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Citoyen Coiffier, marchand de couleurs et de papiers

22 February 2017

lemoine-124-mWhen, twenty years ago, I was working on Jacques-Antoine-Marie Lemoine,[1]  I came across an entry in the 1796 salon livret for which I can recall no parallel:


The portrait of the actress and star of the Comédie-Italienne, Mme Dugazon (above, private collection; Jeffares 124), was one of those mentioned in the 1796 livret. The unprecedented recognition accorded to this artist’s supplier (“colourman” hardly seems le mot juste for a purveyor of black) suggested that he merited further examination, but his name was absent from all the reference books I consulted. He is for example still not in the Guide Labreuche. And when very recently Marie-Anne Dupuy-Vachey published an article[2] about Lemoine’s portrait of Fragonard (Jeffares 139), she reasonably speculated that it too, although dated the following year, was probably made with these velvet crayons. But no further information about Coiffier was offered.

A wider search however produces a few examples of made-up sketchbooks that he supplied, all with a distinctive label:

Mountains, Looking towards St Gervais-les-Bains 1802 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Owners of these books include artists ranging from Jacques-Louis David (examples in the Louvre and the Fogg) to J. M. W. Turner (Tate, above), as well as diarists such as the English traveller Bertie Greatheed. All seem to date to around 1800. And finally there is a reference in the memoirs of the duchesse d’Abrantès to a letter which she received from one of her friends, “très soignée dans tout ce qui l’approchait”, who had chosen to write it “sur du papier vélin satiné venant de chez Coiffier, alors le Susse de la papeterie élégante de Paris.” (Susse, for today’s readers, was the most up-market of Paris stationers at the later period when the duchesse was writing; just the sort of place Gilberte Swann would have patronised much later still.)

There are of course a handful of references in the trade almanachs of the period. These give a succession of different numbers in the street, which itself undergoes changes of name, from rue du Coq-Saint-Honoré to rue du Coq-Honoré and even rue du Coq. It is now known as the rue de Marengo, a short street running north from the north entrance to the Cour Carré of the Louvre. Back in the eighteenth century however, before the construction of the rue de Rivoli, the buildings were closer to the Louvre, as you can see from this print by Louis-Pierre Baltard:


The neighbouring shops included printsellers such as Aaron Martinet, a few doors away. The adjacent property was occupied by another papetier, Giroux, of whom more below. Lemoine himself was not far away, in the rue des Bons-Enfants (and in 1810 would move even closer, to the rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, just a few yards away). While Coiffier was based at no. 133 in 1796 (from the Salon livret), the labels and almanachs have no. 121 around 1800–5, while by 1809 he was at no. 9. In fact these were all the same building.

We can only establish this by consulting the original property agreements, for which you will search in vain in the Archives nationales if you don’t know the notary and date. As always in this type of biographical research the key document is the inventaire après décès, from which so much information about the individual, his family, his business and his contracts emerges. Coiffier’s 82-page inventaire (on normal notarial paper rather than its subject’s luxury product) contains a good deal of this, and is the basis for this note.

René Coiffier died on 16 January 1810. The notary initially spelt his name Coeffier, a commonly found version, but corrected this, in the inventory which was carried out nine days later. Although the rue du Coq-Saint-Honoré was his normal dwelling, Coiffier had actually died in the other house he had, in France Nouvelle, a hamlet in the Montmartre district: we will return to this below.

I have not been able to locate his exact date of birth, but he was the son of Jean Coiffier dit Nogent and Marie-Elisabeth Verner or Werner, who were married in Paris, Saint-Côme, 21 May 1750; his mother was dead in 1761, so he was born between 1751 and 1761. We do know a good deal more about his wife, Marie-Antoinette Muret (c.1753–1817); he was her second husband. She was the daughter of a maître bourrelier; one of her brothers was Pierre-François Muret, an émailleur. Her first husband was Jacques Mézeray, limonadier de la Comédie-Française, after whom the Café Mézeray is named. She had divorceansiaux-mlle-mezeray-1800-comediefrd Mézeray by the time (9 August 1795) of her marriage to Coiffier, but a daughter of that first marriage is a significant part of the story. She was the actress Marie-Antoinette-Joséphine Mézeray (1774–1823) de la Comédie-Française. Perhaps surprisingly we have no drawing of her by Lemoine, who did most of her co-sociétaires, but there is in the collections of the Comédie-Française a painting of her by Ansiaux said to be the one exhibited in 1800 (left: although not strictly en pied), where it elicited this barbed response from the critic in the Mercure:


There is more detail about Joséphine Mézeray and her roles in the Galerie historique des comédiens… which provides an account of her miserable death in a state of raving insanity. The duchesse d’Abrantès called her an “actrice très et toujours mauvaise”, and the multiplicity of her wealthy lovers (the Comédie-Française holds some three dozen letters from one of them, the famous gastronome Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent Grimod de La Reynière (1758–1837), son of the amateur pastellist) suggests that her theatrical career was based on skills broader than the attentive study of Molière’s texts (Ansiaux depicts her studying the role of Célimène in Le Misanthrope). It does seem that she developed a taste for luxury (the Goncourts commented on her “paresse et goût du plaisir”), and one wonders whether this placed a drain on the stationery business’s cashflow.

