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Tracing the tropes in the hagiography of Maurice-Quentin de La Tour

18 September 2013

La Tour Auto SQ copyI have written before, in my post entitled The obliquity of the elliptic, of the propagation of mistakes through human communication, and in Connoisseurship… on the particular cognitive errors that beset art history. Nowhere do these come together more clearly than in the attention art historians have paid to the numerous biographies of the giant figure in my field, Maurice-Quentin de La Tour (his portrait in his native Saint-Quentin, left, used to appear on the 50 franc note – so the French put him on a par with our Jane).

The as-yet undisplaced bible of La Tour studies is the monumental work by Georges Wildenstein published in 1928 with a short introduction by the painter and academician, Albert Besnard, whose name appears first on the title page (an act of wonderful generosity by Wildenstein), so that it is referred to as B&W. Their comprehensive tableau chronologique and collection of early biographies remain indispensable, and another 85 years of scholarship has added relatively little to the intense work in the late nineteenth century sparked by the resurgence of interest in the dix-huitième under the influence of people like the Goncourt brothers. One is apt think that there is nothing more to contribute to this too-well-trodden field.

Yet there remain curious gaps in our knowledge, particularly about the artist’s early life. Only a few years ago his apprenticeship deed was located, proving that his teacher was an artist called Dupouch, not Spoede, as we had previously thought, relying on the otherwise trustworthy Mariette (who would have pronounced both names similarly).

One of the remaining lacunae was the reports of his having travelled to the peace conference at Cambrai which took place around 1725. Here his portrait of an ambassador is supposed to have attracted the attention the British ambassador, who took him back to London. The existence of a charming group of pastels from this conference, by an extremely obscure pastellist called Birochon (if you want to look him up in my Dictionary), seemed a curious coincidence. But the report on which this relied was a rather overblown eulogy pronounced by a certain abbé Duplaquet in la Tour’s birthplace, more than 60 years afterwards, and no earlier mention seems to have been made. Except – according to an English writer, La Tour’s attendance was confirmed by reports in an unreferenced English newspaper; this has been taken as independent confirmation of the Cambrai story. I decided this was worth investigating.

It turned out that the article referred to was an obituary in The World, which appeared in July 1790 (and was reprinted in The Times and other papers), after Duplaquet, and, as we shall see, largely drawn from it, or rather from a review that appeared in L’Année littéraire in 1789. Pretty much the same document appeared again, in French, in the Almanach littéraire of 1792. None of these three interesting documents seems to have been known to B&W, and while the third was referred to by an eminent French authority in 2002, he quoted only from the shortened version that appeared in Michaud’s Biographie universelle in 1824, and he mistakenly identified the author as the signatory to the 1824 entry (who was in fact only 13 when the original article appeared).

Duplaquet also had La Tour in London, which Mariette also reported and may well be true. But the “incontrovertible proof” of this, discovered by an architect called Jules Hachet in the late nineteenth century, was the painting in the National Gallery (“Jeune buveur espagnol”, NG 1286) then thought to be by Murillo and of which La Tour made a copy. In fact, as has been known for some time, in the early eighteenth century there were several versions of this painting in Paris, where La Tour is far more likely to have copied it; but although the proof has disappeared, the conviction lf La Tour in England remains strong.

B&W print in full a document written by Bucelly d’Estrées in 1834 (they describe it as “le plus complet des biographes anciens”), but dismiss Duplaquet’s flowery rhetoric: “Il ne pouvait être question de le reproduire in extenso”. I sympathise: it is extremely rare, and not available on any website I can find; and so, in order to make (a large part of) it available to you I have had to retype it myself (no doubt inaccurately: but so is the original text which I have endeavoured to reproduce exactly before you conclude that I am illiterate). It is worthwhile: not just because it turns out that the portrait in the Cambrai story is not of the Spanish ambassador, but his wife (which further undermines Duplaquet’s credibility since Beretti-Landi was unmarried), nor because Duplaquet’s description of a portrait of the queen retained by the artist but given away in 1814 allows us to confirm that it was a replica of the one in Louvre, nor because, although certainly unreadably overblown in places, his description of the portrait of abbé Huber lisant is masterly (Duplaquet however is mistaken in thinking the abbé reads Molière: the other version, in Geneva, reveals that Montaigne is the object of his fascination); and certainly not because he reveals the names of several of the happy recipients of La Tour’s philanthropic prize for good deeds (the absence of whose names was deplored by recent authors): but because this document is the key to all subsequent accounts.

