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Minutiae about Maurice-Quentin de La Tour

31 December 2014

One of the joys of researching a neglected field is how easy it can be to find things that are not already known. But the converse is that we are all inclined to think that the scholars before us have explored to the full the available biographical information about the big names – something which isn’t always true.

La Tour, for example, who is so “big” in pastel that the published literature on him alone probably exceeds that on all the other French eighteenth-century pastellists put together, nevertheless has left quite a number of biographical puzzles despite the intensive industry from the early twentieth century pioneers to today. But the assumption that something has already been done always needs to be questioned.

You will find quite a number of new documents on my chronological table, expanding significantly and correcting occasionally the standard work of Georges Wildenstein (“B&W”, 1928). To take a handful surrounding the pastellist’s father, François de La Tour, first recorded (in 1694) as a “trompette au régiment des carabiniers de Mgr le duc du Maine”, but later employed as a musician in the Église royale de Saint-Quentin (now the Basilica), a church that preserved a very high musical standard. The celebrated Pierre du Mage, almost François’s exact contemporary, was organist there at the time of the pastellist’s birth : his Livre d’orgue gives you some idea of what music must have sounded like in Saint-Quentin.

An error in Maurice Tourneux’s 1904 monograph implied that François died in 1731. This got into B&W and has persisted to this day, even appearing in the chronology to Xavier Salmon’s 2004 exhibition catalogue. Yet in fact he died five years later (as Christine Debrie knew):

LaTourF deces25x1736

(You’ll find transcriptions of all of these documents in my chronological table) Of more interest perhaps is some detail about his second marriage. Early sources tell us the correct date of birth for La Tour’s half-brother Jean-François (although a different year continues to persist), but since the parish is omitted, few have bothered to check the document:

LaTourJeanFr naissance StAndre 1726

This provides us with an interesting fact which I believe has hitherto lain unreported, namely that Maurice’s stepmother was the daughter of one of François’s colleagues, another musician at the Église royale de Saint-Quentin. And similarly, although it may have seemed unimportant to previous scholars, there is an unreported third half-brother, Henry-François, who died five days after his birth (1728), as the immediately succeeding entry tells us.

LaTourHenryFrancois bapt sep 1728

Again details of the choice of godparents all help complete the picture of the household in which the pastellist grew up.

Of course infant mortality was a common problem. Here again is François, signing the register as witness to the death of the son of yet another colleague:


These brutal, apparently unimpassioned documents somehow manage to convey remarkably some of the emotions of those involved, and are tempered by the delight in seeing François’s penmanship, and the evolution from the “Delatour” seen in some of the earlier documents to the aspirational “de La Tour” of his final years (not, we note, Maurice’s invention, but his father’s ambition) – decorated with the flourishes and arabesques that no doubt embellished his musical voluntaries.

From → Art history

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  1. Maurice-Quentin de La Tour’s parents | Neil Jeffares

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