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Mitoire et boule de gomme

[NB For the version of record (containing additional material etc.), see]

By some way the most ambitious work in pastel by Mme Labille-Guiard,[1] Mme Mitoire et ses enfants (pastel; private collection) has attracted a great deal of critical attention while a number of basic facts have remained unresearched or incorrect until now. It is hardly surprising that feminist art historians have taken it up as an emblem of the virtues of maternal breast-feeding and rousseauisme, a subject to which I can add nothing – except to point out that this was by no means “the first modern French painting of breast-feeding”, as Simon Schama describes the miniature version[2] (in pastel alone one could mention Perronneau’s Mme Poissonnier with the duc de Bourgogne, c.1751, J.582.1684; more proximately one might note that Mme Labille-Guiard’s partner, François-André Vincent, painted a woman holding an infant in 1782, for which he made a careful study: see Cuzin 2013, 407D and 408P). Nor shall I analyse the striking visual accomplishment of this composition with complexities that are seldom required in the world of pastel. Even the still life of the table with its glass of water, so reminisicent of Liotard’s Belle Chocolatière, replaces the Swiss clinical precision with the warmth and humanity that characterize Labille-Guiard’s art.

The pastel was first exhibited in the salon of 1783. According to Anne-Marie Passez’s monograph, it was shown anonymously, as “Madame *** avec ses enfants…”, but in fact at least one further edition of the livret provided her name in full (we reproduce the whole context as it is important to see how Labille-Guiard saw it among her other submissions; this was the only alteration on the page):

In any case no one was in doubt about the lady’s identity at the time. The critic in L’Année littéraire, having praised her portraits of her fellow artists, said “Je ne suis pas aussi satisfait du Portrait de Madame Mitoire, qui est un peu gris”, a sentiment not quite shared with the author of Messieurs, Ami de tout le monde!:

Pour celui de Mad. Mitoire, que je crois très-ressemblant, le coloris ne m’en a point paru si vrai, la carnation si naturelle, & le dessin aussi pur. La Figure est même un peu lourde & ronde, cela pourrait venir du modele.

Most of the other critics however, while enthusing over Labille-Guiard’s other submissions, passed over this portrait in silence – and perhaps a little male embarrassment that one detects also in baron Portalis’s account in 1902. He however is ready to dissociate himself from the criticism of the colouring:

L’ensemble forme un agréable tableau et la tonalité de ce pastel est blonde, argentine et non pas grisâtre, comme l’a osé dire un critique du temps.

By then the pastel belonged to “Mme veuve Sanné”, a provenance Portalis leaves unexplained, and which has not been subsequently decoded in the modern literature (Anne-Marie Passez’s flawed catalogue of 1973, updated by Laura Auricchio in 2009) – although this puzzle is easy enough to decipher. As my Van Loo genealogy reveals, Mme veuve Sanné was Mme Albert Sanné, née Sophie-Adrienne-Marie Barthez de Marmorières (1840–1923), Mme Mitoire’s great-granddaughter by the younger child shown. We will return to his identity, and that of his brother, below.

We can complete the provenance with a few tools that may not have been available to Passez or Auricchio. By the time Portalis’s monograph appeared, the pastel had already been sold, and in July 1901 passed out of the hands of Kraemer to Duveen Brothers for £1440 (with a commission of £233/17/6 paid to the agents Carlhian & Beaumetz), as their stockbooks reveal:

There it was also photographed in its neoclassical frame, which may well have been original, although it is no longer present.

Duveen Brothers stock photographs and records, 1829-1965

It was sent on consignment soon after (on 3.vii.1901) to one of Duveen’s favourite clients, Mrs T. Henry Mason, née Emma Jane Powley (1850–1918) (although as my blog post Jeffares 2018r shows, Mrs Mason didn’t always like what she was sent, and much of it was returned unpaid). In any case, by 1923 it was back on the market, consigned anonymously (by Duveen?) to Christie’s in a sale in which Viscountess Northcliffe was also a vendor (but not, pace Passez, of this lot). Cailleux bought it, apparently through Percy Moore Turner, and included it in a spectacular exhibition of French eighteenth century pastels in 1923. There it was singled out for praise by the anonymous “Curieux” (Henry Lapauze?) in La Renaissance de l’art who commented:

Le portrait de Mme Mitoire et de ses enfants par Mme Labille-Guiard est plein de grâce et d’une remarquable science de composition; il fut exposé au Salon de 1783; l’émule de Mme Vigée-Lebrun voit de plus en plus grandir sa reputation et ses somptueux portraits, à Versailles, des filles aînées de Louis XV, montrent une vigueur et un accent de verité inoubliables. Le mari de cette Mme Mitoire était peintre lui-même et a travaillé en Russie. Fort bien conservé, ce pastel soutient le redoutable voisinage d’un Jeune femme en robe bleue, par Nattier[3]….

It’s evidently time to turn our attention to the sitters in this portrait – particular since the painter in Russia was not Mme Mitoire’s husband, but the infant she is suckling. Although Mme Mitoire herself has been correctly identified as Christine-Geneviève Bron, granddaughter of Carle Van Loo, to date the Labille-Guiard literature has said nothing about the children, and little about the husband. Several years ago I updated the Dictionary entry with details of the younger child, Charles-Benoît Mitoire, who indeed grew up to be a painter (see below). On 27 floréal an II (16 May 1794), he obtained a notarized “certificat de vie” stating that he was aged 12 and had been born in Clichy. His mother obtained a similar certificate a month later; it failed to mention her husband’s name. Charles-Benoît’s document had no birth certificate attached, and the documents raised questions while at least allowing us to identify the infant shown in the salon of 1783 as likely to have been born just before 16 May 1782. But who was the elder child?

And how did this fit with a troubling “legend”, alluded to obliquely by Portalis when discussing the “belle gorge de la mère”, that Mme Mitoire’s cousin, the gourmand Grimod de La Reynière, “n’avait pas eu trop mauvais goût”? The allusion is traced easily enough, since Desnoireterres’s 1877 biography of Grimod discusses it at some length, and refers to the curious relationship the young and rather wayward boy had with his (third[4]) cousin Christine-Geneviève Bron, and which he apparently confided to his friend, the novelist Rétif de la Bretonne, who fictionalized the liaison, disguising the girl under the name Angélique de Bissi, but giving the game away by disclosing her real married name (Mitoire) once her parents had put the 17 year old out of harm’s way.

I’m not the first person to decode this, although I did so before finding that Philippe Havard de La Montagne had published a detailed analysis of the novel and the reality (at least as far as it may be gleaned from Grimod’s numerous letters which he continued to send to the girl for many years), appropriately in Etudes rétiviennes in 2011, to which I willingly refer you (it has so far escaped the attention of art historians and Labille-Guiard specialists). Havard de La Montagne was aware of a painter called Benoît-Charles Mitoire who had died in 1832 (age unknown to him), and guessed from the names he might be one of the children shown (but chose the wrong one on the basis that the forenames were those of the father and maternal grandfather, most likely given to the first-born son).

Havard’s logic might have been fruitfully applied to the name of the elder boy shown. A search of the parish register at Clichy (which, despite the notarial declaration, failed to reveal any baptismal entry for Charles-Benoît[5]) shows that, on 13 September 1780, a boy was baptized and given the names Alexandre-Laurent:

With these names, it will come as no surprise that his parrain was a Grimod de La Reynière: not Antoine-Laurent the son but his father, Laurent Grimod de La Reynière (1733–1793), fermier général 1753–80, administrateur des postes, who was also an amateur pastellist and later (1787) an honoraire associé libre de l’Académie royale de peinture. He was also seigneur de Clichy-la-Garenne. I doubt if we will ever know for certain whether the relationship was closer than that. We note too that the 76-year-old Christine Somis, Mme Van Loo was the marraine to her great-grandson.

We do know what happened to the boy, as he died in Martinique aged 36, his profession being described as marchand modiste:

Much more is known about the younger brother, although it is easier to find it in Russian (where his name is transcribed as Бенуа-Шарль Митуар). Despite exhibiting in the Paris salon in 1819 (from Paris, rue des Tournelles, during a temporary visit home) and in 1822 (from St Petersburg), he is omitted from most art reference works. Cuzin 2013 records him as a pupil of Vincent, enrolled during messidor and thermidor an IV (i.e. June–August 1796). The short entry in Bénézit notes that he was a member of the Academy in St Petersburg in 1813. He was in fact a prolific portraitist in oil and miniature (and is represented in the Hermitage and other Russian museums), having emigrated, obtained Russian citizenship and married a Russian – presumably the Annette-Marguerite Berg recorded in the Paris index cards for his death, which took place in Paris, rue Notre Dame des Champs, on; he had it seems returned there shortly before. An inventaire was taken on 3.ix.1832 (AN mc/re/xx/14).

Returning to the parents, a search of the notarial archives in the Minutier central gives the date for their marriage contract as 14 October 1779 (AN mc/re/lvi/13).[6] We have also located the parish record of the marriage, which did take place at the church of Saint-Médard in Clichy on 19 October 1779:

The parish register provides us with a number of interesting details. There is probably no particular significance in the waiver of the customary three banns, nor is there any surprise in the appearance of Charles-Amédée Van Loo whose portrait (now in Versailles, MV 5874) Labille-Guiard would exhibit in 1785, one of her morceaux de réception set at her entry into the Académie royale in 1783. It is easy to pass over some of the less well-known names, but the Bron family were close friends with Paul-César Gibert (1717–1787), a music teacher who had studied in Italy (where he may well have known Christina Somis, Mme Carle Van Loo); he died leaving children called Christine-Geneviève, aged 10 (so born in 1777) and Benoît-Charles-César, aged 8.[7]

But perhaps the most interesting information is about Christine-Geneviève Bron’s husband, the elusive Charles Mitoire (or Mitoire Dumoncel as he signs) of whom all that art history has hitherto reported is that he was connected with the finances de Lyon. The research set out below may seem somewhat remote from Labille-Guiard’s family portrait, but the questions that emerge go to the nature of Mme Mitoire’s marriage. Was Mitoire induced to marry a girl whose reputation was already in danger by the offer of a position in her father’s gift?

The marriage contract reveals that Mitoire brought assets up to 30,000 livres into the marriage, while Bron settled on his daughter the same sum – but made up in part by her share of her mother’s estate. The contract followed reasonably standard terms, with one important reservation: the communauté des biens was limited, as to future acquisitions, to a value of 10,000 livres, so that any assets acquired by either party above that limit are not shared. However the terms don’t clearly establish whether the marriage was one of convenience.

It is perhaps worth noting that one rapidly comes up against surprising barriers in following Mitoire’s career. He was probably the “Mitoire, bourgeois de Paris” recorded as a member of the masonic lodge L’Amitié in 1778.[8] Havard de La Montagne notes that Mitoire was cited as a “commis à la Recette Générale du Lyonnais” in some documents, and wonders how this could have been combined with his position as “sous-visiteur” at the Direction générale des postes aux chevaux, relais et messageries de France shown in the Almanach royal for 1787. As is well known the Bron family (and the Grimods) were very closely connected with the French postal service.

The phrase “commis par arrêt du conseil à la recette général des finances de Lyon” in the parish register again might excite suspicion of something not quite routine about the appointment. But in fact we can show that Mitoire was in this position a year before the marriage, as he was implicated in a complex legal case relating to the acceptance of bills of exchange.[9] The case involved bills sent by a M. de La Borde to an agent de change called Offmann which Mitoire (the legal reporter does not give a forename for “le sieur Mitoire, commis par arrêt du conseil, à la recette générale des finances du Lyonnais”) had already endorsed as “pour acquit”. Offmann disappeared, and the question was who should face the loss amounting, by December 1778, to some 153,000 livres; the case appears to have been decided (in February 1779) against Mitoire, making him personally liable for a sum he could not afford.

The 1780 Almanach civil, politique et littéraire de Lyon…, p. 119, gives the “Commis par Arrêt du Conseil” at the Recettes généraux des Finances de Lyon as “Paul-René Mitoire”, a name for which I have failed to find any genealogical data.[10] He is indicated as based in Paris, carrying on the functions of Jacques-David Ollivier who had died on 3.v.1777, leaving a widow, née Anne-Marguerite Lamouroux. Their son François-Marie-David Ollivier de Montluçon (1743–1790), a soldier, was appointed in succession on; Paul-René Mitoire carried out the duties in 1778 and 1780. He is evidently the Mitoire in the law case – but the office is exactly that claimed by the Charles Mitoire in the 1778 marriage in the Clichy parish register. The identification is confirmed by the presence at the Mitoire–Bron marriage contract (although not the church ceremony at Clichy six days later) of “Mme Olivier et M. Olivier son fils receveur général des finances.”: they signed respectively “Lamouroux Ollivier” and “Ollivier”.

If the Ollivier papers can be relied upon, Mitoire’s position in the finances de Lyon ended in 1780. He still cited this position when he appeared as a witness to his sister-in-law’s marriage which again took place at Saint-Médard, Clichy, attended by the bride’s father, Benoît Bron “demeurant à Monceaux de cette paroisse son domicile de droit et de fait”, and Amédée Van Loo (again), while Mitoire is shown as living in the rue Thévenot in Paris. (This is curious because the certificate de vie obtained by Christine-Geneviève and the young Charles-Benoît Mitoire in 1794 indicate that they were still living in Monceaux.)

It was some time before Charles Mitoire formally received his commission[11] of “sous-visiteur ordinaire des Postes aux chevaux, relais et messageries du royaume” (2.iv.1786), no doubt with support from the family he had married into. But that position too soon came into jeopardy, as we learn from a letter from Grimod de La Reynière, who had continued to write to Mme Mitoire long after his father terminated the relationship. His letter of 21.ix.1787[12], addressed from the abbaye de Domâvre near Blamont (where his father had had him confined for errant behaviour) to Angélique [sic] Mitoire in Monceau, sympathized with the difficulties facing her husband:

En apprenant la reunion de la poste aux chevaux à celle aux lettres[13] j’étois pris de peurs que M. Mitoire dût perdre son etat à cette révolution. Il est bien faisant pour lui qui né avec son talent et de la fortune il ait toujours préféré des emplois incertains et précaires à des charges decoratives qui l’eussent mis à l’abri de tous les événements. S’il étoit notaire par exemple, il verroit avec l’indifférence toutes les reformes de la finance…. Heureusement qu’il vous reste dans les debris de sa fortune … [Il faut maintenant] attendre patiemment que les circonstances deviennent plus favorables.

* * *

What we also find from the marriage contract and parish register entry is that Charles’s parents were “deffunt Jean-Claude Mitoire et Charlotte Lardant de la paroisse de Saint-Eustache”, and his uncle, a witness, was Pierre-François Lardant. These facts, albeit spelled not quite consistently with other records, are sufficient to direct us to a clearer picture of M. Mitoire’s background. The widowed Jeanne-Charlotte Lardant, Lardent or Lardain died in 1781, rue d’Anjou, in the Marais; her brother was an architecte entrepreneur des bâtiments à Paris, and her husband was better known as Jean-Baptiste Mitoire (1718–1772), maître cartier in Paris.[14] They were married on 12.v.1746 in Paris, Saint-Paul, appearing in the Fonds Andriveau records as “Jean Baptiste Claude Mitouar, fils de Claude, et de Marie Bouliard”; while “Charlotte Lardant” was the daughter of François Lardant and Catherine Rolland. Charles, Mme Mitoire’s husband, must have been born c.1750, so the Charles Mitoire who was reçu maître cartier in Paris in 1758[15] (if correctly reported) was probably his uncle or cousin.

Mme Mitoire’s husband was surely a brother of the Jacques-Charles Mitoire (1749–1805), compagnon cartier de la ville de Paris, recorded in Clermont in 1769 when he alleged that a bill presented to him was a fake (the matter was referred to the duc de Choiseul before the Intendant de l’Auvergne declared the bill valid). Jacques-Charles later returned to Paris: “Le sieur Mitoire, marchand papetier, rue Phelippeaux” supplied paper to the value of 222 livres 7 sols, invoiced 23.xii.1792, to the commissaires du Conseil du Temple (where the royal family had been imprisoned).[16] “Mitoire papetier” appears in the 1800 Almanach du commerce de Paris from a new address, 111 rue du Temple, the street where Jacques-Charles died in 1805.

Jean-Baptiste Mitoire’s speciality was the manufacture of playing cards, in which he was extremely successful. A king of hearts of his design appears in a contemporary genre pastel of a boy with a château de cartes (J.2342.107).[17] But in 1761, as documents in the Archives de la Bastille[18] reveal, he was prosecuted for forgery (using cheaper, unofficial, materials, which facilitated the avoidance of duty), a crime treated very harshly in the eighteenth century. He was sentenced to “déchéance de maîtrise”, i.e. permanently banned from his trade, and fined 3000 livres. This does not seem to have deterred him from working with the engraver Nicolas Poilly on a series of geographical playing cards in Abbeville in 1763. There are further sightings, such as this advertisement in L’Avant-Coureur in 1770:

Was this Jean-Baptiste Mitoire, brazenly defying the order of déchéance – or perhaps his son, the future husband of Mlle Bron, had started on this career? When Christine-Geneviève Bron’s third child, Henriette-Marie-Sophie Mitoire, was baptized (in Clichy, 7.i.1790 – Gibert’s widow was marraine), Charles Mitoire signed the register, but was described as a “négociant” rather than as a commis des finances or sous-visiteur aux postes. It is tempting to speculate that he had helped his parents in the paper business before these more impressive appointments, and had returned to it after he lost them.

The evidence discussed further below suggests that Jean-Baptiste Mitoire had indeed left Paris before 1770: his death certificate (burial 27.xii.1772, “maître cartier de la ville de Paris exerçant en cette ville”) shows him in Metz. It was presumably around this time that Jeanne-Charlotte, veuve Mitoire[19] issued the trade card of which the copy below is in the Waddesdon collection. It shows that she had taken over the business.

The business in the premises at the rue d’Anjou passed at veuve Mitoire’s death in 1781 to a certain “La Chapelle”, and in 1794 adopted the name La Chapelle et Auzou (Grand-Carteret 1913, who however offers no biographical information on the new proprietors). We here identify the new owner as Antoine-François Chapelle or Lachapelle, papetier. On 6.x.1790, in Paris, Saint-Jean-en-Grève, he married (as his second wife) a Jeanne-Marie-Victoire Desmarquest. They adopted and brought up her cousin Jeanne-Marie-Catherine Desmarquest (1775–1835); on 9.xii.1793 she married the papetier Charles-Marie Auzou and became known as the painter Pauline Auzou. There is a further twist that emerges from the marriages indexed in the Fonds Andriveau: Chapelle’s first marriage, on 29.vii.1769, also at Paris, Saint-Jean-en-Grève, he was married (bigamously) to “Jeanne-Charlotte Lardent, fille majeure de François Lardent et de Catherine Rolland”. Jean-Baptiste Mitoire, her real husband (there is no evidence of any annulment), still had three years to live; at the very least she must have assumed he was safely out of the way.

