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La Joconde du XVIIIe siècle

25 November 2014

Perronneau Mme de Sorquainville 1749 LouvreNews of the impending publication of Dominique d’Arnoult’s monograph on Perronneau in January (Arthena: order form here) fills me with excitement. There is a pre-publication offer with a substantial discount. I am confident that that book will be very good and urge you to subscribe.As you will know from my website, there is no shortage of Jeffares material on Perronneau’s pastels (you can start with the main entry and continuation articles, but you may also want to explore the essays on the Journu, Lyon and d’Aubais pastels). So, for variety, let me tempt you here with a few comments about the oil painting which has been chosen for the cover, Mme de Sorquainville (1749).

The daunting undertaking for a catalogue raisonné of Perronneau is not merely to list and order his miracles, but to explain them. But surely one of the special challenges will be to reproduce these incredibly subtle works whose magic can only be transmitted de visu. For the quintessence of Perronneau is nuance. Of too many painters do we tritely observe their “harmonious palette”: but of far fewer can we say that their works inhabit that enharmonic zone where a composer holds us in exquisite suspense. La Tour’s modulations are clever and neat; Liotard, with his “idiotisme helvétique”, stays in a single key. But this Fauré of the art of portraiture is apt to be dismissed outside France as a mere Reynaldo Hahn. Dominique d’Arnoult’s task will be to change that.

Mme de Sorquainville is one of the jewels in the Louvre, and merited this beautiful entry from Pierre Rosenberg in his Dictionnaire amoureux du Louvre (2007) – a book you should give any godchild, after you have devoured it for yourself. Here is the entry:

Portrait dit de Madame de Sorquainville
Huile sur toile H. 1,01 ;L. 0,81 S.D.h.g. : Perronneau 1749 R.F. 19378 Sully, deuxième étage, salle 46

Qui était Mme de Sorquainville? Et d’abord sommes-nous sûrs d’être en sa présence? Son nom, certes, se lit sur le châssis de la toile, mais cette inscription peu ancienne est-elle fiable?

Qu’importe: assise dans un fauteuil, coiffée d’un discret bonnet, elle nous regarde et sourit. On note ses yeux noirs, le ruban noir qui enserre son cou, le gros nœud sur le devant de la poitrine, les dentelles quelque peu fanées en bouillonnés de sa robe bleu tendre et vert acide, deux couleurs que Perronneau allie, marie, accorde avec bonheur.

On n’oubliera plus son fin visage amaigri, ses pommettes rosées, son teint ivoirin et son regard pétillant. Intelligente, c’est évident, élégante sans nul doute, coquette peut-être (mais quel peut bien être son âge?), spirituelle, qui pourrait en douter? Son sourire? Celui d’une Joconde du XVIIIe siècle, d’un XVIIIe qui parlait et pensait français…

Ce chef d’œuvre de Perronneau – il fut le rival, dans le genre du pastel, de La Tour et de Liotard, mais peignait également à l’huile – a été donné au Louvre en 1937 par David David-Weill.

The biographical facts about this lady are indeed meagre, but not quite so thin as this passage might suggest. I believe we can identify Mme de Sorquainville as Geneviève-Antoinette de Martainville (I can’t see why the inscription would have been added to someone without this name, and I think she is the only plausible Sorquainville). She was born into a family which had been ennobled in the early sixteenth century. In 1550 Richard Le Pelletier, secrétaire du roi, became seigneur de Martainville (early documents spell this as Marteinville, and others as Martinville), a territory near Rouen dating back to 1291. But the family is rather more complicated than a quick perusal of the standard genealogical tomes might suggest (there is no obvious connection with the famous Parisian family of lawyers), and the hidden mystery, belonging several hundred years before Perronneau’s sitter, is hinted at in a wholly exceptional royal patent granted by Charles IX in 1571 allowing Richard to drop the name of Le Pelletier and adopt that of his estate. This in practice was what all nobles did, as attentive readers of this blog will know; the mystery was that permission to do so was set out in writing – in a document that effectively deemed the family noble from time immemorial when it was widely known that this was not true. The result was that the parlement in Rouen initially refused registration of the patent, and finally did so only after two years of vigorous dissent.  (Hence the widespread confusions in the literature.) By the time Mme de Sorquainville was born, the specifics were forgotten, and her father, Philippe de Martainville, would have been described as “écuyer, chevalier, seigneur et patron honoraire dudit lieu” without the raising of an eyebrow. But there hung over the family an unresolved ambiguity as to the nature of its nobility (the noblesses d’extraction, de l’epée and de robe were subtly different categories).

