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Too much Rigaud in your cosmos?

20 January 2017

rigaudAriane James-Sarazin, Hyacinthe Rigaud 1659–1743. 1: L’homme et son art; 2: Catalogue raisonné, Dijon (Faton), 2016, 2 vols (€320)

Stéphane Perreau, Hyacinthe Rigaud. Catalogue raisonné de l’œuvre , online [hyacinthe-rigaud.com] (free; registration required)

One day in the Portobello Road, nearly forty years ago, I came across some portrait engravings by the Drevet family, and, intrigued by their startling technical achievement, I started to collect them. That was then relatively easy, in flea markets whether in London or across France; but before I reached a complete set I was brought to my senses. A dealer, from whom I had bought one, asked me if I had any duplicate Drevets to part with: and it all unravelled, as he wanted them to sell on to another dealer whose client was … me. I never bought another one (nor for that matter have I been able to dispose of the solander boxes full of them which I now never open: if you know anyone who would like to make me an offer…).

I have however retained something of a faible for Rigaud: particularly once you add the missing ingredient of colour. The amazing self-confidence of his original work and its ability to express so much of what intrigues us of the reign of Louis XIV will hold our imagination far more securely than the prints (whatever their unsurpassed technical skills as engravings). And if you couple that with a taste for Saint-Simon you have an enthusiast for life.

But not of course an expert: that I do not claim. And so in this post I write about two new sources very much from the position of reader/user – and even then blinkered by my interests which won’t match those of others. But how do you review two enormous bodies of information fairly and objectively, without being H. W. Fowler’s mythical monster of omniscience? Worse still, how do evaluate either in less than the lifetime of use both promise? And how do you deal with the elephant in the room: namely the evident competition between the authors, of the background to which I know nothing and prefer to remain ignorant.

Of course any two catalogues are going to include a great deal of overlap, and in the case of Rigaud the detailed lists he left published by Roman in 1919 provide a solid corpus from which any account must build. Further Perreau’s website effectively follows the concise catalogue he published in 2013 which was fully known to AJS and cited throughout her work. But SP’s website does not (yet) include references to AJS: a surprising decision, particularly as anyone who wants to use the site quickly (and avoid a trip to the library) to provide a scholarly reference will need to know the AJS numbers.

What prompts me to write about these works, quite apart from any interest you or I may have in Rigaud’s œuvre, is the opportunity to discuss the medium of printed book versus that of the website. We are all aware of the issues facing publishers and authors with printed books (exacerbated in the case of art books by the cost of reproduction rights as well as of coated paper); while on the other hand, online publication remains, if not in its infancy, at the stage of unruly adolescence with concerns about common structures and longevity that haven’t properly been addressed. I’ve discussed these before in this blog, here and here. But I’m interested in how this works in a practical case.

AJS arrived on my desk two months ago. It’s in two volumes, 1408 pages in all, and weighs a colossal 8 kg. While only the second volume is technically the catalogue raisonné, you need the (magnificent) reproductions in the first to use it fully (those in the second volume are tiny). And I confess that, viewed purely from the point of view of physical convenience, this is a nuisance. The volumes in their box live underneath the great pile of books that accumulates in my library which long ran out of shelf space, and for that reason alone I am likely to prefer an online alternative. That is to say nothing of the price differential, an effective deterrent for all but the most enthusiastic. SP certainly deserves our applause for making his work freely available (although I am baffled as to why a registration is then required: this might surely deter some casual readers).

The SP website is relatively straightforward to use. The architecture appears to be rather basic: no bad thing in itself (one of my biggest terrors is investing in over-sophisticated databases which promise everything but end up failing completely, sucked into a need for ever more complex programming to make simple changes that ultimately lead to abandonment). That said, on launch (yesterday), there were plenty of minor glitches – links that take you back to the home page instead of to particular articles or external sites, but also some confusing design issues around the search page (where is it?). And the search function (surely the vital distinction between print and online), when you get to it, is very basic indeed: it does not seem possible to structure a search to retrieve only articles including a specific date: putting quotes around “12 mars 1934” will pick up anything with “12”, “mars” and “1934” in the same article. There is no possibility to search for items in specfic sales, for example.

AJS comes with the endorsement of introductory essays from Pierre Rosenberg and Dominique Brême – although Perreau’s 2004 monograph had a preface from Xavier Salmon. On bulk alone AJS appears considerably larger than SP, and has P numbers running up to 1531 (SP ends at 1445): but these ignore the density of lists of copies and related items which is the fabric of catalogues raisonnnés. Both have similar, possibly slightly confusing numbering systems, particularly when it comes to “œuvres mentionnées” (the plethora of sequences in AJS includes, in addition to the main “P.” run, “PM”, “PR”, “PI”, “NP”, “NPM”, “D”, “DM”, “DR”, “DI”, “E”, “EM”, “ER”, “EI”, “PS” and “PSI”, each with up to eight subdivisions). And for me one major weakness of AJS is that copies and related pictures are not numbered, making citation far more cumbersome; a curious decision.

But what of the content? Here is where I can only report, on little more than an anecdotal basis, my first few hours’ use of both, concentrated – as I have explained – on their coverage of topics which may seem peripheral. But in my experience books which look great when read linearly often fall apart when tested by an orthogonal approach.

Both have a fair number of typos, but SP will benefit from a thorough read throughout. Even headline names have errors (e.g. René-Françoise): an online searchable database won’t tolerate this.