But while Charles Mitoire’s husband did not take over his mother’s business, he (or a homonym[20]) seems to have returned to an activity closely related to the sale of luxury goods, as garde-magasin de l’intendance des Menus-Plaisirs. (Contact might have come about through the patronage of Papillon de la Ferté, who had been one of the administrateurs généraux at the Postes – along with Grimod de La Reynière – while Mitoire was there.) The exact date of his appointment is not yet known, but he was in place by 1807, when Mitoire was accused of assisting one Thorel, portier des Menus-Plaisirs in fraudulently appropriating firewood intended for the Opéra.[21] The police were called in to investigate, and the report exonerated them:

Thorel et Mitoire ont été interrogés séparément. Thorel a prouvé qu’il avait fait ses provisions de bois au chantier de la Bastille. Mitoire a protesté qu’il n’avait livré aucuns bois du magasin confiés à sa garde que pour la consommation de l’administration; il a invoqué le suffrage de M. Mareuil, inspecteur général de l’Opéra, et de M. Vente, agent comptable. Il y a lieu de croire que les plaintes portées contre les sieurs Thorel et Mitoire ne sont point fondées…

More routinely, in a letter of 15.v.1809, he wrote to the directeur de l’Opéra concerning stage decorations for an opera by Spontini, Fernand Cortez ou la conquête du Mexique with costumes by Ménageot. Charles Mitoire continued to be recorded at the rue du Faubourg Poissonnière as garde magasin de l’intendance des Menus-Plaisirs du roi until his death there in 1822. Curiously at his death no heir was nominated.

In any case, Mme Mitoire outlived her husband and died in 1842. Labille-Guiard’s masterpiece shows a picture of conventional domestic tranquility that reveals nothing of the turbulent story unfolded in this essay. The pastel passed down through the family of a daughter born seven years after the salon, Henriette-Marie-Sophie (1790–1818), who married into a medical family.


[1] This essay appears simultaneously on this blog and on my main website in a version of record (containing fuller details etc.), which may be cited as Neil Jeffares, “Labille-Guiard Mme Mitoire et ses enfants”, Pastels & pastellists, Any additions or corrections will be included in that version only. Consult Pastels & pastellists (and in particular the entry for Labille-Guiard) for details of pastels referred to by J number or bibliographic items cited in abbreviation.

[2] Citizens, 1989, p. 148. The miniature was not the version exhibited in the Salon de 1783; because it is in a public collection, it has however been more widely reproduced than the primary version. The secondary literature citing it is too extended to list in full.

[3] This may be the portrait of Mme Royer J.554.179.

[4] See my Grimod genealogy.

[5] One unverified source states that he was born on 6.i.1782. This seems improbable given the difference in age between the children in the portrait. In any case there is no such entry in the parish register for Saint-Médard, Clichy for several years around this date.

[6] A certified copy of the acte de mariage was also deposited on 27.vii.1785 (AN mc/re/xv/992), accompanied by one for Christine-Geneviève’s sister, presumably relating to the death of their grandmother Mme Carle Van Loo which had occurred three months previously.

[7] Although the Chaillot parish registers were destroyed in the Commune (unlike those of Clichy), both entries are preserved in the reconstructed Paris archives. The future Mme Mitoire was indeed the girl’s marraine.

[8] Alain Le Bihan, Francs-maçons parisiens du Grand Orient de France, 1966, p. 359.

[9] Denisart, Collection de décisions Nouvelles…, Paris, 1788, vii, pp. 593ff.

[10] As confirmed in the accounts of the Ollivier estate (AN mc/xxxii, 23.ii.1789), according to Claeys 2009, p. 566, n.5.

[11] AN O1 128, fol. 91.

[12] Sold Paris, Ader Nordmann, 10–11.xii.2018, Lot 221. My transcription from a low resolution image. Other letters were sold c.1975 by the Librarie de l’Abbaye, cat. 242: among them, one of 22.ii.1787, expressing desperation at her coolness towards him and threatening suicide.

[13] This indeed was enacted by order of 12.viii.1787.

[14] There are numerous mentions of Mitoire père in the paper literature; see e.g. Henri Alibaux, “Mitoire, marchand-papetier parisien”, Le Vieux Papier, fasc. 137, .xii.1946, pp. 93-95; Thierry depaulis, Des « figures maussades & révoltantes » :Diderot et les cartes à jouer, Le Vieux Papier, fasc. 414, .x.2014. Those that I have consulted shed no light on the identity of Charles Mitoire.

[15] The standard text on the subject, Henry-René d’Allemagne, Les Cartes à jouer du xive au xxe siècle, 1906, ii, p. 618.

[16] Répertoire général des sources manuscrites de l’histoire de Paris pendant la Révolution française, 1900, v, p. 13.

[17] Bearing a false signature of Drouais, the attribution to Colson is also unreliable.

[18] François Ravaisson, Archives de la Bastille, documents inédits…, 1866, xviii, pp. 122ff.

[19] Grand-Carteret 1913 notes that she appears in some contemporary reference books as “Veuve Mitouart”.

[20] It cannot be excluded that the Charles Mitoire, maître cartier in 1758 and presumably a relative, was still alive; but the son, Charles-Benoît, was in Russia from c.1801 to c.1830 and cannot be the garde-magasin; nor can Jacques-Charles Mitoire, apparently his brother, who died in 1805. Documents in the Archives nationales, not currently available, may yet shed light on the identifications in this essay.

[21] F.-A. Aulard, Paris sous le premier Empire, 1923, iii, p. 374.

L’abbé Le Brun

Art historians are as partial as any other clique to shibboleths – trivia that allow them to remind themselves what superior beings they are. Knowing for example that Chardin’s forenames were not Jean-Baptiste-Siméon, or that Rosalba Carriera was not born in 1675, although these errors remain widespread; we of course know better. Best of all are the known unknowns: who was the mysterious ARD? Or who – apart from not being Mme Vigée Le Brun’s husband – was the abbé Le Brun who published the Almanach des peintres (as it is usually known, since its full name is absurdly long), of which two volumes appeared, in 1776 and 1777?

The question of the authorship has been addressed many times, most notably in a couple of articles in the Burlington Magazine. In November 1992, Andrew McClellan, of Tufts University, reported a letter he had found in the Archives nationales from the author of the Almanach seeking d’Angiviller’s patronage. This revealed that the author was “one Abbé Lebrun, Chaplain to the Cistercian nuns of Bellechasse, Faubourg Saint-Germain. The Abbé was also the great nephew of Charles Lebrun, First Painter to Louis XIV.” In response, in October 1993, Fabienne Camus wrote to confirm this attribution, and while noting that little was known about the author, concluded that he must have been a descendant of Charles Le Brun’s nephew Charles II Le Brun (Mme Vigée Le Brun’s husband, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, was the grandson of another nephew of the Premier Peintre).

She mentions several more facts emerging from the two letters Le Brun had written to d’Angiviller, other correspondence and the entry about him in the Almanach itself: the abbé’s “father lived at Saint Zacharie and his brother [was] a retired master surgeon of the French colonies”; that he was a corresponding member of the Académie de Bordeaux, and that from 1776 he was a chanoine at Beauvais, and had tried to obtain a position as chaplain to the royal household.

Several other clues emerged. For example, in the Supplément to La France littéraire, 1778, p. 56, a list of the correspondent members of the Académie de peinture at Bordeaux included “L’abbé le Brun, Chapelain de feu son A. S. Madame la Princesse de Conti.”

Recourse to the standard genealogies (mine is here) on Charles Le Brun (notably Jouin’s 1889 magnum opus) was of limited use: the descendance of his nephews was incomplete, and no one seemed to fit perfectly. (I should say checking this took a good deal of time, which is partly why I thought I would put up a blog post rather than simply correct the entry on my index of writers at Perhaps however someone should have noticed that Jouin lists a number of people claiming a relationship with Charles Le Brun but with no foundation.

In any case the royal chaplaincy did send me off in various directions, as did the Bellechasse reference: evidently, like Miss Prism, he was remotely connected with education. So first out was Charles Gardeur-Lebrun, précepteur des enfants du duc de Chartres à Bellechasse, of whom Mme de Genlis tells us a good deal, but who does not seem to have been in holy orders.

Then, spurred on perhaps by a remark in Charles-Étienne Gaucher’s attack on the Almanach hinting that the author was an oratorian, I investigated the abbé Louis-Joseph Le Brun (Reims, St Jacques 3.xi.1722–8.i.1787), régent au collège d’Oratoriens d’Angers, précepteur des pages des Écuries de la reine 1761–67, auteur du Déluge etc., chanoine de Reims. But his father was an avocat in Reims, one Timothé Le Brun (1673–1723), who died shortly after the celebrated educationalist was born, and cannot have been living in Provence in 1775.

More tempting among the chaplains in the royal household was the abbé Claude-Nicolas Le Brun de Chassinroy (Nogent-le-Rotrou 1721 – p.1791), vicaire de Bailly 1748–54, chapelain de Madame Sophie de France, maître des requêtes du comte d’Artois. But once again his humble origins didn’t fit: his grandfather was a carpenter, Louis Le Brun.

An extensive search of Le Bruns or Lebruns born in Provence or of surgeons of that name (however spelled) connected with the region was also fruitless.

However the answer emerged from a topographical volume about Beauvais which noted that a certain Jean-François Brun [sic], chanoine de Beauvais, published in 1792 Tablettes historiques du département de l’Oise, and provided his date and place of death. I’m afraid I cannot recreate the excitement in pursuing this lead in a narrative which you must by now have guessed has an outcome, but here is the death certificate at Dampierre-en-Bray in Normandie:

This in turn led to a more informative account of Le Brun’s later years, in the Annuaire des cinq départements de la Normandie, lxi, 1894, pp. 108ff, in a piece entitled “Notes inédites sur quelques-uns des premiers glorificateurs de Nicolas Poussin en Normandie” submitted by a M. [Victor-Ernest] Veuclin, imprimeur à Bernay. This helpfully informed us that Jean-François Le Brun [sic] was born on 8 novembre 1732 but in a place the author didn’t know, and rather unhelpfully that he was chanoine de Versailles. He lost his place during the Revolution, fled to a village near Dampierre-en-Bray, where after a spell as a school teacher he resumed the priesthood when allowed to do so (1795), and was appointed curé at Dampierre. In an IX (1801) he decided to write a eulogy to Nicolas Poussin, and (just as he had done with d’Angiviller) offered to dedicate the work to the préfet de l’Eure, Claude Masson de Saint-Amand. This time the offer was accepted, but Masson sent the manuscript back to the abbé for corrections to be made, and it was not subsequently heard of.

Only one more difficulty: to find the Jean-François Le Brun born somewhere on 8 November 1732. And the answer, if your eye-sight can take the strain, is: Saint-Zacharie

where his father was still living in 1775 according to the letters cited by Camus. But the name wasn’t Le Brun: it was simply Brun. And his genealogy (uncovered step by step from parish records, but presented here with all the drama of a crossword solution) goes back through four generations at least, based in the Var; indeed his brother was also a surgeon, living in Aubagne:

Jean Brun, chirurgien ∞ Catherine Arnoux

ðJean-Baptiste Brun, chirurgien ∞ La Verdière, Var, 24.v.1649 Catherine Audiffren

ððHonoré Brun (c.1665–Saint-Zacharie 30.iv.1725), maître chirurgien ∞ 14.ii.1694 Anne Roche (1668– )

ðððJean-Augustin [Le] Brun (Saint-Zacharie Var 28.viii.1709 – p.1774), maître chirurgien, habitant Saint-Zacharie ∞ Pourrières 12.ii.1732 Marguriete Ouvière (Saint-Zacharie c.1710 – Roquevaire 20.v.1775)

ððððL’abbé Jean-François Brun, dit Le Brun (Saint-Zacharie 11.xi.1732 – Dampierre-en-Bray 15.iv.1804), chanoine de Saint-Pierre, Beauvais, vicaire-général de Sagonne 1776, auteur, membre correspondant de l’Académie de Bordeaux 1776, chapelain de feue princesse de Conti douairière, chapelain des Cisterciennes de Bellechasse, curé de Dampierre-en-Bray 1795

ððððFrançois-Benoît-Augustin Brun (13.viii.1744 – Aubange 27.ix.1804), officier de santé, chirurgien au colonies, résidant à Aubagne ∞ 1° 1769 Marguerite Beaumond; 2° Aubagne 2.ii.1775 Rose Simian

I think we can add the abbé’s name to Jouin’s list of imposters: the author of the Almanachs was plain Brun. No doubt he admired Charles Le Brun as much as he later admired Nicolas Poussin.

Who was Mlle Puvigné?

The dozens of préparations[1] by Maurice-Quentin de La Tour in the museum in his native town of Saint-Quentin have always attracted great attention, frequently being ranked ahead of his finished portraits. They have an immediacy and a vitality that is instantly arresting: the cliché that the artist is looking into his sitters’ souls is overused, but here not misplaced. While much of the portrait historian’s duty is to explain who sitters were, and what relationship they had with the artist, most of these préparations have lost their identities. Only a few are known today, usually from the slips of paper in La Tour’s own hand on which he wrote their names. One such was Mme Boëte de Saint-Leger whose full identity we wrote about on this blog.

The case of Mlle Puvigné (above; see J.46.266 in my La Tour catalogue for full details) is a little different, as her brief career as a dancer is known. As we shall see completing the picture, which has not hitherto been possible, provides an astonishing insight into the overlapping worlds of La Tour’s subjects: the oldest nobility, the richest fermiers généraux, actors and dancers. It also tells us about the other side of the “douceur de vivre” in the Ancien régime.

The entry in Fleury & Brière provides essentially all that was known about her to art history and musical scholarship (here from the 1954 edition):

Puvigné ou Puvigny (Mlle), danseuse. Née vers 1735, fille d’une danseuse à l’Opéra, elle monte sur les planches dès son enfance; élève de Mlle Sallé[2], de qui elle continue la manière, elle entre à l’Opéra en 1746 et devient rapidement un des premiers sujets; elle prit sa retraite en 1756 et mourut probablement en 1785, car elle ne figure plus aux Spectacles de Paris en 1784. Mlle Puvigné fut également l’une des étoiles du théâtre[3] des Petits Appartements à la cour.

Only one other image of her is known – hardly a portrait, but the costume drawing by Louis-René Boquet (Bibliothèque-musée de l’Opéra) shows Mlle Puvigné in an elaborate taffetas dress with paniers. She is supposed to be the living statue in Pygmalion, a ballet set to music by Rameau, which she premiered in 1748 at the Académie royale de musique:

Until now, no one has known her full name. The dates mentioned by Fleury & Brière – more termini than approximations – became fixed as 1735–1783 in B&W, with no additional evidence. The Fleury & Brière entry abbreviates the information in Fleury’s original 1904 catalogue, which confusingly has her as a star in 1741 (when she was only 6) but notes that she and her mother were both drawing pensions (État actuel de la musique du roi, 1773, p. 72) in 1773 (of 1000 and 250 livres respectively). Entries in the theatrical usuels – the excellent CESAR database serves as a compilation of these references – provide a list of her known appearances which I won’t repeat in detail. Here for example is the entry in Campardon, Les Spectacles de la foire, 1877, ii, p. 286:

PUVIGNÉ (Mlle), danseuse de l’Opéra-Comique à la foire Saint-Laurent de 1743, avait un rôle dans le ballet-pantomime des Fleurs, exécuté à la suite de l’Ambigu de la Folie, ou le Ballet des dindons, parade en quatre entrées, de Favart, représentée le 31 août de cette même année.

One should add that she was première danseuse in Rameau’s Les Indes galantes 1749 and in Les Fêtes de Polymnie. She made a sufficient impression to appear, for example, in Mme de Graffigny’s correspondence. The scandal sheets of the day hint at more, but with few details.

However one source which has previously been overlooked[4] is the manuscript collection of police reports in the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal. These provide a rather different account of Mlle Puvigné’s career which are worth reproducing in full, even if you may find them somewhat distressing. Scroll down if you are only interested in her later life.

First we have to start with her mother, who came to the attention of the police first in 1736. I won’t transcribe the whole of the complaint, but suffice it to say that she was then living in Paris as a tenant of a M. Blanchard, chirurgien in the rue Montorgueil. A dispute with a neighbour over a chimney which Blanchard had opened up led to Colombe-Françoise Puvigné, as she is described, danseuse de l’Opéra-Comique, assaulting the official who was deputed to block it up. In the course of the row, it was claimed that she was “connue de tout le monde pour une prostituée”, and the papers include a warrant (signed by René Hérault, lieutenant général de police, and the subject of a portrait by Liotard) for her to be sent to the Fort l’Eveque prison for 24 hours:

Fast forward to 1749, when there is another report of the mother, followed by the complete file (edited here to remove duplications – some of the draft reports are very hard to read – but preserving original spelling etc.) on the daughter which follows with minimal commentary as none is needed[5] – beyond noting that the list of the aristocracy is every bit as exclusive as La Tour’s own clientèle, and the documents resonate in every sense of the worlds in which she – and he – had to make their way.

Mlle Puvignée mere

Danseuse à l’opera

Rue La Croix du petits Champs

Chés une lingere à la belle flamande

Du 8 Juillet 1749

La Dlle Puvignée mere Danseuse a l’opera demeure depuis un an rue de la Croix des petits Champs chés une lingere à la belle flamande et ocupe tout le second Etage sur la Rue,

Elle est agée d’environ 28 a 30 ans, brun, petite, bien faite, assés jolie. Elle est de Paris.

Il y a 3 a 4 ans qu’elle avoit M. Bernard de Saint-Saire[6] President a la Ve des Enquestes rue Ne Dame des Victoires, qui a se remarié en second noces depuis environ 2 mois. Sa p[remi]ere f[emm]e avec laqualle il n’a vecu qu’un an est morte en couche; l’enfant est vivant.

Elle a eu ensuitte M. de Valroche[7] <frere de M. Bouret> Interessé dans les soufermes demeurant Rue du Mail pres la P. de V[ictoires] Il est garçon et va[…] de tems en tems chés la Dlle Puvigné. On assure qu’il a un bon du Roy pour la premiere place vacante de f[ermie]r général.

Elle est actuellement entretenue par M. Mazade[8] fils fermier général rue N[otr]e D[am]e des Victoire [avec son pere] <Na Scavoir si M. Mazade pere n’est pas mort>, mais depuis environ 4 mois son pere est mort. Il va presque tous les jours chés la Dlle Puvigné.

Du 10 juin 1749. Na Elle a une petite fille, <qui a quelque 13 a 14 ans>, qui est aussi danseuse a lopera, on m’a assure que le Mis de Courtanvaux[9] avoit eu son pucelage pour une montre d’or elle n’a que 13 a 14 ans il y a environ un an. Elle est fort jolie, petite, brune, le nez aquiline, petite bouche, fort jolie

Voir tant pour l’histoire de la mere que celle de la fille danseuse seule a l’opera. La feuille de cette dere c’est la suite…

Du 20 Janvier 1751

La Dlle Puvigné fille, danseuse seule à l’opera, demeure avec sa mere rue de la Croix des petits champs à la belle flamande

Elle est agé de 16 à 17 ans, petite, brune, la bouche bien faite, le nez acquilin, jolie. Il a déjà été dit dans la feüille du 8 Juillet 1749 à l’article de la mere, quelle avoit vendu la pucelage de sa fille, qui n’avoit au plus que 12 a 13 ans, a M. le Mis de Courtanvaux.