Geneviève-Antoinette was born in Martainville-sur-Ry and baptised there on 8 November 1690:

Genevieve de Sorquainville bpt 1690

(So to answer Pierre Rosenberg’s question, she was 58 when Perronneau painted her.) A few years later her only (surviving) brother was born, Michel de Martainville (1694–1757). Despite an advantageous marriage in 1729, to Élisabeth-Lucie Le Normand d’Étiolles (1711–1783), Mme de Pompadour’s sister-in-law, Michel was the last of the male line, and the family property reverted to his sister, who became “Dame de Martainville-en-Ry”.

By this time, Geneviève herself had been married for some years. Her husband, Pierre-Salomon Couture de Chamacourt de Sorquainville (1692–1759), was born in Rouen, and was the son of a président de la chambre des comptes de Normandie who had only been ennobled in 1709. Salomon had been appointed conseiller au parlement de Normandie in 1716, and would remain in office until 1750. The marriage took place in Rouen, paroisse Saint-Amand, on 17 August 1722: as you can see from the parish register, it was far from a grand affair (marriages in those days were often witnessed by dozens of relatives and friends, usually including the highest ranking protectors of the families).
Genevieve de Sorquainville mariage 1722
But I draw your attention to Geneviève’s signature :
Genevieve de Sorquainville sig
It is that of a 32 year old, not a child; and to me it suggests that her education was probably not of that exceptional order that elevates her to the rank of her brother’s sister-in-law, nor that of say Elisabeth Ferrand, another La Tour subject shown meditating on Newton to emphasise her intellectual accomplishments.

At least three sons were born: ten months after the marriage, Antoine-Philippe, who died aged 7; the following year, Antoine-Louis, who, like his father, was appointed conseiller au parlement de Normandie in 1749. Ten years later, a third brother, Alexandre-Salomon, was born: he too would be appointed conseiller au parlement, taking over the office which his father had occupied for 34 years. So when Perronneau painted her, the family’s future looked secure. But both brothers would die within a few years, leaving no male heir. When her husband died in 1759, Geneviève was the last remaining member of the family. She would live another 22 years, eventually dying at the age of 90 at Saint-Amand, in April 1781, her body being transported a few days later to the family vault at Martainville with due ceremony, attended by her cousin and heir Pierre-Eustache Le Vigner de Dampierre, conseiller at the Grand’Chambre of the parlement de Normandie, and by Jean-Antoine-Jacques-François, chevalier de Banville:

Sorquainville transport

Some idea of the circumstances of Mme de Sorquainville, dame de Martainville, may perhaps be gleaned from her château de Martainville, which survives as the musée des Traditions et Arts Normands, although there is nothing to suggest that the staff there are aware of the connection with Perronneau’s great portrait.
Possibly this is more information than you needed. As so often when one tries to expand one of Pierre Rosenberg’s observations, you find that he has got the essence absolutely right. But perhaps Dominique d’Arnoult will have more to tell us about this mysterious sitter who is in so many ways the objective correlative of all the ambiguities and uncertainties on which Perronneau’s art is based. Every time however we should come back to the painting itself: this magnificent depiction of a lady who needs no Newton for her gravity, whose repute “lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands.” Or, if I may put it more simply with a phrase from an even greater writer, this masterpiece of a lady “entourée de sa toilette comme de l’appareil délicat et spiritualisé d’une civilisation.”


It is of course pure coincidence  – but too good not to mention – that one of the three key episodes in Proust occurs with the clochers de “Martinville”. The bell at the real Martainville was founded in 1770 with this dedication:

L’an 1770, j’ai été nommée Geneviève par Maître Pierre Eustache Le Viguer, Seigneur, Baron de Dampierre, Fondateur et Présentateur de l’Abbaye d’Arques, Conseiller au Parlement de Normandie, et par Haute et Puissante Dame Geneviève-Antoinette de Martinville, Dame et Patronne honoraire dudit lieu, Catillon, Saint-Samson en Bray, Offignies en Picardie, Haute Justicière du dit lieu et autres terres et Seigneuries, Veuve de Messire Salomon Couture, Seigneur de Sorquainville, Cropus, Chamacourt, Mesnil-Godefroy et autres lieux, Conseiller au Parlement de Normandie.

As with the madeleine and the uneven steps, the narrator is tripped by the ambiguities and nuances of an everyday experience – in this case, the visual illusion of the steeples – into the profound investigation of the role of intuition that is the central theme of his work. Isn’t that precisely what these great works by Perronneau are doing?


From → Art history

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