With my enthusiasm for Saint-Simon and Drevet, my first search was for the abbé de “Rancé”. I applied this to the “all portraits” section (oddly labelled in the pull-down menu “Sous-catégories” or, when returning, “Level-up”), and got virtually the whole database. So I narrowed it to “Ecclésiastiques”, and got 24 prelates – but not the abbé. Was he as shy as Saint-Simon tells us? Only by calling him Bouthillier could he be called forth. (SP has the common “Le Bouthillier de Rancé”; AJS has the stricter “Bouthillier de Rancé”, and the index is cross-referenced accordingly.) I quickly gave up any attempt to collate the lists of copies and replicas in the two works: even for the primary version, AJS cites one exhibition (Paris 1878), while SP omits that and cites Paris 1976 and Rouen–Caen 1979. A proper reviewer would have tried to figure out why these don’t agree.

English titles are always a struggle for French writers (just as English writers haven’t a clue when it comes to the French shibboleths of aristocracy), so I thought I’d check “Sir Bourchier Wrey”. Sure enough AJS has “baron de Tawstock”, while SP makes no such error. But he curiously tells us that “Lorsqu’il vivait à Rome, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu parle de lui comme un amoureux de ce pays.” Biographical colour is the best way of bringing portrait catalogues to life: but what Lady Mary actually wrote (to Lady Pomfret, 22 October 1740) was much more amusing: she had tried to take the lodging Sir Bourchier Wrey had previously had, “but the landlord would not let it, for a very pleasant reason. It seems your gallant knight used to lie with his wife; and as he had no hopes I would do the same, he resolves to reserve his house for some young man.”

I next turned to Sireul’s portrait of Jean de La Fontaine, the work in his collection singled out for praise in Lebrun’s Almanach of 1777, when it was described as by Largillierre. I had had to research this problem picture recently when I was working on my article on Sireul (which you should look at for more details). I looked in vain for this in AJS in November, and again failed to find any reference to Sireul or Sireuil in SP. By the time of the liquidation of his estate, the attribution had been revised to Rigaud, and the valuation a mere 30 livres. Unlike most of the lots in his sale, however, this exceeded expectations, reaching 130 livres (Lot 15). It was there described as by Hyacinthe Rigaux [sic], but while my transcription of the liquidation is (I believe) the first to appear (online or in print), and therefore hard to find, several copies of the printed sale catalogue are freely Googleable.

When it comes to pastel versions of Rigaud portraits, considerable problems emerge. Neither work is complete: you will find, for example, no mention of R. E. Pine’s copy of Fleury in either. (SP’s entry on this most important of Rigaud’s lost portraits has as the main colour illustration a version labelled as P.1349-6, which hasn’t been seen since 1901; I presume it is actually the Goodwood version). We know that minor artists such as Graincourt made pastel copies after Rigaud, but he does not appear in the index of AJS, and only once in SP for a copy known to be in oil.

For the most part AJS’s descriptions of versions and copies make it clear which are autograph replicas or copies; one of the main weaknesses in SP is an inconsistent approach here. Is the pastel version of Jabach he lists to be regarded as autograph? And why when referring to La Tour’s copy of Vintimille du Luc does he describe it as: “suiveur de Rigaud (Quentin de La Tour)”, citing the last sale as in 1978 and the last appearance as in 1999. AJS isn’t entirely complete either, although she does reproduce the work, stating “Xavier Salmon a identifié en 2012 le modèle et considère qu’il s’agit d’une étude de La Tour d’apr. Rigaud.” This could have been corrected by reference to my 2006 Dictionary (online the number, or digital object identifier, is J.46.3761), where it is published with the correct identification – and a reference to Salmon’s 2004 exhibition. But the identification is due to Joseph Baillio, from long before then.

Similarly SP makes several references to Valade’s pastel of the comtesse de Sénozan which could have been clarified had he consulted (and preferably cited, as it allows readers to see a reproduction after a few keystrokes on their computer) my Dictionary: the reference is J.74.316. Instead he cites (under P.1360) the reproduction in a biography of Malesherbes which gives the location as the Nicolay-Lamoignon family; while in another article (P.1392) he gives the correct location (Detroit) but with the old attribution, to La Tour.

Of course citing modern literature is a matter of courtesy, and can easily be overlooked with the pressure of material involved in projects such as these. But it goes beyond mere courtesy when a new and tentative attribution is made in a single source, and that is used without acknowledgement and stripped of reservation. I think that may have happened where the lost portrait of “Mme Sandrier” is discussed. This name appears in Rigaud’s accounts for 1693, and Roman (followed by AJS, P.351) suggest she is probably Mme Jacques Sandrier, née Agnès Rillard; AJS adds that they were married in 1671, and links them to another Rigaud portrait: all perfectly plausible, if unverifiable. SP (P.317) misprints the name as “Billard” (all the more confusing since he uses only ladies’ maiden names in his headlines); nor can this be a correction since he says that this is Roman’s proposal. He then notes, without source, that “le pastelliste Joseph Vivien ayant portraituré Gilles-Jérôme Sandrier, maître charpentier, entrepreneur des bâtiments du roi et son épouse, il se peut que cette dernière ait à son tour sollicité Rigaud.” But as far as I know, I was the first to reattribute the pendant pastels of “M. Sandrier, entrepreneur des bâtimens du roi” from La Tour to Vivien (where you will find Madame at J.77.306), and tentatively to identify which Sandrier this was. What SP has not considered however is that Gilles-Jérôme was born in 1693.

As I said before, you can’t judge works like these in a few hours. Trivial errors don’t undermine the accumulated knowledge enshrined in these vast corpora, which will take years to unfold. The good thing about an online database is that it can be corrected, and the information made all the more accessible.

Bravo to both these authors for enriching our knowledge of this wonderful painter.

(With apologies to Kipling for my title.)

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