Depuis quelques mois que la Dlle Puvigné est de retour de Lyon, d’où <(par parenthese)>elle a raporté de forts bons effets, sa mere la produite a M. le Prince de Soubise chés qui elle va diner ordinairement trois fois par semaine lorsqu’il est à Paris et afin d’observer le decorum la mere l’accompagne. Le prince de Soubise[10] est dans le gout d’en avoir plus avoir sur ce tout à il ne donne à la dlle Puvingé que 12 louis par mois.

Du 6 avril 1751

La Dlle Puvigné fille, danseuse a l’opera demeure actuellement <depuis environ trois mois> avec sa mere, rue St Honoré chés Vignolles Coutellier <vis a vis l’oratoire> au per etage sur la rüe, meme maison qie la Dlle Le Miere

Il a eté dit dans la feuille du 20 Janvier der que la dlle Puvigné allois de tems en tems chés le Pce de Soubise, soit pour y diner, ou pour danser seule aux differents Bals qu’il a donné <Le 2. Janer der la Psse de Soubise lui a fait … pour son Etrenne d’une …rette fine de diamans en reconnce a ce quelle a plusieurs fois dansé …> Il n’en est plus question depuis plus de 2 mois; elle est sous les auspices de M. le marquis de Voyer[11] <rue du Gros Chenet> qui … au moins trois a 4 fois par semaine l’a voir/ Il n’y arrive ordt que le Soir dans son Equipage. Il n’y couche jamais.

Du 10 Juillet 1752

Vendredi 7 de ce mois M. le Duc de Luxembourg[12] a eté souper avec la Dlle Puvigné, tête à tête, dans la petite Maison de Campagne du Prince de Soubise situé entre Vaugirard et les Invalides, proche d’Issy, et la ramenée chés elle à deux heures du matin.


Du 18 Septembre 1752

M. le Comte de Kaunitz[13] ambassadeur de l’Empereur a fait plusieurs presents à la Dlle Puvigné, sur laquelle il paroît vouloir jetter un dévolu; néanmoins quoiquelle ait déja eté collationer plusieurs fois chés lui, on ne croit pas que la mariage soit encore consommé.


Du 13 Novembre 1752

M. de Fontanieu[14] fils, demeurant rüe Vivienne chés M. son pere[15], Conseiller d’Etat et Garde des meubles de la Couronne, entretien fort secrettement, et donne tout ce qu’il peut à la Dlle Puvigné fille, Danseuse à l’opera. Il court même un bruit quelle est grosse de ses oeuvres.


Du 19 Janvier 1753

Il y a environ six semaines que la Dlle Puvigné fille, Danseuse à l’opera, avoit donne pour adjouir à M. de Fontanieu fils, M. le comte de Mniszeck[16] grand Chambellan de Lithuanie, mais elle de l’a gardé que 15 Jours. <> dit hautement que pendant cet espace de tems elle en a tire plus de 14000#. En autres presens, il lui a donné une Navette d’or enrichi de Diamants. <C’est actuellement la Dlle Rez qui en est en possession, au grand regret sans doute de la Dlle Puvigné pries gler>

Du 3 avril 1753

Dlle Puvigne fille danseuse à l’opera

Rue St Honoré

Rüe neuve des petits Champs

Près la rue de Richelieu

La Dlle Puvigne fille danseuse à l’opera est le fruit des amours de la De Puvigné et du nommé Haroche <Droüllion[17]> jadis acteur de l’opera comique. Elle est agée d’environ dix huit ans, petite, brune, bien faite, le nez acquilin, assés jolie; sa mere qui danse dans les ballets à l’opera, a parüe sur plusieurs Theatres de province.

En 1744 la Dlle Puvigné, âgée seulement de 8 à 9 ans, debuta à la foire St Germain sur celui de l’opera Comique dirigé alors par le S. Berger; mais ce spectacle aïant eté suprimé en 1745, elle partie pour Lyon avec sa mere et elles ne revinrent à Paris qu’en 1749 quelle entrerent toutes deux à l’opera aux 1200# d’appointements.

La Dlle Puvigné n’etoit point encore nubile lorsqu’elle reçut les premieres leçons du Mis de Courtanvaux, qui ne la fit pas bien riche, car l’histoire rapporte qu’il ne donna que quelques Louis à la mère, et une montre d’or à la fille.

En 1751 le Prince de Soubise crût en avoir les gands et la garda jusqu’au commencement de l’annee 1752; il ne la même pas encore aujourd’hui entierrement quittée. Depuis elle n’a eu que des passades avec le Duc de Deux Ponts[18] <le mis de Voyer>, le Comte de Kaunitz, le Duc de la Valliere[19], le Duc de Luxembourg. Maintenant elle est, en attendant mieux, à M de Fontanieu fils du Coner d’Etat qui lui donne ce qu’il peut. Pendant le bail de celui-cy, elle a encore une passade avec le Comte de Mniszech, Grand Chambellan de Lithuanie, qui lui a valu 13 à 14000#.


Du 14 May 1753

On s’est trompé dans ce qui a eté donné precedemment de la filiation de la Dlle Puvigné. Voici ce qu’il faut suivre.

Le Sr Sabatier étoit, dit-on, un riche armateur de St Malo, qui périt sur mer, et avec lui tout ce qu’il pouvoit avoir de plus precieux. Il laisse sa femme sans fortune, avec une fille qui dans la suitte a parüe à l’opera Comique avant la derniere supression qui en fut faite en 1745, et depuis sur differens Theatres de Province, sous le nom de Julie. C’est dans ces dernieres Caravanes que le S. Bercaville alors Comedien de la Troupe à Bruxelles, ensuitte Lecteur de feu M. le Marechal de Saxe, l’a connüe, en est devenu amoureux et la épousé. Aujourd’hui elle a le privilege de la Comedie de Lille. Quant à la mere de Julie, qui etoit lors du deces du S. Sabatier, encore jeune, fraiche et Jolie, elle plût au Sr Puvigné de Martel, homme riche et de condition, qui, dit-on, l’épousa clandestinement, du moins il en eût la Dame Puvigné mere aussi danseuse à l’opera; laquelle du tems quelle étoit à l’opera comique; eût de ses amours avec Hamoche acteur de ce Théâtre (et non avec Droüillon comme il a eté dit dans la feuille du 3. Avril dernier) la Dlle Puvigné fille dont il s’agit, qui toujours pour tenant M de Fontanieu fils.


Du 26 Septembre 1755

Rue Notre Dame des Victoires

Il y a deux ans que M de Fontanieu … a la Dlle Puvigné fille danseuse à l’opera …maintenant elle est entretenue par M. de Fontanieu l’ainé me des Requetes demeurant <ainsi que son pere…> Rue Vivienne … M. de Fontanieu donne 100 pistolles par mois à la Dlle Puvigné, et l’on assure qu’il lui a donné pour 5 à 6000# de vaisselle d’argent …

La Dlle Puvigné demeure avec sa mere rue Ne De des Victoires/a 3e porte cochere a droite, et entrance du cote de la rue du mail …pour 200# de loyer et trois domestique à leur service.

Du 6 aoust 1756

Depuis deux mois la Dlle Puvigne danseuse à l’Opéra, est entretenüe par M. Masson de Maisonrouge[20], Receveur général des finances, qui vient la voir trois à quatre fois par semaine.

La Dlle Sallé ancienne danseuse à l’Opéra, qui joüissoit de 3. Pensions de 600#  chacune <Il y a aux petits appartemens 4 places de baladins et 4 places de Baladines, à sa l’ancienne denomination. Chacune de ces places est de 600#. La Dlle Sallé an avoit deux et jouissoit en valeur de 600# de pension>, étant porte la Semaine derniere, la Dlle Puvigné en a obtenu une, Mlle Lany l’autre. Mlle Vestris cours apres la 3e.

But there the police documents end. What happened to Mlle Puvigné? We still don’t know her name. But we do now have some names of close relations, although merely searching for these online or in genealogical references books doesn’t get very far. We can however identify her biological father, the actor Jean-Baptiste Hamoche: here’s the entry in Campardon, Les Spectacles de la foire, 1877, i, pp. 391ff:

HAMOCHE (JEAN-BAPTISTE), excellent pierrot de la foire, commença par jouer la comédie en province, puis vint à Paris, où il s’engagea chez Saint-Edme et chez la dame Baron (…). Admis à l’Opéra-Comique, il y obtint, grâce au naturel et à la vérité de son jeu, de nombreux applaudissements et devint l’acteur favori du public. A la foire Saint-Laurent de 1732, il prit de / moitié avec Devienne la direction de l’Opéra-Comique, et célébra son entrée en fonctions par une petite pièce qu’il commanda à Carolet et qui fut jouée à l’ouverture de la foire, le 7 juillet, sous le titre du Nouveau Bail. Malheureusement l’entreprise d’Hamoche ne réussit pas; les deux associés se brouillèrent et de dépit l’acteur s’engagea à la Comédie-Italienne, où il débuta le 1er décembre 1732. Dépaysé sur cette scène, Hamoche ne tarda pas à la quitter, et le 30 juin 1733 il faisait sa rentrée à l’Opéra-Comique dans la Fausse Égyptienne, de Panard. (…) / Hamoche fut fort bien reçu, mais l’incorrigible Pierrot se brouilla une seconde fois avec son directeur, à qui il fit même un procès, et quitta de nouveau la scène à la fin de la foire Saint-Laurent de 1733 pour n’y plus reparaître que le 13 juillet 1743 (…). Il joua encore (28 août 1743) les rôles d’un ivrogne dans la Fontaine de Sapience, opéra comique en un acte, de Laffichard et Valois, et (31 août 1743) Osman, Turc, Huascar, Inca, et Zima, sauvagesse, dans les actes I, II et III de l’Ambigu de la folie, ou le Ballet des dindons, parodie en quatre actes, de Favart. Enfin Hamoche, s’étant créé encore de nouveaux ennuis à l’Opéra-Comique, finit par quitter tout à fait la scène et par se retirer en province.

The key fact here is the reference to Favart’s play, L’Ambigu de la folie ou le ballet des dindons, in which Mlle Puvigné debuted on 31 August 1743, the other two dancers being Mlle Lany and Noverre. Hamoche was the lead actor.

Let us return then to the other names. Neither Sabattier nor Puvigné de Martel get us far. But, as luck would have it, I came across a document in the Archives nationales, in which a certain Vincent Martenne de Puvigné renounced the succession of his half-sister Julienne-Nicole Sabatier, veuve de Louis-Gabriel Cabre de Bercaville, 27.xi.1786 (AN mc/xxiv/953).

Cabre, formerly an actor, was secrétaire to the maréchal de Saxe[21] and then (1761) to the maréchal de Löwendal (two more La Tour sitters: J.46.2863 and J.46.2188). He was later inspecteur du Théâtre de la Monnaie until 1780. As for Julienne-Nicole, she did, as Meunier noted, appear on the stage. Here is the entry in Campardon:

BERCAVILLE (JULIE), actrice de l’Opéra-Comique, débuta à ce théâtre à la foire Saint-Laurent de 1733, dans le Départ de l’Opéra-Comique, pièce en un acte et en vaudevilles mêlés de prose, de Panard, et joua le rôle de la Lune, dans Zéphire et la lune, ou la Nuit d’été, opéra comique en un acte, de Boissy, représenté à la même foire. Julie Bercaville, qui n’était connue à l’Opéra-Comique que sous le nom de Julie, débuta plus tard sous son nom de famille à la Comédie-Française.

In her will[22], Julienne-Nicole left a substantial annuity to her “frère uterin” [half-brother] Vincent Martin de Puvigné [sic]; a portrait of an “abbé en robe de chambre” was left to a priest. But there was no mention of any half-sister or niece or anyone that could be La Tour’s Mlle Puvigné (nor indeed of any pastel portrait that might have been the work the préparation was made for).

Her half-brother was Vincent-François Martenne de Puvigné (c.1718–1791), chevalier de l’ordre de Saint-Jean-de-Latran, officier d’infanterie, commandant de l’Ile de Rodrigues in 1752; he died in the Île Maurice. He was born in Nantes (paroisse Saint-Laurent), his parents being Vincent Martenne, sieur de Puvigné and Guillemette Seguin. It is unclear how they were connected with Vincent [de] Puvigné, chantre de la chapelle-musique du roi in Versailles 1682–1720.

So the logic of the police report is that Guillemette Seguin must originally have been married to the armateur Sabatier. And that indeed proves to have been the case: Joseph Sabatier married Guillemette Seguin, a minor, in Saint-Malo on 3 January 1708. Further, three years later, on 23 August 1711 in the cathédrale de Saint-Malo, Guillemette, veuve de Joseph Sabatier, married Vincent Martene, sieur de Puvigné. She lived until 1758, providing 1500 livres for the repair of the chapel of Saint-Jean de Saint-Michel (Archives de la Gironde).

Guillemette was thus the mother of Julienne-Nicole by her first marriage, and of Vincent-François Martenne de Puvigné and Colombe-Françoise by her legitimate second marriage. Colombe-Françoise may never have married, but was the mother of La Tour’s sitter:

There is one further clue in Julienne-Nicole Sabatier’s will: a substantial legacy in favour of her godson Nicolas-Philippe d’Albessard. It is that which enabled me to make the link to the Dlle Puvigné: she was Louise-Claire Hamoche-Puvigné (c.1735–1779) who, on 8 August 1760, in Paris, Saint-Eustache, was married to Jean-Baptiste d’Albessard (1716–1794). If not of the highest aristocracy, it was a very good match: her husband was conseiller du roi, avocat général au parlement de Bordeaux, and had married once before (in 1751).

She had already borne two children to him: Charles (before 1758 – died young) and Colombe Thibaut d’Albessard (1759–1784). Another son, Jacques, was born in Paris in 1768 (he died in 1834). When Jacques applied for military service in 1787 as an officer in the regiment de Guadaloupe, Chérin was persuaded to issue the necessary proof of nobility to d’Albessard and “Louise-Claire Hamoche”. And, c.1772, she gave birth to Nicolas-Philippe d’Albessard, whose marraine was her aunt Julienne. Nicolas-Philippe served in the Egypt campaign, and died without issue. Colombe became Dame de la maison de Madame Victoire. The avocat général sat on the Assemblée Générale de la noblesse d’agenois, and was guillotined in Bordeaux. The family’s pedigree is set out in O’Gilvy’s Nobiliaire de Guienne.

The witnesses at Louise-Claire’s burial at Versailles (paroisse Saint-Louis, 29 August 1779) were Me Guillaume Angélique Barrau, avocat au parlement et premier commis des finances de Monsieur, Pierre Talon ordinaire de la musique du Roy (1721–1785; a known cellist and composer), and her son Jacques d’Albessard.

None of this tells us why or for whom La Tour undertook his pastel. While portraits of actors were often intended to further their careers on the stage, we cannot avoid the suspicion that this commission was placed by one of her “admirers”. Even more disturbing is the idea that her mother may have thought it helpful for business: if so, does that make La Tour complicit? Or us?


[1] This essay first appeared in this blog on 27.i.2021. The version of record, which may be cited as Neil Jeffares, “La Tour, Mlle Puvigné”, Pastels & pastellists, has been expanded and includes additional material.

[2] See the entry in my La Tour catalogue, at J.46.2842.

[3] Organised by Mme de Pompadour: La Tour catalogue, at J.46.2541.

[4] It is mentioned in an obscure article, M. Fuchs, “Les danseurs des théâtres de provinces au xviiie siècle”, Archives intenrnationales de la danse, 15.i.1935, p. 29; but Hamoche’s name is transcribed as Lamoche, again throwing us off the scent.

[5] The reports were made by the police inspector Jean-Baptiste Meusnier, dit Meunier, who was assassinated in 1757.

[6] Better known as Anne-Gabriel-Henri Bernard, marquis de Boulainvilliers 1766 (1724–1798), président au parlement, gouverneur d’Ile-de-France 1775, prévôt de Paris, maître des cérémonies de l’ordre de Saint-Louis. He was the son of La Tour’s famous président de Rieux. In 1749 he was at the 2e des Enquêtes, not the 5e. His first wife was Marie-Madeleine de Grimoart du Roure; his second, whom he married in 1748, Marie-Madeleine-Adrienne de Hallencourt de Boulainvilliers (1725–1781).

[7] Antoine-François Bouret de Valroche (1711–1776), fermier général, secrétaire du roi. In 1765 he married Marie-Antoinette Petit, de l’Opéra. For her liaison with the marquis de Bonnac, see Jeffares 2002.

[8] Jean-Laurent Mazade de Bobigny (1719–a.1759), fermier général 1740, brother of Marie-Madeleine Mazade (1716–1773), who, with her husband Antoine-Gaspard Grimod de La Reynière (1690–1756), were also La Tour sitters: J.46.1867 and J.46.188.

[9] Louis-Charles-César, chevalier de Louvois, marquis de Courtenvaux, comte, puis duc d’Estrées (1695–1771sp), maréchal de France, chev. Saint-Esprit.

[10] Charles de Rohan, prince de Soubise, 2e duc de Rohan-Rohan (1715–1787), gouverneur de Flandre &c 1751, maréchal de France 1758, ministre d’état, maréchal de Soubise; he was the subject of a Perronneau pastel.

[11] Marc-René de Voyer de Paulmy, marquis de Voyer d’Argenson (1722–1782), maréchal de camp, lieutenant-général d’Alsace; gouverneur de Romorentin, inspecteur général des dragons, directeur général des haras royaux 1758, associé libre 1749, puis honoraire amateur de l’Académie royale de peinture, vice protecteur de l’Académie de Saint-Luc 1751–64: see entry for La Tour’s portrait J.46.3144.

[12] Charles-François-Frédéric de Montmorency-Luxembourg, duc de Piney-Luxembourg, prince de Tingry (1702–1764), chev. Saint-Esprit 1744, maréchal de France, capitaine des gardes du corps du roi.

[13] Wenzel Anton Fürst von Kaunitz-Rietberg 1764 (1711–1794), chev. Toison d’or 1749, St Stephen, Maria Theresia, Hof- und Staatskanzler. He was portrayed by Liotard.

[14] Probably the elder son, Bonaventure-Moïse de Fontanieu (1728–1757), maître des requêtes.

[15] Gaspard-Moïse-Augustin de Fontanieu (1694–1767), conseiller du parlement de Paris, intendant des meubles de la Couronne, maître des requêtes.

[16] Jan Karol Mniszech (1716–1759), chev. Orła Białego 1744; his wife, Katarzyna Zamoyska, was portrayed by Roslin.

[17] Drouillon in the copie nette, Haroche in the original manuscript.

[18] Christian IV. Pfalzgraf von Birkenfeld-Zweibrücken (1722–1775); the subject of a portrait by Tocqué.

[19] Louis César de La Baume-le-Blanc, duc de La Vallière et pair de France (1708–1780), grand fauconnier de France, chev. Saint-Esprit 1749 ; there is a Cochin portrait. The Journal et mémoires du marquis d’Argenson (v, p. 303, December 1748), give a rather more innocent sounding account of his encounter: “M. de la Vallière d’est mis à entretenir la petite Puvigné, danseuse de l’Opéra, qui a à peine Treize ans et qui n’est qu’une enfant; il fait construire pour lui des cabinets à sa maison des champs, à l’imitation du roi; il doit de tous côtés.”

