Waldeck was undoubtedly a man of talent and accomplishments, 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 English citizen. He often claimed the title of Count and occasionally that of Duke or Baron.
Waldeck said he had traveled to South Africa at age 19 and thereafter had begun a career in exploration. He 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 made two major contributions to society. The first contribution, of which he is known for among scholars of Western art history, is republishing the notorious set of pornographic prints titled I Modi. The second contribution is the exploration of Mexico and the publication of many examples of Maya and Aztec sculpture, although 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 the pope, and the engraver Marcantonio Raimondi published them. The publication causes 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. Although his story is dubious because there is no such convent, he did see, at the least, 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 seems to have been when he was hired by Lord Kingsborough to make engravings based on drawings of the city of Palenque. 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 in Mexico. After this job he explored the Pre-Columbian ruins of the country. Jean Fredric Waldeck is best known for his researching and documenting such Ancient Maya sites as Palenque and Uxmal.
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.
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.
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. Albuqueque. (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.)
Thompson, John Eric 1927: The Elephant Heads in the Waldeck Manuscripts. Scientific Monthly, No. 25, pp. 392-398. New York.