Waldeck was a man of talent and accomplishment, but his love of self-promotion and refusal to let the truth get in the way of a good story leave some aspects of his life in mystery.
At various times Waldeck said that he was born in Paris, Prague, or Vienna, and at other times claimed to be a German, Austrian and British citizen. He often claimed the title of Count and occasionally that of Duke or Baron, but these cannot be verified.
Waldeck said he had traveled to South Africa at age 19 and thereafter had begun a career in exploration. He claimed to have returned to France and studied art as a student of Jacques-Louis David. He said he had traveled to Egypt with Napoleon's expedition. None of this has been independently verified; indeed most of Waldeck's autobiography before about 1820 (including his given birthdate) is undocumented and his name is absent from records of various early expeditions he claimed to have been on.
Waldeck is remembered primarily for two actions. The first is republishing the notorious set of pornographic prints titled I Modi. The second is the exploration of Mexico and the publication of many examples of Maya and Aztec sculpture. Unfortunately, errors in his illustrations fostered misconceptions about Mesoamerican civilizations and contributed to Mayanism.
The I Modi prints are highly pornographic and accompanied sonnets by Pietro Aretino. They were allegedly created by Giulio Romano as paintings in the Vatican after a dispute with Pope Clement VII, and the engraver Marcantonio Raimondi published them. The publication caused a furore in Rome, and the pope ordered that all copies be destroyed. As such, there is no known original printing of I Modi in existence. What has survived is a series of fragments in the British Museum, two copies of a single print, and a woodcut copy from the 16th century. Waldeck claimed to have found a set of tracings of the I Modi prints in a convent near Palenque in Mexico. His story is dubious because there is no such convent. However, we know that he saw the fragments now in the British Museum because the fragments can be matched to his drawings.
Waldeck's first contact with the art of ancient Mesoamerica was when he was hired by the publisher Henry Berthoud to prepare some plates for an 1822 book entitled Description of the Ruins of an Ancient City. This book was an English translation of the 1787 report on Palenque by Antonio del Río which had been commissioned for Charles III of Spain and then sat unpublished in the National Archives of Spain. Waldeck's engravings were much more beautiful and artistic than the original drawings he worked from, and gave the monuments a decidedly Egyptian look, in line with his patron's views that the ancient Mesoamerican Native Americans were the Lost Tribes of Israel.
In 1825, he was hired as a hydraulic engineer by an English mining company and went to Mexico. He did not last long at this job, and after his failure he explored the Pre-Columbian ruins of the country, living in the ruined Palenque between May 1832 and July 1833. After that, in 1834, he was hired by Lord Kingsborough to travel to Uxmal and make drawings and architectural reconstructions. Some of these were "fanciful in the extreme."
In 1838, Waldeck published Voyage pittoresque et archéologique dans la province d'Yucatan pendant les années 1834 et 1836 (Paris), a volume of illustrations of Mérida, Yucatán and Maya ruins, including those at Uxmal. Dedicated to Lord Kingsborough, this book provided what Waldeck believed was further support for connections between the ancient Maya and ancient Egypt. His illustration of the Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal, for example, makes it look similar Egyptian pyramids. In 1839, he was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society.
Waldeck's illustrations of Palenque were chosen to accompany Monuments anciens du Mexique (Palenque, et autres ruines de l'ancienne civilisation du Mexique) (1866) by Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg. However, just as his earlier illustrations had implied connections between the ancient Maya and ancient Egypt, the ones included with Brasseur de Bourbourg's text invoked the Classical antiquity of ancient Greece and Rome. His illustrations of panels of Maya script in the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque included clear depictions of heads of elephants (now known to be erroneous embellishments). This fueled speculation about contact between the ancient Maya and Asia and the role of the mythical lost continent of Atlantis as a common link between ancient civilizations of the Old and New Worlds.
- Coe, Michael E. (1992). Breaking the Maya Code. Penguin Books. pp. 76–77. ISBN 0140234810.
- Barrell, Tony (30 August 2009). "Rude Britannia: Erotic secrets of the British Museum: The British Museum and British Library have some of the biggest collections of smut in the world including S&M magazines". The Sunday Times.
- Description of the ruins of an ancient city. London: Henry Berthoud. 1822. Retrieved 19 November 2013.
- American Antiquarian Society Members Directory
- Baudez, C. F., 1993: Jean-Frédéric Waldeck, peintre: le premier explorateur des ruines mayas. Hazan, Paris.
- Brasseur de Bourbourg, É. C., 1866: Monuments anciens de Mexique: Palenqué et autres ruines de l'anc. civilisation du Mexique, Paris. (Illustrated by Waldeck.)
- Brunhouse, Robert L., 1973: In Search of the Maya: The First Archaeologists. University of New Mexico Press. Albuquerque. (One chapter on Waldeck.)
- Cline, Howard F., 1947: The Apocryphal Early Career of J. F. de Waldeck, Pioneer Americanist. Acta Americana. Tome V, pp. 278–299.
- Del Rio, A., 1822: Report of Antonio Del Rio to Don Jose Estacheria, Brigadier, Governor and Commandant General of the Kingdom of Guatemala, Etc. In Description of the ruins of an ancient city, discovered near Palenque, in the kingdom of Guatemala, pp. 1–21. H. Berthoud and Suttaby Evance and Fox, London. (Illustrated by Waldeck.)
- Lawner, L., 1988: I Modi: the sixteen pleasures: an erotic album of the Italian Renaissance:Giulio Romano, Marcantonio Raimondi, Pietro Aretino, and Count Jean-Frederic-Maximilien de Waldeck. Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.
- Le Fur, Y., 2006: D'un regard l'autre: histoire des regards européens sur l'Afrique, l'Amérique et l'Océanie. Musée du quai Branly, Paris. (Exhibition catalog that includes paintings by Waldeck.)
- Parsons, L. A. and Jay I. Kislak Foundation., 1993: Columbus to Catherwood, 1494-1844 : 350 years of historic book graphics depicting the islands, Indians, and archaeology of the West Indies, Florida, and Mexico. Kislak bibliographic series ; publication 1. Jay I. Kislak Foundation Inc., Miami Lakes, Fla. (Includes book illustrations by Waldeck.)
- Smith, Mary Rebecca Darby., 1878: Recollections of two distinguished persons : la Marquise de Boissy and the Count de Waldeck. J.B. Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1878. (Memoir of encounters with Waldeck. Book digitized at Internet Archive.)
- Thompson, John Eric, 1927: The Elephant Heads in the Waldeck Manuscripts. Scientific Monthly,
No. 25, pp. 392–398. New York.
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