[20] Etienne-Pierre Masson de Maisonrouge (1700–1785), receveur des finances à Amiens. His second wife, the singer “la Romainville”, took Vestris as a lover just after her marriage. Maisonrouge had a child by La Tour’s lover, Marie Fel (J.46.1762), before 1752.

[21] Confirmed by his widow’s entry in the scellés apposés…, AN Y13810, 4.ii.1785, place Saint-Michel.

[22] AD75 DC 6 262, 10.iii.1785.

Rosalba’s portrait of John Law

No one who reads this blog needs to be told who Rosalba Carriera (1673–1757) or John Law (1671–1729) were, nor why their encounter in Paris in 1720, during the Régence, was of such significance – and why the lost portrait she made of him (J.21.0632  in the online Dictionary of pastellists, in this article) is mentioned in so many publications that I cannot possibly list them all.[1] Of course none of these discussions is of much help in locating the work beyond the idea, almost universally repeated, that Horace Walpole once owned it (the version he owned is J.21.06341 in the Dictionary). And the iconography of Law is so confused that it too provides little assistance.

Walpole’s version

As we shall see, the date of his acquisition is important – the reference in the first (1774) edition of his A description of the villa of Mr Horace Walpole (p. 66) providing a terminus ante quem:

John Law, inventor of the Missisipi-scheme [sic], and prime minister to the regent Philip duke of Orleans: one of the best of Rosalba’s works.

There are several further references in his correspondence: he mentions it in a letter of 7 November 1782 to the Scottish antiquary, the Earl of Buchan:[2]

If your Lordship should print any account of John Law the Missisippian, <and> wish to give a print of him, I have a portrait of him by Rosalba, the best I ever saw by her hand, and which must be extremely like, as it is the very image of this daughter Lady Wallingford now living. As the picture is in crayons and even let into the wainscot of my gallery, it cannot be taken down; the artist must therefore make the drawing from where it is.

He repeated this again in another letter to the earl, 12 May 1783, adding–

–an excellent head of [John Law] in crayons by Rosalba, the best of her portraits. It is certainly very like, for, were the flowing wig converted into a female head-dress, it would be the exact resemblance of Lady Wallingford, his daughter, whom I see frequently at the Duchess of Montrose’s, and who has by no means a look of the age to which she is arrived. Law was a very extraordinary man, but not at all an estimable one.

Buchan it seems was intending to write a biography of Law, no doubt as a famous Scot, but in the end produced only a short letter in The Bee in 1791, consisting just of Walpole’s anecdotes. As the correspondence indicates, it was contemplated that a print be taken from Walpole’s portrait, a project abandoned because the pastel could not be taken down – Walpole had fitted it into the wooden panelling, some 2½ to 3 metres high, was conscious of the risks of moving pastels, and had placed his famous Roman eagle in the same niche, preventing anyone placing a ladder there to get a closer view. This emerges again from a letter he wrote on 14 November 1792 to Richard Gough (1735–1809), another antiquary, who was presumably contemplating a different Law biography:

I have a portrait of Law, and should not object to letting a copy of it be taken, but I doubt that could not be done, being in crayons, by Rosalba, under a glass; and any shaking being very prejudicial to crayons, I fixed the picture in one of the niches of my gallery under a network of carving, whence it cannot possibly be removed without pulling the niche to pieces. The picture too being placed over the famous statue of the eagle, there is no getting near to it, I certainly could not venture to let a ladder be set against the statue. Indeed, as there are extant at least three prints of Law, there does not seem to be another wanting.

I am sorry, Sir, I cannot give you a more satisfactory answer about Lady Wallingford. I have met her at two or three places, but I did not visit her, nor have the least knowledge of her husband’s family, nor to whom she left anything she had; nor can I direct you at all where to inquire. I did not even know that there is an Earl of Banbury living.

Although there is a tiny glimpse of the pastel in the niche in the gallery of which an engraving was included in the second, 1784, edition, the image is completely indecipherable. We have a little more luck with the original watercolour of the Gallery at Strawberry Hill, made in 1781 by Thomas Sandby, Paul Sandby & Edward Edwards (V&A, inv. D.1837-1904).

Here is the detail visible in the niche to left of the chimney, straightened with Photoshop:

Although neither Walpole’s Description nor the 1842 sale catalogue provides dimensions for the pastel, and while it might seem impossible reliably to estimate the dimensions from this image, in fact the Roman eagle comes to our aid: its height is 77.5 cm, and being immediately underneath the pastel, we can estimate with some precision that the sight size of the portrait was 66 cm high (by perhaps 54 cm width, with less assurance). This is notably larger than most of the bust-length pastels Rosalba made in Paris at this time – they are typically 56×45 cm. This will certainly be a clue in identifying Walpole’s pastel should it resurface: it remained at Strawberry Hill until the 1842 sale, when it was sold[3] for 18 gns to “Brown, Esq., Pall Mall”, possibly General Sir John Brown, KCH; but all trace is then lost. It will presumably have been reframed in 1842 when removed from the wall.

The image alone does suffice to eliminate a number of wildly speculative suggestions from among Rosalba’s œuvre as candidates for the lost portrait (among them the pastel of Poleni which I discussed here). (It is curious that no one has proposed the Dresden pastel P84, my J.21.2189, which matches the composition most closely, although as we shall see it too is wrong.)


Inevitably researchers will turn to any information on Law’s appearance to conduct this search. They might start with the much earlier description circulated in the London Gazette (7 January 1694) when he was a fugitive after killing a man in a duel:

very tall, black, lean man, well shaped, about six foot high, large pock holes in his face, big high nosed.

The description was dismissed as useless by biographers (who improbably alleged[4] that he arranged for a false description to aid his escape), but the nose at least is supported by the iconography.

To which we must now turn, although again with limited confidence. A good summary (although with an important omission) is in Ingamells (Later Stuart portraits…), p. 144, accompanying the best known portrait, attributed to Alexis-Simon Belle (NPG 191), “identified as Law at least since the end of the eighteenth century, and the elegant costume suggests it was painted in France”. It graces the cover of one of the better biographies[5] (Montgomery Hyde’s), but that offers little extra assurance of the identification.

Ingamells then lists the enamel by Charles Boit in the Royal Collection, with conventional rose-bud mouth, straight nose and brown eyes which do not seem convincing.

Of it Graham Reynolds remarks (Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-century miniatures…, no. 398)[6] that “the traditional identification as Law appears justified by comparison with the engraving by Peter Schenk, 1720.”

Schenk’s engraving, although well known, is of limited iconographic value: in black and white, and unlikely to have been taken from life. It was published in Het Groote Tafereel der Dwaasheid in Amsterdam in 1720, and is one of numerous prints circulating at the time of the fame, then notoriety of the System. We can safely ignore many of these engravings. I have not yet tracked down the miniature[7] of John Law, in red coat and blue velvet waistcoat embroidered with gold. Another miniature by Coater at Knowsley listed by Ingamells is not of Law.[8] Ingamells lists too a painting attributed to Herman van der Mijn;[9] the label identifies the sitter and artist, but as the latter is given as Rigaud the name of the sitter should be treated with equal caution.

An oil by William Verelst[10] in an American museum shows a quite different face and cannot be right.

Possibly of more interest is the widely reproduced later (1843) painting by Casimir-Victor-Alexandre de Balthasar (MV 4372) which apparently (Ingamells) was copied from a portrait still in the sitter’s family in 1843, although the source he cites (Constans 1995) merely states that it was a copy of an anonymous painting (unlocated). Without the original it is difficult to assess how much licence was taken.

A greater loss is the Rigaud painting of c.1719–20 (James-Sarasin no. 1343), perhaps unfinished, and now known only from the engraving by Georg Friedrich Schmidt (1738).

Finally, a discovery which is omitted from all modern discussions but which is crucial for this essay, a print apparently made by Quenedey in Paris, commissioned for John Philip Wood’s biography of Law in The antient and modern state of the parish of Cramond, Edinburgh, 1794, reproduced (opposite page 163) with permission of the then owner, Jean Law de Lauriston (1719–1797), after “an original portrait of his uncle, reckoned an exact likeness, in his possession”:

A second engraving copying this was made by Edward Mitchell for Wood’s 1824 life of Law (presumably because Quenedey’s engraving would not last through another print run). Both are fairly wretched as works of art, but the function of portrait engravings is often documentary rather than aesthetic.

We can confirm Wood’s assertion that the pastel belonged to Law neveu as it appears in his estate inventory[11] conducted in Paris in 1802, several years after his death.

It is referred to in the usual formula (“pour mémoire”) applied to family portraits that were not valued. The wording implies that the pastel was in a gilt frame. What is also bizarre is that all three family portraits were kept together “dans un petit cabinet”, the only other item in which was an oak chest. This suggests that the financier was not regarded as a national hero during Napoleon’s reign, and had to be hidden away.

I’m not sure that much consistency emerges from these various images, apart (at least among the serious contenders) from a peculiarly aquiline nose, a cleft chin and a protruding lower lip. The shape and density (even if colour is not revealed) of the eyebrows (often a reliable feature in portraiture) are particularly variable. There certainly isn’t enough to identify Law from a portrait of an unknown sitter without documentation. But in the case of the new discovery below the exact match with the Quenedey engraving provides the assurance we need for a portrait that would otherwise have to be rejected as dissimilar to the Rigaud and Belle.

Law family tree

Incidentally, to follow this and the later discussion, you may want to have a short pedigree of the Law family: see here for a fuller version, but the key players are:

John Law of Lauriston (1671–1729), financier {Carriera} ∞ c.1701 Katherine Knollys (c.1669–1747) {Carriera}, dau. of the 3rd “Earl of Banbury”

⇒John Law (1706–1734), soldier in the Austrian dragoons {Carriera}

⇒Mary Katherine (1711–1790) {Carriera} ∞ her cousin, William Knollys, Viscount Wallingford (1694–1740sp), MP, son of the 4th “Earl of Banbury”

William Law (1675–1752), of the Compagnie des Indes ∞ 1716 Rebecca Dewes ( –1729)

⇒John Law de Lauriston (1719–1797), chevalier de Saint-Louis 1780, brigadier d’infanterie, commandant des troupes françaises dans l’Inde, gouverneur de Pondichéry 1764–77

⇒Jacques-François, chevalier de Law, comte de Tancarville (1724–1785)

Rosalba’s account

What then of the circumstances of the commission? All sources agree that Law was a very busy man in 1720, even more so than Rosalba’s other clients. But of course he was not just any other client. Rosalba Carriera was accompanied during her visit to Paris by her mother, two sisters, and brother-in-law, the painter Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini (1675–1741). And it was the latter who lost most from the encounter: Crozat, at whose invitation Rosalba’s visit had taken place, encouraged Pellegrini to undertake the decoration of the immense ceiling of the Hôtel de Nevers which was to be the assembly room for the banque du Mississippi – some 350 m2, more than half the size of Würzburg. Pellegrini’s allegorical fresco, commissioned for 10,000 ducats, was destroyed two years after its completion – perhaps as much because of French artists jealous of the Venetian’s success as of the creditors eager to erase all trace of the system.[12]

It is however worth picking out the entries in Rosalba’s journal that mention Law and his family. These from my translation (you can find my transcription of the Italian in my edition):

APRIL 1720

The portrait of … of Law’s son;[13]

JUNE 1720

11., Tuesday. Started the portrait of Law’s daughter.[14]

  1. I asked the little Miss Law to change a bill for me.


  1. I went to Versailles, and Mme Law sent me the frames.
  2. I was visited by the wife[15] of M. Law the younger….


  1. Went to M. Law and left the portraits there.

22., Sunday.[16] Went with Bononcini to M. Law.

23., Monday. … I started [the portrait] of Law.

  1. At a concert given by M. Crozat, I saw the Regent, Law, and others.


First November. A bad day. I saw M. Law at the Bank, and talked to him.

  1. At Mme Du Revest’s I retouched the portrait of M. Law’s son. At the moment he left his house, the gun of one of his guards went off by accident, and wounded a child in the thigh. A Frenchman, who knew me in Venice, came to the Bank to ask me for some miniatures.
  2. I arranged to … finish [the portrait] of M. Law.
  3. Went to lunch at Mme Law’s, and finished her husband’s portrait. Went to the Comédie, and refused to make copies of the portraits of this family.
  4. Devaluation of the coinage.


  1. Law’s daughter came, and I gave her her own portrait.
  2. Went to … and to Mme Law. Agreed to go to the Gobelins on the 12th.
  3. Saw Mlle Law, whose father was disgraced the same day.
  4. I went in vain to Mme Law, who had gone to the Opéra; whence I went to the Comédie with Mme Boit and my sisters.

15., Sunday. I went to Mme Law, whose husband had left the same day. She gave me 20 louis.

  1. … I returned the wig and cravat of M. Law.
  2. I wrote to M. Law’s daughter. I received twenty louis of 45 livres each.


  1. I got ten louis of 45 livres for the portrait of M. Law, which remain in the hands of my brother-in-law with 62 Spanish écus he holds on my account.

Several important things emerge from a close reading of these entries. First the relationship with the family was deeper than just that of portraitist; second that the sittings were few; third that they ended so abruptly that Rosalba had to borrow the wig and cravat to complete the work without the sitter. Indeed all this was happening as the System was crashing: Law was bankrupt, and had resigned in disgrace on 9 (not 11) December, proceeding a few days later to exile at his estate near Paris, Guermantes,[17] before leaving France for good. We don’t know if the payments she received were the full amount due (Rigaud had been paid in shares in the compagnie des Indes, but they were by then worthless), but she was astute enough to resolve in November “not to make copies of the portraits of this family” (“rifiutato di far duplicati li ritratti di detta famiglia”). It would seem then that the four Law portraits she made were unique. She might already have made replicas, and may even have kept sketches from which she subsequently worked up versions (and logically we cannot totally exclude the possibility that Law himself, who would die in Venice, sat to her again) – but we simply don’t know.


How then do we place the versions the Rosalba portrait?

The literature assumes that Walpole’s was the only version. But it is surely too big to be the portrait of “Mr John Law, from Life”, measuring a mere 24×19 cm, which Consul Joseph Smith, (inv. 1762, no. 19) sold to George III, but of which there is no later trace (where did Smith acquire it if not in Venice? But that could have been from artist or sitter). We don’t know if Smith’s description was accurate or if so how it fits into the narrative above.

Further, as we have seen, Walpole had his version by 1774, while the portrait Quenedey copied was with the nephew Jean Law from before 1794 and remained in Paris at least until his 1802 inventory. For the same reason, Walpole’s cannot be the portrait sold by the Law family at Christie’s in 1782. So despite his letter to Lord Buchan revealing that he knew Lady Wallingford (which must be tempered by his admission to Gough that he didn’t know her well), there is nothing to suggest that he acquired his pastel from the family. We should also perhaps interpret without today’s punctiliousness Walpole’s assertion that the picture was Rosalba’s finest: it is not entirely impossible that he would have thus referred to a copy he commissioned of a picture he thought her finest.

To understand the various routes in which Law’s pictures travelled after his death, turn to JoLynn Edwards’s 2001 study. Unfortunately, despite intensive research, the answers are far from clear. The pictures Law had with him at his death[18] were sent to Holland by boat but were damaged by water and had to be returned to Venice to be restored. It appears for example that the two groups of pictures sold as from Law at Christie’s in 1765 and 1782 (the latter including Rosalba pastels of Law and his son, the former, Lot 47, “a highly finished portrait of the celebrated Monsieur Laws, one of the best of the charming artist”, sold for 8½ gns to Wilde) may have been sold either by Law’s daughter Lady Wallingford, or perhaps on her behalf by George Middleton, a London banker, who had written to Law in 1728 explaining the difficulty of selling the pictures of mediocre quality Law had sent him.

1782 sale

We cannot exclude the possibility that the pastel purchased by “Wilde” was resold to the nephew, although this seems improbable. Lot 48, of the son, was purchased by Walton, a dealer who bought extensively from this and other sales at the time; but Wilde bought only Lot 47. His identity is uncertain; but the name next appears in London sale records as purchaser in 1799, when it is given as De Wilde – almost certainly the portraitist Samuel De Wilde (1751–1832).

Added complications arise from Law’s will, later replaced by a lifetime donation just before his death to his “wife”, Katherine Knollys, to whom he was never in fact married. His brother William was also overlooked as he was a Protestant, so the direct heirs of his estate were his two nephews Jean Law de Lauriston (1719–1797), noted above, and Jacques-François, chevalier de Law, comte de Tancarville (1724–1785).

A pastel which had belonged to the horticulturist Ellen Ann Willmott appeared on the London market about ten years ago (right: now J.21.06343 in the online Dictionary). It was shown to me as of an unknown sitter with an attribution to Lundberg; I thought it much closer to Rosalba in composition, but the technique was not hers (Dr Sani agreed).[19] And although the composition resembled the Sandby detail (and promisingly it had a modern frame), it was a little too small, and the eyes appeared to look in a different direction; we concluded that there was not enough to make the connection securely. This was of course before the discovery of the Quenedey print.

All of this was overturned when a private collector recently showed me an image of what is quite clearly a Rosalba pastel (now J.21.06325):

Of dimensions (60×45 cm) far closer to Rosalba’s normal size than Walpole’s niche, its French frame bears a later label “Rosalba/Pt de John Law” suggesting that it spent part of its life in France. Moreover the Willmott pastel is plainly copied from it. Further a comparison of both with the Quenedey engraving reveals one important difference: the left edge of the jabot where the lace bulges out allows see-through in the new pastel not present in the Willmott picture, but captured in the Quenedey print. For those reasons I concluded that this may well be the pastel Jean Law owned in 1794. This is endorsed by a provenance which shows that the pastel has remained among the descendants of Jean Law de Lauriston.


So what do we conclude having finally discovered this elusive image? Perhaps the most surprising thing is how restrained it is. Compare for example the fanciful Schenk portrait, which has been described in a recent article[20] as–

he stands in courtly dress in front of a well-manicured, formal French lawn. His dignified attire matches that of the orderly garden; his clothes are festooned with gold brocade while the garden is adorned with stately fountains, acanthian-scrolled parterres, and topiary trees. Both environment and man are contemporarily modish, consistent with the imagery of current fashion plates which showed courtiers, resplendent in silk and lace, posing in Le Nôtre-styled lawns &c.

Secondly, even by Rosalba’s standards, the tonality is subdued, in line with the costume. Law had no chivalric order – no Saint-Esprit, no Garter: and one wonders if he made a virtue of this by dressing in the plainest manner possible, as in later years Franklin did. Did he feel that such austerity would inspire confidence in his investors, perhaps by demonstrating that he had no need of ostentation to flaunt his wealth? Or was he simply too busy to involve himself in the selection of elaborate costume, perhaps fearing it would merely extend the length of the sittings?

Walpole’s pastel is still missing – almost certainly larger than the Willmott copy, but still presumably in saleable condition after being ripped from the walls of his gallery: but perhaps Sir John Brown found it had suffered more than he realised at the sale; it may be lost forever. That of course seems to have been the fate of the other three Rosalba portraits of Law’s family.