To follow this I have set out this table demonstrating the textual transmissions among these documents. By examining all of them together, it is possible to follow the propagation of certain tropes concerning the life of the artist.

Some of the errors are trivial, but nonetheless illuminating – in the way that false roads are in cartography. For example, La Tour was born in 1704, but Duplaquet’s fatal taste for periphrasis puts this (correctly) as “5e année du siècle”; this rapidly becomes 1705 for the lazy journalists who follow. Similarly Duplaquet, struggling to fill his 70 pages on very little material, has an irresistible urge to embellish: Diderot famously tells the story of La Tour’s confrontation with Perronneau, in which the younger artist exhibited a good but conventional portrait of the Saint-Quentin at the Salon, only to find that La Tour had done one of his brilliantly unconventional self-portraits – the one with the turned-up hat – which outshone the Perronneau. But in Duplaquet’s version, he substitutes the autoportrait à l’index, where La Tour, laughing, points at something outside the picture, which heaped ridicule on Perronneau’s lesson from the master. And again Mariette tells us of La Tour’s intellectual pretensions, and how he mugged up in Bayle’s dictionary before spouting half-digested ideas in intellectual gatherings: Duplaquet has him as “le Peintre Philosophe; avide de tout savoir”, and adds that he studied mathematics and geometry during the two years he devoted to mastering drawing, while for Bucelly he had “vastes connaissances en littérature, il était bon mathématicien et bon géomètre”. (In a little-remarked aside in a letter from Voltaire to La Tour, probably in April 1735, he commented “Je suis enchanté que vous aimiez un peu la physique”; note the judicious qualification. Grimm too remarked “qu’il possède la fureur de passer pour philosophe.” More colourfully the Swiss painter–collector Ryhiner related how at a dinner, La Tour, “m’ayant accroché et retenu par un bouton de mon habit me fit suer sang et eau en me parlant astronomie où il n’entendoit rien, tout comme moy, à ce que j’appris ensuite.”)

The conclusion from a detailed examination (I will leave you to work though all the legends of his royal impertinences) is that all the biographers after Duplaquet relied heavily on him; these sources have a high degree of interdependence and demonstrate a propagation of error and inflation of spurious detail which should be fully understood before use. The later documents have another bias in being written by Saint-Quentinois, and naturally focus on La Tour’s local philanthropy and affection for a native town to which he returned with perhaps rather less enthusiasm than the sources suggest.

In contrast there is no linguistic evidence of direct influence from Mariette’s text – unsurprising, since it was not published until the 1850s and was probably not seen directly by Duplaquet – although naturally some of the stories, which were probably freely in circulation, reappear in some form. The remaining mystery – behaving perhaps like dark matter, detectable only by its influence – is the work of the connoisseur and author Antoine-Nicolas Dezallier d’Argenville (1723–1796), son of the author of the Abrégé de la vie des plus fameux peintres, 1745–52; Antoine-Nicolas himself published a Vie des fameux architectes et sculpteurs in 1787, and seems to have been planning a life of La Tour for the purposes of which he was gathering stories from those who knew him, according to Marie Fel, the artist’s long-term companion. (One recent commentator thinks the reference is to Dezallier père, but as he died in 1765, long before La Tour’s senility, that seems unlikely.) No sign of d’Argenville’s life of La Tour remains, although it is not impossible that he contributed the Éloge to the Almanach littéraire in 1792; but it seems more likely that this was written by one of the administrators of the École gratuite who had asked Duplaquet’s consent to reuse his material, as he reveals in his preface.

Why does any of this matter? And is it art history?

Well, art historians would love to know whether La Tour was in Cambrai. (My guess is that Duplaquet got confused. He was told that an English collection had a group of pastels by La Tour made at the Cambrai conference – remember all good, and many not so good, pastels were attributed to him in the nineteenth century – and he tried to work this into his narrative with no more evidence. It quite possible that La Tour travelled to Cambrai, which is very near Saint-Quentin, but less likely that an unknown artist should have been engaged to portray ambassadors while an experienced artist, and protégé of the Spanish ambassador, was at work.) But we also want to know how far to believe these authors – an essential step in unravelling the myths and extracting a reliable biography. However tedious it may be to disentangle them, the job must be done. And it must be repeated: there is nothing “incontrovertible”; each new fact provides each generation of art historians with a slightly different fact set against which to weigh the probabilities of conflicting evidence, and the job cannot be done once and for all, but again and again. Hagiography oblige.

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  1. Less about La Tour’s family | Neil Jeffares

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