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Constant de Massoul: soldier, émigré and colourman

11 February 2017

constant-pntSeveral years ago I unravelled the identity of the elusive “Constant de Massoul”, author of an important treatise which included a section on pastel, and included an article on him in my Dictionary of pastellists to supplement the very interesting discussion of the treatise itself in the chapter in Sarah Lowengard’s Creation of color in eighteenth century Europe (2008): she notes that nothing is known about the author, although the treatise was widely used at the time, including by artists such as John Constable.  As references continue to appear treating “Constant” as a forename (for example, the Liotard exhibition catalogue; see also the British Library catalogue, which makes no connection between the author in the printed catalogue and the “unspecified” baron de Constant in the manuscript catalogue), and as new documents have come to light on his rather colourful career, I thought I would post the contents of my article here, accompanied by some visuals (such as this portrait from a private collection) that don’t comfortably fit in the Dictionary.

Pierre-Barthélemy-Marie-Reine-Joseph-Alexandre de Constant was baptised at Lyon, paroisse Saint-Paul (contrary to some sources, which incorrectly cite Sainte-Foy-lès-Lyon, whose illegible registers will occupy several hours of fruitless searching), 2.vii.1755, the day after his birth:


The son of Pierre Constant de Massoul (1721–1796), chevalier de Saint-Louis, capitaine au regiment d’infanterie de Provence, lieutenant du roi de Neuville, from a family long established in Lyon (an échevin in 1697), and his wife, Marie-Louise-Éléonore de Béhague, he was admitted to the École militaire in 1766 on production of the necessary proofs of nobility. (For a brief genealogy see Constant.) He joined the régiment de Dauphin-dragons in 1772, becoming capitaine 1779. Between 1781 and 1786 he served in Martinique as concierge des prisons du Fort-Royal (a file in the AN d’outre-mer relates to his attempt to recover expenditure of some 15,000 livres on improvements to the military hospital). He became chevalier of both the orders of Saint-Louis and of Saint-Lazare. Father and son were living at place Saint-Michel, Lyon, when they took part in the assembly of the nobility at Lyon in 1789:


Unlike his father, the son seems almost never to have used the Massoul surname: the only exception I can find, apart from the London period discussed below, is his appearance in this list of pensions:


Constant was appointed aide de camp to his uncle, général de Béhague, in 1791; they were sent to Martinique to deal with the growing tensions, with an army of 5000 men. Constant was acting maréchal des logis du corps de troupe de la Martinique. However Béhague’s mission was countermanded by Rochambeau, who sought to apply the 1792 revolutionary order extending citizenship to all: Béhague was dismissed (and joined the armée des émigrés in London). The slave-owners in Martinique however opposed the revolutionary measures, and would not let Rochambeau take charge. Constant made a detailed memorandum of the complicated events (AN d’outre-mer, 2.iv.1793; copies of Constant’s correspondence with Dundas and Hawkesbury are also attached in the file): on 19.xi.1792 he arrived in Dover to secure British support for the pro-slavery royalists, leading to the accord signed by Dubuc in London, 4.ii.1793, putting Martinique under temporary British jurisdiction.

Further correspondence with the British government can be found in the Liverpool papers in the British Library. It shows that baron de Constant, as he was styled, remained in London, initially residing at 15 Wells Street, off Oxford Street (letter of 15.x.1793 to Lord Hawkesbury, soon to be Earl of Liverpool, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and President of the Board of Trade). An undated memorial (c.1796) sent to Lord Liverpool contained an appeal from a group of émigrés concerning the “établissement du Bron de Constant dans New Bond Street” on which they apparently depended, complaining about the (unexplained) “absence forcée du Bron de Constant”: here are the signatures:


Two of the fourteen signatories were the comte de Montamy and the chevalier d’Arclais de Montamy, nephews of the learned Didier d’Arclais de Montamy whose Traité des couleurs pour la peinture en émail was published in 1765. (The eagle-eyed will also spot the example of the Breton K barré which I discussed recently in my Sireul essay.)

In a letter of 23.v.1798 to Liverpool, Constant (back at 136 New Bond Street) invited the minister to his impending wedding to the daughter of the last marquis de Lambertye (1748–1819), who, he reminded his correspondent, was a relation of George III. At St Marylebone,, the baron de Constant married Suzanne-Célénie-Zoé de Lambertye (1779–1843):


The marriage contract, signed in London two days before, was witnessed by among others the ducs de Bourbon and Harcourt, the marquis de Castellane and the bishop of Nantes:


Although there is no previous record of his artistic interests, in London 1795–98 Constant worked as a colourman with a shop and factory at 136 New Bond Street, London, premises he shared with the apothecary Thomas Paytherus (Constant’s name does not appear in the Westminster rate books, but the address is that used in his correspondence with Lord Liverpool). Initially he advertised (Morning chronicle, 16.v.1795 and later dates), using the name Massoul alone rather than baron de Constant (presumably with the motive of concealing his involvement in trade while he was also working as a diplomat on behalf of the royalist government in exile):


This advertisement shows him in partnership with a miniaturist called La Tour (possibly Louis Brion de La Tour, but there were several unidentified homonyms; “Mr Latour, Miniature Painter” had previously announced the “Phisygraph” [sic] invention in the Times, 3.iv.1794, from his house at 72 New Bond Street; the royal patronage (of Princess Sophia of Gloucester) and address suggest a connection with Francis Tatton Latour of Bond Street, pianist to the Prince of Wales).

