestry works at Beauvais, between 1729 and 1734. It was not until 1751, when the drawings were acquired by the financier Montenault, that publication became a possibility.
While Jean-Baptiste Oudry designed the original engravings for Fables choisies, Montenault commissioned Charles-Nicolas Cochin the Younger to redraw Oudry's designs because he deemed Oudry's technique to be too 'free and loose' for engravers to follow. Montenault then engaged 42 engravers to complete the copper plates.
Montenault also commissioned Jean-Jacques Bachelier to design decorative tailpieces to fill the spaces at the end of each fable. These ornamental designs, which were engraved on wood by Jean-Michel Papillon and Nicolas Le Sueur, counterbalance the complexity of the engraved plates.
The first three volumes were published between 1755 and 1756. The publication of Fables choisies, one of the most ambitious illustrated books of the time, left Montenault financially destitute. The final volume appeared in 1759 only through the assistance of a royal grant.