Finally the iconography can be greatly slimmed down. He was quite clearly blond and blue-eyed, not black as in the Gazette description. The Belle portrait remains credible, particularly if made six or seven years before the Rosalba; the engraving of the Rigaud has never been in doubt; and of the other prints, only the Quenedey is close to the real face of this fascinating character.


[1] You can even find it in an article by Trollope’s sister-in-law. We can rely on Arsène Houssaye to produce extravagant versions, such as his “Figures de la Régence”, Revue du xixe siècle, vii, 1.xii.1867, pp. 327ff, which begins promisingly: “A Venise, j’ai découvert un portrait de Jean Law, un pastel de cette Rosalba…” but fails to deliver. Remember that to search French sources, you need to know that his name was pronounced Lass (as in l’As), and Voltaire spells it thus.

[2] The W. S. Lewis edition of Walpole’s correspondence is now available online; the relevant letters are in volume 15, pp. 167, 180f, 192 and volume 42, pp. 386f.

[3] The price of 15 gns appears in the secondary literature, but 18 gns is clearly marked in the annotated sale catalogue; 15 gns is the price of the next lot (Rosalba’s portrait of Lord Hertford); the Liotard of Lord Holland reached on 4 ½ gns. But the Reynolds of Lord Waldegrave sold for 70 gns. Such were the tastes of the time.

[4] See, for example, Notes & queries, 2.iv.1864, p. 284f here.

[5] For the general reader; economists will want to consult the various writings of Antoin Murphy (e.g. this).

[6] The following entry (no. 399), for Boit’s enamel of the young Louis XV, suggests that Lundberg may have been the source when in fact the enamel copies Rosalba’s pastel (J.21.0697).

[7] On ivory, 7.5×5 cm (Phillips; 10 June 1865. Henry George Bohn, cat. 1884, no. 386; London, Christie’s, 19 March 1885).

[8] I am most grateful to Stephen Lloyd for providing me with an image; Ingamells evidently hadn’t seen one.

[9] Three-quarter length, standing, in a brown coat with a richly decorated blue silk waistcoat, right hand on hip; Woolton House sale, 6–7 October 1993, Lot 584.

[10] Albrecht Kemper Museum; sd 1727; sold Christie’s 16.xii.1966, Lot 291, ex Sir H. Steward but justly disregarded by Ingamells.

[11] MC/ET/LXVIII/699, conducted 5 July 1802.

[12] Pierre Rosenberg, De Raphaël à la Révolution, 2005, pp. 14, 121ff.

[13] John Law Jr (1706–1734), son of the celebrated financier John Law of Lauriston (1671–1729). He became a soldier in the Austrian dragoons.

[14] Mary Katherine Law (1711–1790), later Lady Wallingford. The suggestion that this is the girl with a monkey in the Louvre J.21.0575 is widely found in the literature, but without foundation (she was in fact the future marquise d’Havrincourt, née Antoinette-Barbonne-Thérèse Languet de Gergy (1717–1780)).

[15] Rebecca Dewes ( –1729), wife of John Law’s younger brother, William Law (1675–1752).

[16] The numbering follows Vianelli and Sensier. Sani follows the manuscript and has 23 September a Sunday, which it was not. All sources synchronise again on 1 October, a Tuesday.

[17] I don’t think this is what Proust meant by du côté de chez Guermantes.

[18] There were 488 pictures listed in the inventory (a transcription is in the Getty Provenance Index); only two pastels, both heads of saints by Guido Reni, were included.

[19] I should note that Silvia Davoli spotted in a later sale as resembling the Sandby image.

[20] Camille Mathieu, “An effortless empire: John Law and the Imagery of French Louisiana, 1683–1735,” Journal18, Issue 10, 1720, 2020,

An exhibition too far? Ask not what America will do for you…

Museums and galleries today face colossal problems of how to raise the funds to survive. The ticketed loan exhibition has for many years been seen as the panacea, but the pandemic has put an end to that, for the time being at least. It is perhaps worth remembering that these exhibitions have always been fraught with difficulties, and there is nothing new in the tension between conservation and revenue generation. As I have frequently discussed, the particular risks of transporting pastels to temporary exhibitions have been known for centuries and create real difficulties for those who look after them.

Nothing better illustrates this than the precious collection of La Tour pastels which the artist’s brother bequeathed to the École de dessin in Saint-Quentin. The history of their removal during two world wars is recounted in a number of sources, and you can also find a summary of their loans to temporary exhibitions in §v.1 of my Prolegomena. During the course of my work on La Tour I have been going through the minutes of the meetings of the committee of the Ecole de dessin where (among many other things) these loan requests are documented. I am most grateful to Hervé Cabezas (who has published several accounts of the migration of the collection cited in the Prolegomena) for helping me do so. Much of the numerous volumes of “délibérations” is rather dry and tedious (except for specialists), but occasionally a spot of drama emerges, and the episode below is an excellent example recorded in the language of the time. Minutes of today’s trustee meetings tend to be drafted with the Freedom of Information Act in mind, so all the interesting bits are omitted.

By way of context (this episode is set in 1927), the musée Antoine-Lécuyer had been destroyed during World War I, and funds were desperately needed to rebuild it – construction of the present building started the year after this episode, but this is how the building then looked:


However (one has to be careful how one puts this) the pastels the Germans had seized had remained safe, and been repatriated. They had been temporarily exhibited in the Louvre, and a number were lent to the great pastel exhibition in Paris in 1927. This gave (some of the committee) more confidence to consider the bigger adventure which is the subject of the minutes that follow. (Within a few years of the episode below the committee resolved never again to expose their pastels to the risks of transport. This position was maintained – “une règle infrangible qui n’est susceptible d’aucune exception” – despite pressure on one occasion even from Léon Blum, président du Conseil …but that is another story.)

The members of the committee were mostly local industrialists and benefactors. The president, Maurice Mathieu (1880–1968), was a civil servant who showed a great interest in the École during his term of office at Saint-Quentin.

Édouard_Vuillard,_David_David-Weill,_1925David David-Weill (1871–1952), the banker, major collector and philanthropist, was a donor to the Louvre and The Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as being founder of the Société des Amis du musée Antoine-Lécuyer at Saint-Quentin. He had spent the first 12 years of his life in the USA  (above is his portrait by Edouard Vuillard, 1925).


“M. Brecke” was Joseph Breck (1885–1933), an energetic curator of decorative arts at the Met who died too young (he was not in fact the museum’s director): above, photographed c.1917.

Jean Guiffrey (1870–1952), son of the art historian Jules Guiffrey, was conservateur at the département des peintures at the Louvre. He seems by the time of this episode (having already organised numerous loan exhibitions) to have forgotten what he wrote in 1908 in a review (in the Monatshefte für Kunstwissenschaft) of the previous great exhibition, of “Cent pastels” (to which Saint-Quentin did not send any – the lenders were almost all in Paris):

La fragilité extrême de ces délicates peintures, que le moindre heurt peut endommager, pouvait justement faire hésiter les possesseurs de ces chefs d’œuvre à les confier à des étrangers, si zélés et si soigneux qu’ils puissent être: il fallut toute la bonne grâce persuasive et l’ingénieuse charité d’une grande dame [the marquis de Ganay, who headed the organising committee in 1908], aidée d’un petit nombre d’amateurs très délicats, pour vaincre ces hésitations et réussir au mieux cette difficile entreprise.

Guiffrey’s confidence in the safety of the Compagnie générale transatlantique’s ships seems curiously narrow (dozens of major maritime losses occurred in peacetime from poor weather, collisions and other causes, involving ships of every flag). Between the dates of the two committee meetings, the Italian SS Principessa Mafalda sank (as a result of mechanical failure) with the loss of 314 people and a large cargo.

The texts below are complete, and I have retained the original spelling. In 1927 there were 25 francs to the US dollar, and 5 US dollars to the pound sterling; to adjust for inflation multiply by at least 50.

Read to the end.


Séance extraordinaire du 17 octobre 1927

Le Bureau d’Administration de l’Ecole De La Tour s’est réuni en séance extraordinaire le lundi 17 oct. 1927 à 14h¼  sous la présidence de M. Mathieu, Sous-Préfet.

Etaient présents : M.M. Braun, Dutilleul, Flinois, Greisch, Hachet, Mailliet, Petit, Tricoteaux, Trocmé.

Excusés : M.M. Honoré, Jourdain et Blondel.

M. le Président expose que, dans le but de procurer à la Société des Amis du Musée De La Tour et par conséquent à l’Ecole des ressources supplémentaires, il a songé à faire appel aux mécènes américains, mais qu’avant de mettre son projet à l’exécution il s’est inquiété auprès de personnalités compétentes de savoir si sa tentative aurait quelque chance de succès. Devant les réponses peu satisfaisantes qui lui ont été faites, il a dû chercher autre chose. Après échange de vues, M. David Weill lui a ménagé une entrevue avec M. Brecke, Directeur du « Metropolitan Museum de New-York, » de passage à Paris.

Au cours de la conversation, dit-il, en parlant des pastels de De La Tour M. Brecke me demanda pourquoi je ne chercherais pas un homme compétent, ami des Arts, qui se chargerait d’attirer l’attention du public sur le Musée de St. Quentin et son Ecole de dessin pat une réclame appropriée. Pourquoi, par exemple, ne pas envisager à New-York une exposition du genre de celle qui a été récemment faite à la Salle Charpentier ? Sa réussite amènerait des concours précieux et des ressources abondantes. Je lui exposai, ajoute M. le Sous-Préfet, les risques d’une semblable opération : la fragilité des pastels, leur détérioration possible par suite de mauvais emballage, la perte totale en cas de naufrage ou d’incendie, les risques de vol ou de substitution. En tout cas, ajoutai-je, je n’envisagerai rien dans ce sens, sans m’entourer des avis des membres du Conseil d’Administration de la Société des Amis De La Tour qui comprend les conservateurs des Musées Nationaux et des amateurs d’art, et sans l’assentiment des Membres du Bureau d’Administration de l’Ecole De La Tour.

Le Conseil d’Administration fut réuni la semaine dernière. Un certain nombre de membres émirent des doutes tant sur la possibilité de donner suite au projet que sur les résultats probables.

M. Guiffrey, Conservateur des peintures du Musée du Louvre, déclara tout d’abord ne pas être aussi pessimiste que ses collègues. Je ne crois pas, dit-il, au danger d’altération des pastels. Ils ont couru pendant la guerre, et même auparavant lorsqu’ils se trouvaient dans les cartons des élèves, bien d’autres risques. Ils ont depuis longtemps perdre leur fleur. Avec un double emballage spécial il ne peut rien leur arriver de fâcheur. En ce qui concerne les dangers de naufrage, il n’y en a pas eu à la Cie transatlantique depuis 50 ans. Ce serait bien le diable si le bateau transportant les pastels venait à couler. Reste la question de vol ou de substitution. Un mandataire spécial pourrait les accompagner et ne pas les perdre de vue. Rien à craindre de ce chef. J’estime donc, ajoutait M. Guiffrey, les risques réduits à leur plus simple expression. J’irai même plus loin : Pour ma part, je ne verrais aucun inconvénient à ce que l’exposition fût faite dans les principales villes des Etats-Unis : Chicago, Boston, etc…. C’est 2 millions de francs peut-être que vous en rapporteriez. »

A la suite de cette déclaration faite par un homme aussi qualifié que M. Guiffrey dont la compétence est indiscutable en cette matière, l’assemblée donna un avis favorable à l’exposition des pastels à New-York.

M. le Président déclare ensuite avoir examiné avec ces Messieurs, la question des ressources que pourrait procurer une exposition des pastels où le public serait admis moyennant un droit d’entrée. Les prix d’entrée dans les Musées, en Amérique, étant extrêmement réduits (25 cents habituellement), quel que soit le nombre des visiteurs, il ne faut pas compter sur des résultats bien brillants.

Mais une autre combinaison, plus avantageuse, est possible : procéder par souscription. Un comité d’amateurs d’art (tels que M.M. Rockfeller, Morgan, Blumenthal, etc.) que le Directeur du Metropolitan Museum constituerait, solliciterait les mécènes américains, et lorsqu’on saurait que c’est pour le Musée de St Quentin détruit pendant la guerre, les dons ne manqueraient pas d’affluer. A cet effet, M. Brecke croit pouvoir affirmer (il donnera une réponse définitive dans quelques jours, après son retour à New-York) que le Comité constitué garantirait une somme minimum de 25.000 dollars. Si on en déduit les frais d’emballage, de transport, d’assurances (pour une somme de 60.000.000) de déplacement et de séjour de la personne chargée de la surveillance des pastels, on arrive à 150.000 f. En mettant les choses au maximum, soit 225.000 f, le bénéfice à retirer serait d’environ 400.000f. Ce qui n’est pas à dédaigner quand on songe aux dépenses à envisager pour réinstaller définivement [sic] les pastels.

M. le Président ouvre la discussion et sollicite l’opinion du Bureau.

M. Greisch déclare ne pouvoir assumer la responsabilité d’une semblable opération, la somme payée pour les assurances en cas de perte (60.000.000f) si énorme soit-elle, ne pouvant compenser la perte irréparable que causerait, non seulement à l’Ecole, mais à la Nation, la disparition de ce trésor incomparable. Les précautions les plus minutieuses ne mettront pas à l’abri d’un tel danger. Il ajoute que le Bureau n’est que le dépositaire des pastels et qu’il n’a pas le droit de les exposer à un tel risque, si minime fût-il.

M. le Président réplique que les pastels courent les même dangers au Louvre, qu’ils en ont couru de semblables lors de leur transport à la Salle Charpentier et que personne n’a protesté. Il ajoute : Nous avons le droit, aux termes du testament du Chevalier De La Tour, de les vendre ; nous avons donc à fortiori le droit de les exposer.

M. Trocmé s’associe aux observations présentées par M. Greisch. Il lui apparait qu’il vaudrait mieux inciter les Américains à venir visiter les pastels chez nous que de les leur porter ; il ajoute qu’avant la guerre, le Bureau s’est toujours refusé à envoyer les pastels à Paris.

M. Braun fait remarquer qu’autres temps autres mœurs ; la guerre a modifié bien des choses, les pastels ont été à Maubeuge, à Paris ; il ne voit donc aucun inconvénient à ce qu’ils aillent à New-York, si les résultats en valent la peine et toutes garanties prises.

M. Hachet demande si on ne pourrait aliéner certains pastels pour se procurer les ressources dont on a besoin, le testament du Chevalier De La Tour envisageant la vente pour les besoins de l’Ecole.

M. le Président se déclare opposé à toute aliénation ; mieux vaut, dit-il, en acheter d’autres par la suite qu’en vendre un seul.

M. Trocmé propose d’élever le prix des entrées au Louvre et de le mettre à 20 francs.

M. le Président exprime la crainte que ce relèvement n’éloigne les visiteurs.

M. Petit accepte la proposition, dans l’espoir que cette exposition exciterait les riches Américains à ouvrir leur bourse et appellerait l’attention sur St Quentin. Ce serait une propagande française admirable et fructueuse à la fois.

M. le Président déclare que si le Comité ne garantit pas au minimum 25.000 dolars [sic] en banque, soit 625.000 francs au cours actuel du change, il serait d’avis de ne pas poursuivre cette idée, le jeu n’en valant pas la chandelle. Il revient sur la question des risques. Le seul, d’après lui, c’est le naufrage, risque qui n’est pas considérable, si l’on considère les précautions prises.

M. Dutilleul approuve, parce que la recette lui apparait comme certaine et intéressante.

M. le Président met sa proposition aux voix :

M. Greisch maintient son point de vue.

M.M. Trocmé et Hachet s’associent à ses conclusions.

M. Flinois, hésitant, finit par se rallier à la proposition de rejet.

M. le Président, M.M. Braun, Dutilleul, Mailliet, Petit and Tricoteaux sont d’avis d’accepter les offres faites, sous réserve que toutes les précautions nécessaires seront prises et que la somme de 25.000 dollars sera garantie.

La proposition est ainsi adoptée par 6 voix contre 4.

M. le Maire annonce la nomination de M. Guiffrey au grade d’officier de la Légion d’Honneur. Il propose au Bureau de lui adresser ses félicitations.

La motion est adoptée a l’unanimité.

M. le Président est chargé de faire le nécessaire.

La séance est levée à 16 heures.

Le Secrétaire,             Le Président

/s/                                /s/


Copie d’une lettre de protestation contre la séance du 17 oct :

St Quentin, le 19 octobre 1927

A Monsieur le Président

du Bureau de l’Ecole De La Tour.

Monsieur le Président,

Les Soussignés, Membres du Bureau de l’Ecole De La Tour, se voient, à leur grand regret, dans l’obligation de protester contre la décision prise dans la Séance du 17 octobre 1927.

Ils estiment en effet que le texte de la convocation ne permettrait nullement aux Administrateurs de se rendre compte de l’objet de la réunion et de son extraordinaire importance, tandis qu’il aurait dû au contraire les mettre à même de réfléchir à l’avance à la question qui leur serait posée et permettre à ceux qui ne pourraient assister à la Séance de formuler par écrit leur avis. Dans les conditions où elle a été préparée et prise, la décision du 17 Octobre 1927 leur apparaît comme irrégulière et frappée de nullité ; ils font toutes réserves à cet égard.

Ils ne veulent donc pas entrer pour le moment dans la discussion des détails de l’opération projetée. Mais ils doivent dès maintenant déclarer qu’en ce qui les concerne et sans que d’ailleurs leur opinion puisse être à aucun titre considérée comme un blâme à l’égard de ceux de leurs collègues qui ne pensent pas comme eux, ils estiment que le Bureau de l’Ecole, gardien des Pastels De La Tour dont aucun dédommagement pécuniaire ne pourrait compenser la détérioration ou la perte, ne saurait sans outrepasser ses droits et méconnaître ses devoirs, autoriser l’exportation au-delà des mers d’une partie du Trésor artistique dont il a la garde.

Ils vous demandent, Monsieur le Président, de vouloir bien faire insérer leur protestation à la suite du procès-verbal de la Séance du 17 octobre et vous prient de croire à l’assurance de leur considération la plus distinguée.

Signé : J. Blondet, René Jourdain, P. Barbare, Fréderic Hugues , Honoré


Réponse de M. le Sous-Préfet, Président.

Sous-Préfecture de St Quentin.    21 octobre 1929


J’ai l’honneur de vous accuser réception de votre lettre du 19 courant, par laquelle vous élevez une protestation contre la décision prise par le Conseil d’Administration de l’Ecole de dessin De La Tour, dans sa séance du 17 octobre courant.

Il ne m’est pas possible d’accepter que la réunion en question soit qualifiée d’irrégulière, et d’illégale la décision qui a été prise à la majorité des voix des membres présents.

En effet, les convocations pour « cette réunion indiquée comme « exceptionnelle » ont été adressées dans les délais normaux, et si l’ordre du jour ne portait que la mention « Communication de M. le Directeur du Metropolitan Museum de New-York », c’est qu’il n’est pas coutume de faire un long exposé écrit du sujet à traiter pour permettre aux membres du Conseil d’Administration de « réfléchir à l’avance à la question qui leur serait posée. »

Par ailleurs, l’importance de l’objet à l’ordre du jour paraissait suffisamment établie par la nécessité de convoquer « exceptionnellement » le Conseil d’Administration pour cet unique objet.