A further notice in the Times, 19.xi.1795, refers to the “Manufactory of Superfine Colours, established last year by Messrs Massoul and Co. at 136 New Bond Street.” By 1796 the firm of “Massoul & Co.” was offering Belanger’s views of Jamaica by subscription, from the same premises. By 1797 it was advertising perfectly prepared oil colours. The artist William Wood recorded his use of “Massoul’s vermilion and lake” in a miniature he finished in 1797.

constant-de-massoul-titleIn 1797 A treatise on the art of painting, and the composition of colours was published in London (from 136 New Bond Street), “translated from the French of M. Constant de Massoul” (no French edition seems to have been printed). (The death of Constant’s father in Lyon in 1796 (état civil) removed any ambiguity about Constant de Massoul’s identity.) Although it draws on numerous sources, it integrates them and is more than a mere compilation. It described a wide range of techniques in painting and drawing, including a section on pastel. Constant reviewed pastels available commercially, in Lausanne, Vevay, Nürnberg and Paris, and described supports of paper, vellum and prepared cloth, mentioning the need for keyed stretchers for the last of these (still fairly rare). A fixing method is presented based on information supplied by the pastellist Longastre. Constant also acknowledges observations from Danloux, Arlaud and Bélanger.

The author stated that he had had “little practice [himself] in Crayon Painting”: but it seems likely that he had at least an amateur competence in a number of the fields he describes.

As Sarah Lowengard noted, the book did not meet with immediate applause: here is part of Samuel Rose’s reaction, in the Monthly Review (xxix, 1798, p. 108):


Here is the more balanced assessment Lowengard herself offers:

How can we understand this treatise? Because it is one of a few publications that can be connected to an eighteenth-century colorman and the only one that offers to bring French technique to a London clientele, we need to consider seriously its claims and its contents. De Massoul hints at his own ideas (whether formed through personal experience or through the employment of skilled artists) about the consumption of painting techniques, and his beliefs depend on certain assumptions about the appeal that French style might have to British artists and amateurs. Who might need or want to own this, and how does it supplement other sources of information? A Treatise on the Art of Painting offers more-varied information than do other manuals of painting practice organized by or for painters and colormen, for example William Williams’s An Essay on the Mechanic of Oil Colours. It has a breadth of topics but no depth to its presentation of them; the treatise may have been as interesting to read and as difficult to use as the Encyclopédie méthodique. Above all, de Massoul assumes the need for personal demonstrations, suggesting a similarity between this book and those issued to accompany lecture series. Clearly, the book was designed to instruct and to expand its subject matter and its author to new levels of importance. De Massoul’s success in this is unclear; and his anonymity and lack of connection to the community of English painters in London suggest he had little. His work, then, is important to us for its inferences and its choices of information, but there are no certainties of its meaning in Constant de Massoul’s own time.

Constant remained in exile in London until at least 1799 (when a passport was issued allowing him to travel to Hamburg, although it is unclear whether he went).

It has not hitherto been noticed that Constant was associated with the firm of P. C. Lambertye of 5 rue d’Orléans-au-Marais (rue Charlot today), said to have been established in 1788, although the earliest references date from after his return to Paris; the firm was later taken over by Lambertye’s pupil Joseph Panier in 1822, and, in 1850, by Jacques-Michel Paillard. It offered “couleurs en tablettes et en poudre, très-bien préparées; coffrets en carton, décorés d’une manière agréable; papiers vélins d’une grande beauté…”. The initials P.-C. do not correspond to any recorded member of the Lambertye family, and may be a reference to Constant himself (again to avoid open derogation).

He died in Paris, at this same address, 5 rue d’Orléans-au-Marais (he is described in his estate inventory as a négociant). The house was the subject of a sale by Constant and his wife (AN MC/RE/vi/23, 22.xi.1811–11.i.1812), evidently not completed by the time of his death. His widow moved to Poitiers with other members of her family in 1814 (Guilhermy 1886, p. 351: her son Barthélemy, baron de Constant died in Poitiers in 1867); she was given a pension of 1200 livres (Liste générale des pensionnaires…, 1833).


I am most grateful to Constant’s descendants for making available certain unpublished material. Other sources include AN mc xcix/8, 20.viii.18013; AN d’outre-mer, various files; British Artists’ Suppliers at; British Library, correspondence of Lord Liverpool, Add. ms 38229–38232, 38254; Chaix d’Est-Ange; baron de Guilhermy, Papiers d’un émigré, 1789–1829, Paris, 1886; Henri de Jouvencel, L’Assemblée de la noblesse de la sénéchaussée de Lyon en 1789, Lyon, 1907; Kosek 1998; Georges de Lhomel, Jean-Pierre-Antoine, comte de Béhague, lieutenant général des armées du roi, 1727–1813, Paris, 1907; Lowengard 2008; G. C. Williamson, The miniature collector, 1921, p. 157 (signaled by Jacob Simon; see also RA Winter Exh. cat. 1951-52, p. 219); Wœlmont iii, s.v. Lambertye; État nominatif des pensions sur le Trésor royal, 1791, iii, p. 197; treatises


From → Art history

  1. Ewa Latour permalink

    Dear Neil Jeffares!

    I,m very interesting with Your work about Brion Latour. Could You tell me what is Physiograph? I can’t find anything about it.

    Kind regards

    Ewa Latour

    • It’s presumably some form of Delineator or Physionotrace. I’ll email you the advertisement for the full description.

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