Je regrette donc vivement que, comme nos autres collègues, vous n’ayez pas cru devoir assister à la séance au cours de laquelle les avantages de l’opération ont fait, ainsi que les inconvénients qu’elle pouvait présenter, l’objet de longs débats.

Par ailleurs, en raison du parfait accord qui a toujours existé entre les membres du Conseil d’Administration et de la courtoisie qui n’a jamais cessé de régner dans les rapports de ses membres entre eux, il n’apparaît pas qu’il fût nécessaire d’invoquer l’irrégularité de la réunion et l’illégalité de la décision prise pour obtenir que l’affaire subît un nouvel examen. Aussi, ne vous dissimulerai-je pas qu’il m’eût été plus agréable de recevoir vos amicales critiques que votre lettre officielle de protestation.

Quoi qu’il en soit, celle-ci sera inscrite in-extenso, à la suite du procès-verbal de la séance du 17, ainsi que vous en manifestez le désir.

J’ajoute que, considérant comme possible que des protestations s’élevassent, je n’ai pris jusqu’à ce jour aucun engagement envers M. le Directeur du Metropolitan Museum. La question reste donc entière et sera discutée à nouveau à la prochaine réunion qui aura lieu vraisemblablement le jeudi 3 novembre et à laquelle je vous serais reconnaissant de vouloir bien cette fois assister.

Une convocation ultérieure sera adressée aux membres du Conseil d’Administration.

Veuillez agréer, Messieurs, l’expression de ma considération distinguée.

Le Sous-Préfet,

Président du Conseil d’Administration

de l’Ecole de dessin De La Tour,

Signé: M. Mathieu.

Séance du 3 novembre 1927

Le Bureau d’Administration de l’Ecole De La Tour s’est réuni au siège habituel de ses déliberations le jeudi 3 nov. 1927 à 14h½ sous la présidence de M. Maurice Mathieu, Sous-Préfet.

Etaient présents : M.M. Barbare, Blondet, Braun, Bucquet, Dutilleul, Flinois, Greisch, Hachet, Honoré, Hugues, Jourdain, Lhomme, Petit, Tricoteaux et Trocmé.

M. le Président donne la parole à M. Flinois, secrétaire perpétuel pour la lecture du procès-verbal de la séance extraordinaire du 17 octobre dernier qui est adopté sans observation.

M. le Président déclare ensuite qu’après la réunion du 17 octobre, une lettre de protestation déposée par M.M. Barbare, Blondet, Honoré, Hugues et Jourdain lui est parvenue concernant ladite réunion. Il en donne lecture ainsi que de la réponse qu’il y a faite et demande que toutes deux soient transcrites au registre des délibérations à la suite du procès-verbal de la séance du 17 oct. Il en est ainsi décidé. M. le Président ajoute que le Bureau étant au complet, il lui serait agréable d’avoir son opinion pour le cas où une exposition des pastels dans une autre ville serait à envisager.

Il fait observer que le testament du Chevalier De La Tour autorise le Bureau à vendre les pastels sous certaines conditions, que pour les vendre, il faut les exposer et par conséquent les faire sortir. Il ajoute que cependant le testament contient une restriction en ce qui concerne le prêt des tableaux en ville qu’il ne permet pas. Ceci posé, il ajoute : « Il résulte de cela que le Bureau a incontestablement le droit d’expatrier momentariément les pastels si l’intérêt de l’Ecole est en jeu. Mais a-t-il le droit de les exposer aux risques inhérents à un voyage au-dela des mers ? Le récent naufrage du Mafalda m’embarrasse beaucoup pour répondre. D’autre part, 25.000 dollars, si tentants soient-ils, sont-ils suffisants pour justifier un tel risque ? Nous avons tous le même désir : conserver le trésor dont nous avons la garde et aussi faire entrer dans la Caisse de la Société les sommes dont elle a tant besoin pour achever son œuvre de reconstitution. Comment concilier tout cela ? Je pourrais m’en tenir aux décisions récemment prises et passer outre à la protestation ; le quorum était atteint puisque, par 6 voix contre 4, l’envoi des pastels à New-York avait été décidé ; mais je préfère reprendre la question pour ne pas être accusé de l’avoir tranchée à la légère.

Avons-nous le droit moral de courir le risque ? Je ne vous cacherai pas qu’à la rénuion du Conseil d’Administration de la Societé des Amis du Musée De La Tour, qui a eu lieu au Louvre, sur 15 membres, 10 au moins étaient tout d’abord opposants à l’exposition à New-York. Ce n’est qu’après avoir entendu M. Guiffrey, qu’il a changé d’avis. J’ai voulu prendre d’autres conseils, celui de M. de Camondo entr’autres qui nous a déclaré que 25.000 dollars, c’était insuffisant, qu’il en faudrait au moins 100.000 !

Quoi qu’il en soit, la question qui se posait il y a 15 jours ne se pose plus aujourd’jui, car j’ai reçu de New-York une communication m’informant qu’il est impossible de former un comité qui puisse garantir la somme convenue.

En conséquence, je considère l’incident comme clos. Mais si le Conseil d’Administration veut profiter de ce qu’il est au complet pour examiner la question, je suis prêt à ouvrir la discussion.


Frago Fragen: fraglos or farrago?

[See 29 July 2020 and 6 January 2021 postscripts at end of this piece.]

Vincent Noce’s article in today’s Gazette Drouot concerns the vexed question of a group of drawings which relate to a multivolume Histoire de la maison de Bourbon published (the relevant volumes, 2 and 3, in 1776 and 1782) by the prince de Condé’s librarian, Joseph-Louis Ripault-Desormeaux, recently acquired by the Louvre, 14 of which are attributed to Fragonard. I’m going to assume that you have read his article as well as the scholarly analysis published in the Revue de l’art last October by Marie-Anne Dupuy-Vachey. You can also consult the entries in the Dictionary of pastellists for Fragonard and for Lemonnier (not that they will tell you much: I’ve listed them in short form, without J numbers or attribution status codes). Here is a link to the Louvre press release. And it may be handy to have a link to the engravings as published, here. But if you want to know what the row is about, here is an accepted pastel by Fragonard (private collection):

Fragonard Enfant

And here is one of the drawings attributed to Fragonard in the Louvre’s acquisition:


Can they really be by the same hand?

Spoiler alert: I don’t know. As you can see from the Dictionary entries, I haven’t reached a view. That is because I have been unable to examine them in person, and because all but two of the photographs supplied by the Louvre are completely inadequate for any reliable assessment to be made; those in the Revue de l’art are also of low resolution.

What is clear is that the gap between the accepted Fragonard (which may not be to everyone’s taste, but that is another matter entirely) and some at least of these drawings is big enough for there to need to be a compelling and consistent narrative to explain their creation. Xavier Salmon, quoted in Noce’s article, promises an “exposition dossier” next year: if it is to succeed it must I think provide coherent answers to the questions that arise.

One group or two?

The first question is whether the four sheets attributed to Lemonnier have the same full provenance as the 14 “Fragonards”. If so, why did Dupuy-Vachey not mention them – or was she not shown them? If they are in identical “chemises”, taken from the same album, executed on the same paper and in the same technique, doesn’t that point to their being by the same hand? And since the “Lemonniers” relate to prints expressly after Lemonnier that would be awkward for the attribution of the other 14. So the 14-Fragonard theory requires a material difference between these 4. As Noce’s article makes clear, opinion is divided as to the degree of stylistic homogeneity within the 14. Note also that only five of these are “anchored” to prints “after” Fragonard.

I assume Salmon’s reference to the acquisition of “dix-neuf feuilles” in his written response to Noce’s question is a simple mistake. Only 18 are disclosed in the press release.

Material: pastel or chalk?

This might seem a technical question of limited interest, but grisaille pastel is an unusual medium in France at the time: for different artists to adopt it must be improbable, so this goes again to the question of independently created original works by different artists or a homogeneous set of riccordi made by a single hand. One should note that while it is common for engravers to make chalk drawings from paintings from which to prepare their plates for engraving, the chalk used is usually harder (pierre noire or sanguine) so as to provide the necessary precision.

It’s probably worth spelling out the technical distinction here (see my Prolegomena, §iv.4.1.1), particularly since it is virtually impossible to tell with the naked eye whether you have black pastel (ground pigment such as ivory black – pure carbon, filler and binder); a naturally occurring mineral; or an artificially reconstituted soft black chalk (usually containing schist): all three can be soft, friable and leave deposits on touching paper. Spectroscopy can determine the make-up, and crucially the homogeneity of the material used in the 18 sheets.

The analysis of the paper which Salmon refers to will also be relevant, particularly as one sheet apparently bears a 1776 watermark. As one of the engravings (that by Gaucher) is actually dated 1774, if the drawing for that is on the same paper, it cannot be preparatory, even though engraving and drawing are reversed – so why should it be assumed the others are? (The watermark also undermines Dupuy-Vachey’s chronology of 1768–70 for all 14 drawings. In any case even by 1768 Fragonard was a 36-year-old history painter, so any awkwardness in some of the drawings cannot be explained by youth.)


The fundamental problem I have had since the publication last year is that the 14 drawings looked from the reproductions dry, boring and of limited quality. In contrast the only one for which an oil version is known, the comte d’Enghien in Grasse (collection Costa), is so obviously “right”:

Fragonard Francois de Bourbon duc dEnghien hst

So how does one explain the relationship? The press release argues firmly that the oil was not used for the engraving: “cette œuvre peinte offre des variantes avec la gravure…et ne peut donc en être le modèle. Le dessin ne présent en revanche aucune variante.” That seems a strange claim, even allowing for the poor reproduction which may conceal the presence of some details in the drawing, but for example the number of pearls in the hat-band is the same in the oil and print (which I’ve reversed for the purposes of this comparison of details: left to right, drawing/oil/print), and different in the drawing:

Francois de Bourbon 3 versions tete

This analysis however doesn’t solve the problem, as it excluded a simple narrative in which the “pastels” were intermediate engraver’s drawings from Fragonard oil originals.


I should perhaps clarify the slightly cryptic statement in Noce’s article about the provenance. As will be clear the 18 sheets do not cover even all the images published by Desormeaux: the frontispiece by Boucher is missing, as are the drawings related to the engravings after Vincent. So when Dupuy-Vachey suggested (p. 72, n.47: tentatively, while the Louvre seems to have adopted without question) that the 14 sheets corresponded with (“rapprocher”) Lot 4 of the Anisson-Duperron sale in 1795 (“Neuf portraits d’hommes & femmes, dessinés aux crayons noir & blanc, par Fragonard & Vincent”), I wasn’t completely convinced by the arithmetic (although Lot 2, which included “64 dessins à plume, lavés à l’encre et au bistre, par Fragonard et Vincent” might – who knows – have provided some of the missing originals in a medium more often used by Fragonard). Just after Dupuy-Vachey’s article was published, I decided to look harder, and I discovered (in December) what is now accepted by Dupuy-Vachey and the Louvre as a critical additional provenance: the album with all 14 sheets, possibly the four Lemonniers as well, and several more, were in the Lamy sale in 1808, as Lot 5225: 25 drawings by Boucher and Fragonard, of which 21 by Fragonard. Even if all the Lemonniers were misattributed to Fragonard, there are still some missing; Boucher is thought just to have produced the frontispiece early in the series. (Lot 5224 does not seem to match Lot 2 in the 1795 sale.) By the time of the Bignon sale in 1848, only 19 Fragonards remained (given erroneously to his son).

My view is that the Lamy sale is an alternative, not an additional, provenance to Anisson-Duperron, and that it is most likely that Lamy acquired the drawings directly from the draughtsman or -men, increasing the likelihood that these were riccordi for a personal collection.

Pierre-Michel Lamy (1752-p.1829), libraire, 21 quai des Augustins, was active as a publisher of genealogical works such as La Chesnaye des Bois. He took over the Prault publishing business based at that address, and it is perhaps more than a coincidence that living in that building was also the artist Jean-Marie Ribou, until his rather hasty marriage in October 1777 (just a few weeks before his daughter was born: his wealthy wife “non commune en biens” subsequently lived apart). Although Ribou was the son of an actor, his grandfather, uncles etc. were all Parisian booksellers. Ribou you will recall is responsible for the Chantilly series of small oil portraits of the members of the house of Bourbon (some using the same images as the present group) which were long assumed also to be by Fragonard until documentation identified the virtually unknown peintre du prince de Condé, notably a letter from Desormeaux to d’Angiviller (quoted, with the detailed background, in the 1958 Seligman article). This explains the prince de Condé’s project and his selection of Ribou. As it happens, his version of the comte d’Enghien follows the drawing, not the oil or print, at least for the pearls in the hat-band.


Of course I’m not proposing Ribou as the artist of the Louvre sheets (I know no example of a pastel by him, and the oils seem too “flou” to support the attribution); nevertheless the proximity of the circumstances suggests that a deeper look into this than a mere footnote may be worthwhile.

Stylistic analysis

As I’ve said above I cannot reach a firm view about this series without at the least seeing far better images of 12 of the “Fragonards” and all four “Lemonniers”. What I can say is that the images of the comte d’Enghien and Louis Ier, prince de Conde sufficed to show that the drawings were of far higher quality than the small reproductions had suggested: there was more freedom and vigour in the use of the chalk and bold highlights which may after all be “right”.

There were also some idiosyncracies which I think may provide clues as to attribution, particularly if the Louvre exhibition can show us similar examples. Among these I would note the treatment of the mouths: not only are the outer forms of the lips compressed into a bizarre zig-zag shape, but even the horizontal line of the lips joining shows the same distortion, a feature which I think is extremely uncommon. Does it appear in any other Fragonard portraits? Is it present in the Lemonniers (I can’t see from the minute thumbnails, but it may be). Perhaps this is no more than an idea Fragonard may have developed of a genetic Bourbon malformation.

There also seem to be oddities in the placement of the catchlights in the eyes, contradicting the apparent sources of light. As to why some of the drawings are really very dull, perhaps this is down to the lack of interest Fragonard might have had in the project. Unlike his brilliant fantasy figures in oil, here he had to please a prince with delusions of historical accuracy and a dry librarian.

Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Perhaps, even if all 14 sheets are pastels by Fragonard, they are just not right for the Louvre. Perhaps the test should be to imagine how they would fare had they been included in Xavier Salmon’s 2018 exhibition of the Louvre’s pastels, drawn from the greatest collection in the world – but from which Fragonard was absent. Where would they have ranked? Is it the place art history now generally assigns to him, or not really what he deserves?

As the artist’s grandson put it, Gens, honorez Fragonard!

Postscript (29 July 2020)

I am pleased to say that a series of high resolution images have just been made available on the website of Jean-Luc Baroni & Marty de Cambiaire, from this page. They are accompanied by an excellent write-up by Laurie Marty de Cambiaire, here, which answers some (if not all) of the questions raised above. It is now clear that the four Lemonnier sheets are by a different hand, and essentially irrelevant to the attribution of the 14 sheets given to Fragonard. This latter group does indeed demonstrate a very wide range of achievement, both among those which were engraved and those not (several – e.g. saint Louis; Blanche – are so feeble and so unlike the known Fragonard œuvre that it is difficult to accept them). Nevertheless all appear to be by one hand. Some (e.g. Beaujeu; Bayard) of them demonstrate a bold and free handling of which no one but Fragonard could be suspected. To take just one passage, who but Fragonard could have depicted the flesh of old age as, in Shakespearean terms, melted, thawed and resolved:


If the technique itself has no direct parallels in Fragonard’s work, isn’t Beaujeu sufficiently close to what he might be expected to have done that, together with the inescapable logic of the letters on the engravings, the attribution should  be accepted, and I think applied to the whole group?

This is Frago en Protée.

Postscript (6 January 2021)

A different view is taken by Jean-Pierre Cuzin (“De Fragonard à Vincent, une postface”, Revue de l’art, 209, 2020/3), who argues that five of the drawings (those specifically linked to engravings after Fragonard) are non-autograph copies after Fragonard, and the remaining drawings Dupuy-Vachey attributed to him are by François-André Vincent. This of course is a different attack than the argument that others have voiced, that the drawings are simply not very good; Cuzin is a powerful advocate for Vincent’s talents.

However the medium is at least as unexpected in Vincent as it is in Fragonard, and an argument that depends on Vincent’s style as it most closely approaches Fragonard’s (and appears only in oils and wash drawings by Vincent) is unlikely to convince sceptics. This approach it seems to me is particularly tricky as the division Cuzin makes into 5 weak copies after Fragonard projects (of which the Grasse oil is the only autograph version to have survived) and 9 ones worthy of Vincent’s hand lumps into the latter group two of the weakest drawings in the group, the hopelessly inept figs. 9 and 10a in Dupuy-Vachey’s numbers. To me they are far weaker than any in the 5 Fragonard “copies”. (The condition of those five may have suffered in being used for engraving.)

Of course such judgements are subjective. Cuzin (who avoids directly addressing contributions to the debate since Dupuy-Vachey’s article) raises the question of the 1774/1776 discrepancy (as have I), taking the view that the drawings must have been made simultaneously because of their uniformity of style – so that the one relating to a 1774 engraving must postdate it. But I don’t see this as conclusive; people can draw in the same style 2 years later.

The invocation of lot 4 in the 1795 sale (as evidence that these drawings were then thought to be by Vincent and Fragonard) is also inconclusive, since (as I argued) the Lamy record which I discovered (and is now generally accepted as the provenance of the Louvre drawings) probably doesn’t match lot 4, not least because there were only 9 portraits in that lot.

There remain however further awkward points.

Cuzin doesn’t really explain why all 14 drawings are using the same type of pastel (or artificial crayon, if it is that: Cuzin repeats my doubts but doesn’t say what the discussion is about, i.e. the rareness of this material and the improbability of different draughtsmen adopting it). He doesn’t explain why there is no other example of Vincent, a prolific draughtsman, using this type of medium. Fragonard used pastel quite often, just not grisaille.

The Costa oil is the only possible model copied in fig. 20, and indeed it is better than the pastel. But that was arguably because Fragonard was more inspired by the freedom of oil. The visual analysis certainly doesn’t prove that the pastel was a stepping stone to the engraving, so why were the others made?

We can I think agree, after an extensive examination of all the drawings and prints, that logic alone won’t solve this problem.

Ultimately it comes down to subjective connoisseurship. All Cuzin’s parallels are in oil, and I don’t find them conclusive. There’s no example I know where he uses chalk to achieve fluidity. On the contrary, the reason I changed my mind about this group was when I saw a good photo of Beaujeu, fig. 15, and realised how close the treatment was to Fragonard’s pastel of Sophie (see comparison above).

La Tour’s abbé Deschamps

La Tour Deschamps Louvre RF29765

Catalogues raisonnés are in effect narratives, telling a story of how a work of art was created, more or less convincingly. They may on occasion offer alternative endings, but for the most part the convention requires the narrative to proceed in a simple historical progression (at least for each work: I have written before about whether the collection of such narratives for each picture may, in the case of a portraitist, not be more conveniently ordered differently, since no one expects readers to read the whole book at once). The result then offers the solution to a puzzle which is often more compellingly told as the historical events were unearthed in the present day rather than as they unfolded at the time. So without more apology let me give you an alternative account of the catalogue entry you will find for the fine portrait by La Tour now in the Louvre (above; J.46.162 in the numbering system used in my catalogue) of the abbé Claude-Charles Deschamps (?1699–1779), bachelier de Sorbonne, prêtre, chanoine et regnaire de l’église cathédrale de Laon.

La Tour Deschamps David Weill BW97 f80You’ll find virtually nothing about him in the La Tour literature published before 1922/23, when suddenly an unknown “pastel par Maurice Quentin de La Tour” (left; J.46.1622) appeared. The only prior mention is in La Tour’s 1768 will (published by Maurice Tourneux in 1904) of “mon cousin Deschamps, chanoine à Laon”. There is no mention of Deschamps, for example, in any contemporary or subsequent biography of La Tour. By 1923, La Tour had become one of the great names in the saleroom, the dramatic prices achieved at the Doucet sale in 1912 having rehabilitated him to the top table. Even immediately after the war his value was huge: Wildenstein sold the président de Rieux in 1919 for 1.2 million francs (perhaps £3 million in today’s money, although the purchaser became bankrupt before payment was made).

The sale itself (Paris, Drouot, Baudoin, 16 March 1923, Lot 86 bis) was a little unusual: it was a single lot with its own catalogue (copies are very scarce, and not available online at the time of writing, but I’ve obtained a photocopy), presented by Baudoin and Martini, at the end of another sale.[1] The vendor (of this lot alone) was disclosed as “Mme veuve R…, de Douai”, and the catalogue contained some interesting details. The work was presented as “Portrait de Monseigneur Claude-Charles DESCHAMPS, Chanoine de Laon, cousin germain de M. Q. de La Tour”: we discuss the wording further below, but it derives from a handwritten label on the back, which read “Mr Deschamps, chanoine de Laon, cousin germain de Mr Delatour, le Peintre” and which has subsequently been lost.[2] The catalogue then offered some biographical details, provided by Lucien Broche, conservateur des Archives du département de l’Aisne:

Messire Claude-Charles Deschamps testa le 20 août 1779 et mourut peu après dans sa maison claustrale de l’ancienne rue des Prêtres, à Laon rue Sainte-Geneviève, … Le mobilier du défunt fut vendu, du 27 au 31 janvier et du 1er au 7 février, par le Greffier en chef du Chapitre de la cathédrale.

The reproduction in the catalogue is unusual in revealing that this loose sheet had been mounted in the manner of a drawing rather than a pastel, in a style that looks as though it had recently been done:

Pages from Mme R Douai Par16.iii.1923

The 1923 catalogue also mentions that the pastel had been shown in the Louvre from August to October the previous year, included in the exhibition of La Tour pastels from Saint-Quentin repatriated from Maubeuge where they had been taken by the Germans and awaiting the reopening of the musée Antoine-Lécuyer.[3] Uncatalogued, the exhibition included only two other La Tour pastels not from Saint-Quentin: two masterpieces belonging to the Galerie Cailleux, then also on the art market.

The pastel, estimated at 12,000 francs, sold for 13,500 to the dealer Jules Féral, and soon after was acquired by the legendary collector and philanthropist David David-Weill. (At his sale in 1959, it was bought for a mere £900 by Harry G. Sperling, president of the New York dealers F. Kleinberger & Co. Five years later it was bought by Dorothy Braude Edinburg, a collector of prints, drawings and ceramics. The daughter of Harry and Bessie Braude and wife of Joseph Edinburg, an executive at the hardware firm in Boston of which her father had been president, she donated more than 1500 works to The Art Institute of Chicago, including this, in 1998.)

By 1926 the palaeographer and archivist Charles Samaran (presumably following a request to research Deschamps, perhaps from David-Weill – that isn’t clear) made some enquiries of Lucien Broche (unpublished correspondence, bibliothèque de l’Institut de France), but Broche, after checking with Charles Sorin, the archivist at Laon, was unable to locate Deschamps’s will or the other Deschamps documents from the bailliage de Vermandois which had been lost during the German occupation. (We shall see below why this doesn’t greatly matter.)

Despite sending a dozen works from his own collection to the famous 1927 exhibition of Pastels français du XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (of the organising committee of which he was chairman), David-Weill did not lend this pastel. Instead a second version (the one now in the Louvre) had mysteriously appeared. It belonged to the artist (and son of a piano maker), Bernard Wolff (1860–1949), whose sister later bequeathed it to the Louvre. According to information provided by Élie Fleury to the authors of the 1927 catalogue, this pastel had been found at a “château du Boulonnais” by “un commissaire-priseur de Douai”; the date on which Wolff had acquired it was not given, but the pastel seems never to have passed through public sale.

Paul Jamot published both versions in a review of the exhibition in the Bulletin de l’art ancien et moderne in 1927:

Pages from Jamot 1927 La_Revue_de_l'art_ancien

By then the David-Weill version had been reframed, more convincingly. Jamot struggled to explain the relationship between the two portraits: it was clear that they were the same image, and that the smaller sheet couldn’t really be regarded as a préparation for the Wolff pastel. Although La Tour often made different versions using varied techniques, these usually followed the trajectory from préparation to finished work. Jamot, comparing the two versions with the other La Tours in the exhibition, saw the Louvre version as the outlier, failing to note how much later it was in the artist’s œuvre. Modern photographs of the detail of the face make the differences even clearer:

La Tour Deschamps comparison

The evident difference in handling Jamot suggested might be explained by wear in the David-Weill version: but this isn’t particularly evident (although of course extensive later restoration might be an explanation). Suzanne Folds McCullough, as recently as 2006, sought instead to resolve the puzzle by dating the Chicago sheet to 1779 – ignoring the fact that if anything, the abbé looks younger in that version, and the 1768 of the Louvre version is practically at the end of La Tour’s activity. The particular difficulty is that there is no coherent narrative in which La Tour would do two such different, finished portraits at the same time: and yet the fall of light, shadows etc. show these to be versions of a single image.

But the real point was that while the Louvre pastel is a work of extraordinary boldness and virtuosity, the David-Weill sheet is relatively lifeless and passive. In my view this is because it may be a copy; it attracted attention in 1923 because the original was unknown (and because La Tour is such a formidable artist that a good copy of his work, made by someone evidently familiar with his earlier technique, can fetch a powerful punch, even if it is knocked out by confrontation with the original), and, once accepted and acquired by an illustrious collector, no one had (or has had until now) the courage to draw the obvious conclusion.

Ultimately this is a question of connoisseurship.[4] Many will not accept my personal opinion, which dissents from the views of other writers (up to and including the 2018 Louvre pastel catalogue, where the Chicago sheet was reproduced as by La Tour without qualification). And I can see that there are arguments in its favour – the strongest being that it is not an accurate copy of the Louvre pastel. But I wonder whether the Chicago version would have had unanimous support had it emerged after the Louvre version was known. Readers of this blog are of course invited to offer their own views which I will receive with interest.

There are two objective facts that may help my view gain wider acceptance.

Firstly, no one seems to have noticed the extraordinary coincidence of the two versions both passing through Douai, when there is no obvious connection between the sitter and his family and that town during the sitter’s lifetime or immediately following period. Had the two versions always been together in the same family, I think we would have been told. But the Louvre sheet came from a chateau in Le Boulonnais, quite far away from Douai where the commissaire priseur who handled it lived, and where the Chicago sheet originated with the untraceable “Mme veuve R…, de Douai”.

The second point is that the inscription on the David-Weill version (which was said to be in a contemporary hand) identifies the sitter as La Tour’s “cousin germain” (first cousin). This has subsequently infiltrated the literature, and is repeated in all sources including Salmon’s 2018 Louvre catalogue. But it isn’t true. As I demonstrated in 2016, Deschamps was in fact La Tour’s second cousin: he was the son of Denis Deschamps, maître écrivain à Laon, and Anne-Françoise Caton. The connection to La Tour was through Caton’s mother, Marguerite Garbe, whose sister Marie married the pastellist’s grandfather Jean de La Tour in 1669 (you can enlarge images on this blog by clicking on them):


La Tour himself described him only as “mon cousin”, in the 1768 will, a term he uses in the broad sense. So the writer of that inscription made a guess that at the very least puts him at some remove from the immediate family. The suspicion arises (which, now it has vanished, may be unverifiable) that the inscription is a much later addition (reinforced by the phrase “Delatour, le Peintre”).

And so even the question of the date of the Chicago sheet seems to me open. It may be that scientific studies of the paper and materials might yield an answer, although (even if my suspicions are well founded) a copy of this quality is likely to have been made with carefully chosen media. (Pigment analysis in pastels is much less advanced than in oil painting, and most materials used in the early twentieth century were also in use in the eighteenth.)

Turning now to the beautiful work in the Louvre (at the top of this post), there is no question about its authenticity (pace Jamot). It has been the subject of conservation in 2004 and 2013 (by Valérie Luquet, Marianne Bervas and Sophie Chavanne) and a detailed technical report was compiled in 2014 by Pascal Labreuche, noting among many other things the relatively modest materials used, and even the small droplets of fixative which are still evident on the surface.

As I have discussed in previous blogs and in my catalogue entry, the discussion in the Louvre 2018 exhibition catalogue where it was most recently shown failed to take note of my 2016 genealogy (or of the other new points in this post). It also offered no provenance for the Louvre pastel before the acquisition by the commissaire priseur de Douai as reported by Fleury beyond the assertion that it had been the “propriété du modèle”. That was presumably inferred from the inscription on the back, to which we return below, but it may well be that the search for provenance (to resolve the claims of the two versions) was what motivated the 1926 enquiries by Charles Samaran mentioned above.

It is also worth noting that La Tour preserved his contacts with members of his extended family throughout his life. When the artist’s much-loved brother Charles died (3 July 1766), La Tour was out of the country (in Holland), and Deschamps signed the burial entry at Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois. He was, as noted above, mentioned in the artist’s 1768 will, the same year in which the portrait was executed.

Also mentioned in La Tour’s 1768 will was Deschamps’s sister Marie-Jeanne, Mme Mauclerc, and (like the abbé’s will which Samaran sought without success), her inventaire is actually at the Minutier central in Paris.[5] Mme Mauclerc died in her brother’s house, rue des Prêtres (now Saint-Geneviève), Laon on 22 September 1774 (attended by the abbé, but not by her husband). I have transcribed the inventaire in my chronological table of documents, at 10 January 1775, and it reveals among other family portraits in oil, “un autre petit tableau de forme quarré peint en pastel sous verre le quel représente led. S. abbé deschamps” – surely the Louvre pastel which she had evidently been given during her brother’s lifetime:

Mauclerc inv

Her effects were divided among her siblings. (Here is a link to the Deschamps genealogy.) Deschamps himself died in the same house in Laon, 18 December 1779. In his own will (which I did manage to locate, in the Minutier central in Paris, with certified copies of other documents from Laon), he left everything to his niece Charlotte, Mme Dorison (another La Tour sitter, J.46.1631).

Returning to the rather faded inscription on the back of the Louvre pastel, there are several more puzzles to be solved:

La Tour Deschamps Louvre RF29765 v3

which we transcribe as:

Claudius Carolus Deschamps Presbyter/Sacræ facultatis parisiensis baccalarius theologus/ecclesiæ laudanensis canonicus <mot rayé ou illisible> regnarius/anno ætatis 69/1768/DD Quentin de La Tour, regius pictor academicus, fecit

Whose writing is it? What does it say (in particular what is his age)? What has been erased and why? These difficulties are compounded by the fact that writing with a quill pen on untreated wood with prominent ring patterns is quite tricky: ink runs, and the pen is redirected by the unevennesses. The writing is certainly not La Tour’s own hand. But we do have a number of samples of the abbé’s own writing, as he was curate at Saint-Médard, Agnicourt from 1729 to 1744, and the entries in the parish register are in his hand. I think the fit is good enough to say that the inscription is his with reasonable confidence.

What does it mean? DD is easy enough, Dono Dedit (gave as a present) etc. “Ecclesiae lauanensis canonicus”: chanoine de l’église de Laon. But “regnarius” is a sufficiently unusual term that Jean-François Méjanès transcribed it as “regularis”. In fact “regnarius”, or in French “regnaire” or “renaire” (you won’t find either word in the Dictionnaire de l’Académie francaise), is a specific dignitary at the chapter at Laon, a kind of master of ceremonies (before whom a sort of sceptre was carried in solemn processions), and we know from various documents that Deschamps was Regnarius at Laon by 1774.[6] What I have been unable to establish is precisely when he was elevated to this rank, or whether prior to this he was the “sous regnaire”. There is thus a simple explanation that the erasure is of the word “sous” and occurred on his promotion to the higher position.

Trickier is the question of the dates. 1768 is I think unambiguous, but I’m not so sure that the age preceding this is definitely 69. Nevertheless the entire literature has inferred that the abbé was born in 1699 (simply by subtracting 69 from 1768). The phrase “anno ætatis” is much abused in portraiture, by artists and art historians alike who forget it means “in the [69th] year of his age”, i.e. he was 68 at the time, and so logically (depending on what day in 1768 the portrait was made) could have been born anywhere between 2 January 1699 and 31 December 1700. But is that final digit 9 at all? As you can see from some examples in the abbé’s hand from the Agnicourt parish register, it’s not impossible that he wrote 5, consistent with a birth in 1703/04 (left to right: Louvre inscription; 1735; 29e).

Deschamps digits 69 1735 29

The reason the question has attracted my attention is that his parents, Denis Deschamps and Anne-François Caton, were married in Laon on 19 February 1703:

DeschampsD Marg Caton LaonSRPlace19ii1703

There is no indication that his father had been married before 1703 (although registers are missing for Vailly-sur-Aisne where the Deschamps family originated), and numerous documents explicitly describe Claude-Charles as the “frère germain” of the daughters of Denis and Anne-François Caton (including Noëlle, Mme Augustin Masse and Marie-Jeanne, Mme Pierre-Marie Mauclerc, mother of Mme Dorison); he is also described as a cousin germain in the registre de tutelles for Henry-Pierre Messager, son of Anne-Françoise Caton’s sister. The division of property recited in the inventaire of his sister Mme Mauclerc (1775) makes it quite clear that the abbé was her full brother, while Mme Berthelot (a half-sister by a later mariage of Denis Deschamps) is distinguished as a “sœur consanguine”.

Thus, if the inscription on the Louvre pastel is correctly “ætatis 69”, the abbé was born illegitimately to Denis and Anne-Françoise before their marriage (when Denis remarried in 1739, another child was born less than two months later; but four years before marriage is improbable, particularly since Denis Deschamps and Anne-Françoise lived in different towns before their marriage). If incorrect, his birth was unrecorded (improbable: the record of Anne-Françoise’s annual births at Saint-Cyr, Laon is continuous to the end of 1705). (Incidentally the problem isn’t solved by assuming the abbé had forgotten his own age.)

But there is an alternative, if surprising, explanation: here is the entry for the first child, baptised Claude-Charlotte on 17 November 1703:

Claude Charlotte Deschamps 1703 Laon St Jean

I have found no entry for the death of this girl or any other record of her existence. Is it perhaps possible that the future abbé Claude-Charles was misidentified as a girl at birth? The child was baptised the day of its birth, somewhat hastily (baptisms were most often the day after birth unless the infant looked as though they might not survive until then). Seven out of eight of his siblings were girls. Mistakes of gender at birth were not such an unusual occurrence; in 1731 one of the twin children of Jean-Antoine Philippe, another La Tour subject, was wrongly registered. That would be consistent with a reading of “ætatis 65”.

Whatever the abbé’s age, we can but agree with Jean-François Méjanès who commented of this, the latest of the Louvre’s La Tours, that the restrained palette of the pastel strokes “accentue néanmoins l’intensité expressive du visage sur lequel s’est concentré l’artiste”; the “grande attention” and “profonde humanité” that emerge justify more than any of the other works shown in the La Tour exhibition of 2004 the title of “voleur d’âmes”. Those who visited the Louvre’s pastel exhibition in 2018 will have been able to form their own view (although not perhaps as closely as they might like, as this small jewel was skyed in the hang I have discussed elsewhere).


[1] That of Paul-Émile Rémy-Martin, the second of four sales of the collections that the cognac merchant’s father, Paul-Émile-Rémy Martin (yes the hyphens are in the correct places), had assembled at the château de Lignières.

[2] I am most grateful to the Art Institute of Chicago for confirming this to me, and the absence of any image of the lost label.

[3] See Fleury 1922b; Cabezas 2009a; Prolegomena, §xii.6.

[4] Those of you familiar with the system in the Dictionary will see (from the absence of the Greek letter σ) that I have not inspected the Chicago sheet in person. While I would prefer to do so, the factors I have taken into account in reaching my view are unlikely to be altered by examination de visu.

[5] AN mc lxv/386, 10.i.1775

[6] This is in the power of attorney he granted on 22 October 1774 attached to his sister’s posthumous inventory. In the Bulletin de la Société académique de Laon, 1913, André L’Éleu published a commentary on Fromage de Longueville’s unpublished Entretiens (1765), which contains encrypted satirical portraits of his contemporaries including one “Erophile, chanoine regnaire”, whom L’Éleu identified as Deschamps, but I suspect anachronistically. I have been unable to find detailed records for the chapitre de Laon before 1768.

La Tour’s copyists (2): Anne Féret, Mme Nivelon (1711–1786)

Anne-Baptiste_Nivelon,_Louis_de_France,_dauphin_(1764)The Dictionary of pastellists has limited room for the biographies of copyists who worked in other media. In an earlier post, I explored one of the miniaturists who copied La Tour, and who had escaped attention through obscurity. The same cannot be said of the oil painter “Anne Baptiste Nivelon”: if you search online you’ll immediately find dozens of references to this artist who made excellent oil copies after portraits by La Tour, Van Loo and others. (As they are not in pastel there’s no entry for her in the Dictionary of pastellists.) You’ll also find that nothing is known of her biography, other than that she worked for the Menus plaisirs and was favoured by the dauphine. Thus there are several references to her copies in the 2004 La Tour exhibition catalogue, notably the portrait en pied of the dauphin (above) with its pendant of the dauphine, executed in 1764 for Christophe de Beaumont, archevêque de Paris, and now in Versailles (MV 3793; MV 3797), both after pastels by La Tour. Laurent Hugues discussed her work at length in De soie et de poudre, 2004. There are also large oils of the duc de Belle-Isle (again after La Tour), and a Louis XV after Louis-Michel Van Loo.

That information is readily available and I need not repeat it: but published sources do not disclose her dates, quoting instead floruit 1754-71. All this is summarised in Xavier Salmon’s catalogue of a portrait exhibition at the musée Lambinet (Cent portraits pour un siècle, 2019). For an exhaustive genealogical analysis of the family, including this apparent impasse, I can refer you to this recent document which concluded (in the version online at the time I am writing) that “sa biographie reste étrangement mystérieuse.” Art history has got no further until now.

The pendants of the dauphin and dauphine are signed “Fait par Anne Baptiste Nivelon [l’an] 1764” though it is difficult to make this out in the reproduction. Some further light on these is shed by a curious and slightly puzzling document which was published in 1930, but seems to have been largely overlooked since (you can find it in my Chronological table of documents relating to La Tour, at 1 July 1761). It’s a note from Louis-Marie-Augustin, duc d’Aumont (1709–1782), premier gentilhomme de la Chambre du roi, directing Jean-Jacques Papillon de Fontpertuis (1715–1774), intendant of the Menus plaisirs to have Mlle Nivelon make copies of the La Tour pastels of the dauphin and dauphine.

Mr le duc d’Aumont prie Monsieur de Fontpertuys de faire faire les portraits de Mgr le Dauphin et de Me la Dauphine par la demoiselle Nivelon; elle demeure à Versailles, rue de Satory. Mr de Fontpertuys aura la bonté de faire demander au nommé Latour, concierge de l’Hôtel de Nesles les portraits originaux de M. le Dauphin et de Madame la Dauphine. Ce sont les plus ressemblants qui aient été faits, ils sont en pastel. Il faut les ménager dans le transport.

Ce 1er juillet                         Le duc d’Aumont

La demoiselle Nivelon annonce les portraits finis le 22 décembre

Among other things it tells us that the versions in Versailles made in 1764 were not the first copies Mme Nivelon made. (It also reminds us that the hazards of moving pastels were well understood even then.) But although we know that dukes at this time were apt to call any bourgeoise “Mademoiselle” whether married or not, it adds little to help identify Mme Nivelon beyond the address, rue de Satory, which was already known from Germain Bapst’s Inventaire de Marie-Josèphe de Saxe, dauphine de France, 1883.

I ought perhaps to write this blog as a detective story, planting clues along the way for you to work out, but some of you just want to know the answer. Suffice it to say that, after working through the parish records at Versailles (Saint-Louis), I concluded that the only likely candidate for Mme Nivelon was an Anne Féret who, on 16 January 1741 at Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois in Paris, married François Nivelon (1692–1770). The marriage contract, signed two days before (AN MC/ET/VII/263), tells us more:

Contrat de mariage entre François Nivelon, valet de chambre de la maréchale d’Estrées, demeurant à l’hôtel de ladite dame, rue de l’Université, fils majeur de défunts Jean-François Nivelon, peintre du roi, et de Marie-Anne Regnault, et Anne Feret, majeure, demeurant rue Saint-Thomas-du-Louvre, fille de feu Jean-Baptiste Feret, peintre ordinaire du roi en son académie, et de Marie-Anne Thibert, dressé en présence du comte de Gramont, de la maréchale d’Estrées, de la comtesse de Mailly et de la comtesse de Vintimille qui ont signé.

The contract was under the communauté des biens regime, and the dowry a modest 500 livres. We can amplify François Nivelon’s parentage: his father was also known just as François Nivelon (1663–1733), peintre du roi, born and died in Fontainbleau, and is the painter mentioned in the genealogy above at 1.19. But his second wife’s name was Regnault, not Arnault, and their eldest son François (born in Fontainebleau on 17 August 1692) did in fact survive, to become valet de chambre to the recently widowed maréchale d’Estrées, née Lucie-Félicité de Noailles (1683–1745) and later to her brother, Adrien-Maurice, maréchal-duc de Noailles (1678–1766).

Pursuing further records, notably the marriage in Versailles on 25 April 1765 of their daughter Félicité-Marie-Anne (baptised at Saint-Sulpice on 15 April 1745, so just 20 years old, no doubt a god-daughter of Mme d’Estrées) to Michel Laseigne, a géographe des Bâtiments du roi (aged 44½), the ceremony presided over by Pierre Astoin, chapelain to the queen and the dauphine:


François Nivelon’s death, again in Versailles (paroisse Saint-Louis ), occurred on 17 June 1770, and he was buried the next day; the witnesses included again abbé Astoin:

Nivelon_Francois deces

Nivelon’s death in 1770 explains why the copyist is referred to as la veuve Nivelon in January 1771 when she delivered a copy of Madame Louise en carmélite (MV 6613).

Anne’s own burial entry, still in Versailles, in 1786, again attended not only by her son-in-law, but by Toussaint-François Remond, chef de bureau des Bâtiments du roi (the most senior officer under Montucla, the commis):

NivelonAnne VersaillesStLouis1786

The age of 74 on 16 February 1786 implies a year of birth of most probably 1711 or (much less likely – a one in eight chance) 1712.

Now Anne Féret’s connections with the Bâtiments du roi and relations with painters are all very suggestive (as is the fact that she was widowed between 1764 and 1771), but two obstacles remain to complete proof that she herself was “Anne Baptiste Nivelon”: why would she add a forename that does not appear in any document? And is there any evidence that she wielded a brush?

The answer to both questions emerged from researching her father, Jean-Baptiste Féret, a competent landscape and history painter at the Académie royale (even if the name is today little known: Pierre Rosenberg called him “ce paysagiste méconnu” in his brief entry in the 2005 exhibition catalogue Poussin, Watteau, Chardin, David…): he was agréé 26 February 1707 and reçu 26 October 1709. According to Jal’s biographical dictionary (p. 573), Féret used the soubriquet “Baptiste” on its own, and it seems highly plausible that she added the name (which would have been known in the circles that employed her) in tribute to her father. Féret was born in Evreux c.1665, and on 23 April 1708, in Paris, Saint-Merry, he married a Marie-Anne Thibert. (The witnesses included Louis Galloche. She also came from a family of painters, including her brother Louis-Jacques Thibert, who married the daughter of a Daniel Thierry, maître peintre.) When he died in Paris, 12 February 1739, leaving the then unmarried Anne Féret and her brother, the seals were applied and an inventory taken (AN Y11669). And among the pictures listed were “huit esquisses ébauchées dans leurs cadres de bois, ouvrages de lad. demoiselle Ferret.” There was also a portrait of her father whose authorship is ambiguous. But I think there is no longer any ambiguity about one of La Tour’s best copyists.

Marcel Roethlisberger (1929–2020)

Liotard Studientag_180116_014I’m not sure how many of you have noticed that it’s some ten months since I last posted on this blog. There were several reasons for this, the main one being that I’ve been very focused on my La Tour catalogue, and the surprising discovery I wrote about in my penultimate post (where I revealed that the famous self-portrait of La Tour in Amiens was, it turns out, a copy by a talented pupil) made me feel I should go through a rigorous period of thinking to get my story straight. I’ll shortly get back to using this blog now that I think I have done so.

But the very last post I made was – not for the first time – about Liotard. An artist who today is far more fashionable than La Tour, and with far greater influence measured in academic research or in saleroom prices. It was not so half a century ago. That it happened is largely due to Marcel Roethlisberger, an art historian whose death, at the beginning of March, may have passed unnoticed amid the present worldwide circumstances.

This isn’t the obituary he deserves, and will in due course receive in the proper places, but just some personal observations about this wonderful man whose enthusiasms were so inspirational. Because of the breadth of his interests an obituary would be a challenge to anyone, who, as so many of us do today, specialises in a single topic. The gulf between Claude and Liotard, the two artists with whom Marcel Roethlisberger’s name is instantly associated, belong to completely different worlds. Indeed when he visited my house some fifteen years ago, perhaps expecting to find some pastel I might want to associate with Liotard, I can remember his delight (and perhaps relief) when instead he found an etching by Claude… from an earlier stage in my own collecting interests.

Roethlisberger was born in Zurich in 1929. As a lexicographer I felt a duty when we first met to quiz him about the umlaut and its transformation – not least because it affected where he appeared in my bibliography – and, much to my surprise (most people are passionate about the “correct” spelling of their name), found him hugely relaxed about the matter. He had an enormously broad education – of a kind that students today never enjoy – at the universities of Bern, Cologne, Paris (where he was a pupil of André Chastel), Florence (Roberto Longhi) and Pisa studying economics, law, archaeology and music before specialising in the history of art. That brought him to the Courtauld under Anthony Blunt, 1954–56 (long after my mother). His thesis, awarded by the university of Bern, was on Jacopo Bellini. But it was Blunt, the Poussin specialist, who encouraged his interest in Claude. His two-volume Claude Lorrain: the paintings appeared in 1961. There followed a distinguished career teaching in a number of the most prestigious American universities – Yale, Princeton, UCLA – where he was a full professor by 1968, when he published his catalogue raisonné of Claude’s drawings. Two years later he took up the chair in Geneva. There were several subsequent visiting appointments in the US (Washington, the Getty etc.). He published a major work on Bloemaert in 1993, demonstrating again the breadth of his interests.

But it was his research on Liotard that I knew best. He worked closely on the artist with Renée Loche, who was conservateur at the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Geneva until 1992. Their collaboration was astonishingly fruitful. Perhaps this was in part due to the hands-on interest in the objects themselves which museum curators have deeply ingrained, but which academic art historians occasionally lack. However it developed, Roethlisberger’s work on Liotard was never lost in theory, and never departed from the works of art themselves. Roethlisberger had written briefly about Liotard in an article on Swiss self-portraits in Florence in 1956, while Loche had become focused on Liotard with several exhibitions in Geneva in the early 1970s. But their joint publication, L’opera completa di Liotard, published by Rizzoli in 1978 in the rather limiting format of the Classici dell’arte series, that transformed interest in the artist. It coincided with the first major acquisition, for a very substantial price, by an American museum (Cleveland) of a Liotard pastel, the hugely important portrait of François Tronchin dans son cabinet (below; J.49.2329 in my Dictionary), the forerunner of a number of subsequent purchases of Liotard pastels for previously unheard of prices. (I know Roethlisberger would have had as little interest in such measures as I do, but I know too that many of you will find this strand of interest.)


The old Loche & Roethlisberger was astonishingly useful, but its tiny reproductions didn’t tell the whole story. Conscious of that, and aware too of the explosion of Liotard research (Roethlisberger alone had published a dozen articles since 1978), the new catalogue – this time Roethlisberger & Loche – appeared in 2008 in a format that made up in every way possible for the deficiencies of L&R. I reviewed it in the Burlington Magazine in May 2009, so I won’t comment in detail. But one sentence is perhaps worth repeating:

Though we are reminded that ‘l’art de Liotard dépasse toujours les limites de l’analyse verbale’, it is impossible to read these essays without responding to the authors’ evident love and appreciation of their subject.

In some ways my review was rather severe (in a later note I referred to “the wonderful Roethlisberger & Loche catalogue raisonné (of which I can only say that my admiration increases every time I consult it – a comment I couldn’t really include in my Burlington Magazine review which was published immediately after it appeared)”), but it is a measure of his magnanimity that when I later discussed it with him, Roethlisberger was very happy to follow up all the points I had raised. Our correspondence followed freely as we exchanged discoveries and trouvailles on so many points, a flood of information none of which would have been discovered were it not for the huge advances in L&R and R&L. An update, “Liotard mis à jour”, written with typical generosity, appeared in Zeitschrift für schweizerische Archäologie und Kunstgeschichte in 2014 (it deserves to be more widely consulted). It included a typical example of a work which he had once rejected but was prepared to reconsider after a thorough debate which resulted in a more convincing narrative.

In 2018 we were both invited to a study day in Dresden while the gallery was preparing for the Liotard exhibition that took place later that year. The photo above shows us both looking rather carefully at one of the best-loved works of the Swiss master. I can’t think of a better way to share my appreciation of a man who has inspired so many with his scholarship, breadth of culture, openness and humanity.


L’Écriture deciphered

Liotard EcritureThose of you who saw the Liotard exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2015 will not have forgotten one of the finest exhibits – the stunning pastel of a young man writing with a boy in attendance holding a candle.[1] It was sold to Maria Theresia in 1762, ten years after it was painted, and so its permanent home is now Vienna. Its connection with the famous Déjeuner Lavergne (J.49.1795: see my post) of 1754 is obvious, despite the two-year interval between their execution: the visual evidence is overwhelmingly that the latter was conceived as a pendant, and this is confirmed by the advertisement in the London Public advertiser that I reproduced in the earlier post. There is no doubt either that the Déjeuner was executed during a trip to Lyon in 1754 – indeed another Lavergne family portrait was done there in 1746 – as there is other corroborative evidence of Liotard’s visits to his sister and her family: Sara Liotard had married the négociant François Lavergne in Geneva before they settled in Lyon. All this is rehearsed in my previous post, so I won’t repeat it here.

I might add that the abbé Pernetty, whose portrait by Liotard was also made in 1754, returned the compliment by mentioning the artist as well as “Mrs Lavergne, établis ici, & connus par leurs talens” in his Les Lyonnois digne de mémoire (1757, p. 255). The MM. Lavergne were of course François, who died in 1752; his eldest son Jean (1715–1776), also described as a négociant on his burial certificate (most sources incorrectly thought he had died in 1729); and the son shown in L’Écriture, Jacques-Antoine (1724–1781), described as a banquier on his (but the professions were not much different). Although that document gives nothing away, Marie-Félicie Perez published a note in Genava in 1997 with an entry from the unpublished manuscript diary[2] of the abbé Duret in which he reveals that Jacques-Antoine committed suicide by throwing himself out of a window. No one knows why – Perez checked for a declaration of bankruptcy, but could find nothing.

Nor frankly does any of the Liotard literature tell us anything of the biography of this young man. Indeed earlier authors spotting the book whose title, L’Art d’aimer et de plaire, is so carefully shown in the pastel concluded he must be a poet, and identified the sitter as Pierre-Joseph Bernard who published a book called L’Art d’aimer – but failed to notice that it didn’t appear until 1775, and that in 1752 Gentil-Bernard (as he was known) was already 44. (Indeed of Liotard’s two nephews, it is the apparent age of the sitter that identifies him as Jacques-Antoine (28 in 1752) rather than his brother Jean – not dead, but at 36 too old.) Of course that doesn’t mean that Liotard’s sitter didn’t also have literary aspirations: it’s just that, until now, no one has produced any evidence. Was he then just a boring banker?

And as for the boy, predictably described as the nephew’s nephew in some sources, and therefore named Clarence (as the girl in the Déjeuner as previously thought to be), that is far from certain (but it was not impossible that he could be the Pierre Clarenc [sic] who was married in Puylaurens in 1771, but whose age is uncertain). But I’m inclined in this case to believe Liotard when he calls the boy a “laquais”, and I don’t think he’d so describe a member of his family.[2a]

L’Écriture, as the 1752 pastel is known, is signed and dated with the year – but not the place. And while everyone assumes it was made on a trip to Lyon, that might not necessarily be correct. If Jacques-Antoine went to Paris, which he might well have done, then the boy would almost certainly be unrelated. On the other hand, if you think that he is the same child as in the L’Enfant à la bougie (J.49.2441) that I published a few years ago (also reproduced in my Déjeuner post), he probably did come from Lyon, as that pastel was reported (again by the abbé Duret, as spotted by Perez) in 1781 as having previously being bought by Mme de Flesselles for her husband, the intendant de Lyon from 1767 on. Roethlisberger & Loche inferred from the subject matter that it might belong to the period of L’Écriture, and with the image I found I concur. So it’s possible that it was left with the Lavergne family in Lyon and it was only disposed of between 15 and 30 years later.

So far virtually everything I’ve repeated here is known – and it’s not very much. The diary of Jean-Jacques Juventin which I recently added as a postscript to my Déjeuner post talks only about the Lavergne ladies, and tells us nothing of the men. Nor, despite its usual encyclopaedic coverage, does Lüthy (La Banque protestante…) even mention the firm. There’s a tiny snippet in a letter[3] from Louis-Michel Vanloo’s sister, Marie-Anne Vanloo Berger, from Paris, 20 April 1757, to his partners Antoine Rey and Barthélemy Magneval, merchants in Lyon, describing how she had missed M. Lavergne who had called that morning, and promising if he returned to receive him as well as she could as he was their friend. At least this proves that Lavergne travelled to Paris occasionally – but that is hardly surprising for a négociant.

But I recently noticed a source which as far as I can see has been completely overlooked in the Liotard literature: Voltaire’s correspondence.[4]

There are no Voltaire letters directly to the Lavergnes, but several to his other friends give their name (as “Lavergne père et fils” etc. – no first names ever appear) as an accommodation address. But there are two letters with specific information. In one (8 May 1773) to Joseph Vesselier, a poet and writer whose day-job was with the Lyon post office, Voltaire noted that “un de ces Lavergne … joue parfaitement la comédie”. In a letter to Trudaine de Montigny (12 April 1776), then travelling to Nice, he adds more:

J’avais un ami genevois qui s’appelle Lavergne, excellent auteur, dit on, dans les comédies de société. Il était malade à Lyon et désespérait de sa vie, il est allé à Nice et y a recouvré la santé. Je ne sais s’il y est encore, et s’il a eu le bonheur de vous faire sa cour.

Tantalisingly Voltaire doesn’t identify which of the Lavergne men this amateur actor, writer and invalid might have been. Was it our Jacques-Antoine, or his elder brother Jean?

To answer that I found another report – a 1773 account of the health-giving properties of the thermal waters not at Nice, but at Aix, by the celebrated doctor Joseph Daquin (who was best known for his work in psychiatry). Here it is in full, although the crucial part is the age: Jacques-Antoine would have been 48 or so, near enough 50, while his brother was eight years older:



From the age I infer that this was more likely the younger brother. The condition described was severe enough to merit Voltaire’s description of a man despairing of life, particularly if after the cure the symptoms returned. That rather than financial failure might well have led to his suicide.

But Voltaire’s description has even more pertinent information that goes directly to the pastel: the writer is indeed a writer. The sense of intelligence with which he ponders his material is real. If any of his work was ever published it was certainly not under his own name, but his interests were plainly in plays. What then can we make of the carefully planted copy of L’art d’aimer et de plaire, hitherto assumed to be purely fanciful?

M119_02_R118_163rI had previously identified it as the subtitle of a play called Zélide, but that was only published in 1755 and the dates still don’t quite work. It was written by one Jean-Julien-Constant Rénout, who was secrétaire du duc de Gesvres (the duc had commissioned Pierre Mérelle to copy Liotard’s portraits of the royal princesses in 1751). But although not premiered until 1755,[5] there was apparently an earlier performance of Zélide at the comte de Clermont’s château de Berny, probably by an amateur cast. (Liotard’s pastel of the comte de Clermont was recorded in the artist’s posthumous inventory.) It is of course sheer speculation, but might Jacques-Antoine, who played “parfaitement la comédie”, have had an advance manuscript copy for amateur use?

[1] L’Écriture is J.49.1763 in the online Dictionary of pastellists, where as usual full details can be found (just put the J number into the search box and follow the link to the pdf).

[2] In the municipal library at Lyon.

[2a] [Postscript:] I am grateful to Chris Bryant who has pointed out that the boy’s coat, with its braided edging, is servant’s livery.

[3] Georges Guigue, Vanloo négociant, 1902, p. 24.

[4] The easiest way to consult this is via the Electronic Enlightenment website, so the dates alone will find the passages I mention. One of Voltaire’s correspondents was the pasteur Jacques Vernes (also a friend of Rousseau) who married Jacques-Antoine’s 18-year-old niece Marie-Françoise Clarenc in 1759; she died later that year.

[5] To a mixed reception: in a letter from Claude-Pierre Patu to David Garrick written from Passy, 23 August 1755, he notes that it had “Assez d’esprit, peu de justesse, style haché, mauvais tour de vers.” The extract from the Comédie-Française’s register show the receipts for the double bill on 26 June 1755.


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