We can trace this also through the documents, starting with the Coiffier–Murat marriage in 1795, when Coiffier brought 50,000 francs against his wife’s 80,000. The property transactions throw more light, as well as confirming that the apparent changes of address were merely questions of numbering. It turns out that the building belonged to the painter Jacques-Louis David, as confirmed in this minute of the lease renewal:


In fact, turning to David’s own inventaire après décès and his marriage contracts (he married the same woman twice, with a divorce in between), we can see that 133 rue du Coq-Saint-Honoré was first acquired by David’s father-in-law, Charles-Pierre Pécoul, entrepreneur des bâtiments du roi. Part of the confusion over the numbering may have arisen because Pécoul actually bought several properties, in a series of contracts over two years, the earliest dated 29 March 1776. We know from David’s remarriage contract (22 Brumaire an V) that the property was valued at 40,000 francs, while from the Coiffier papers we know the rent was 3000 francs a year (the lease was for 9 years). Of this some 2400 francs was due at the time of Coiffier’s death.

A further transaction of some interest concerns Coiffier’s other house at Nouvelle France, then a rural hamlet near Montmartre, now the urban district known as La Poissonnière. It seems that Coiffier initially owned this outright, but just three months before his death he entered into a sale and leaseback, selling the property to an investor for 12,000 francs while taking a lease to continue to occupy it for some 900 francs a year. (Both these transactions confirm that property yields at the time were 7½% .)

All the evidence is that the business was failing. The enormous inventory was valued at over 8000 francs. There were vast stocks of literally hundreds of different kinds of paper, each described minutely in the inventaire, ranging from “cinq mains de papier Grand Raisin de couleur bleu de Pale” (2 francs) to the same quantity of “papier petit aigle d’hollande” (22 francs 50), although most types were stocked in reams. Fragonard could have chosen the porte-crayon Lemoine depicts him with from more than a hundred in stock, in a dozen different models. Lemoine himself could have bought one of the seven dozen leather stumps (the notary’s first attempt at the spelling was “estampe”). There were thousands of made-up toiles, a great many frames, and even 107 oval sheets of glass ready cut for the frames. But all this was financed almost entirely by creditors. Even the domestique was owed eight months’ wages (her annual pay was 200 livres), while the “argent comptant” in the business was a mere 31 francs 50. Cash had been run down, stocks were high, creditors were stretched. Much of his stock was evidently bought in: just considering the pastels, for example, he held “quatres boïtes de Pastels de differentes Grandeurs”, value 10 francs; various “étuis à pastels”, one holding 50 crayons (4 francs), one 25 and three a dozen each: but these were financed by the supplier “Mme Giraud pour fourniture de pastels”, to whom he owed 19 francs 75.

Among the creditors we find further evidence of what might have caused or contributed to this problem (not all perhaps attributable to his step-daughter’s extravagance): Coiffier owed 96 francs to “M. Reif médecin” (no doubt the eminent physician from Strasbourg) for six visits, and an equal sum for medicine supplied by “M. Deschamps, pharmacien” (he was listed as apothicaire suivant la Cour, grande rue du fauxbourg Montmartre). Of course we don’t know what was wrong with Coiffier now, but they probably didn’t know then either.

Why have a country house within walking distance, and hang onto it when capital is so short ? You might think that Coiffier was in need of fresh air…and that that was in short supply in the house in the rue du Coq-Saint-Honoré? For, in addition to the hundreds of boxes of different types of luxury writing paper, sketch books, crayons of every conceivable kind as well as other types of artists’ materials (notably hundreds of ready made frames and canvases), there was also evidence of his scientific research into his artificial crayons. Might it be that the dust or chemicals from these processes were toxic? He would not be the first colourman so afflicted. (I discuss the matter of toxicity in Chap. IV of my Prolegomena: that the problem was real is evidenced by a 1775 application for the invention of a safe “moulin à broyer les couleurs”, supported by hospital reports of 272 admissions in the preceding 21 months from unsafe grinding.)

This was a time when there was intense focus into the question of black chalks, a coalescence of the science of manufacturing them (spurred by wars which made importation of natural graphite from the Lake District in England more difficult) with the aesthetic demand for softer chalks which were nevertheless less friable than charcoal, but could give the intensity and richness of ivory black. The effects of mezzotint engravings were seen as highly desirable, and were emulated in drawings “à la manière noire”.[3] Lemoine was certainly a pioneer but so too were artists such as Isabey. Some of the antecedents include the pupils of Francis West in Dublin who used a soft black chalk that is often referred to as grisaille pastel (but may or may not be a natural mineral), a technique also employed to spectacular effect by Joseph Wright of Derby. And the inventions of this period would lead into the nineteenth century, as reflected in the Getty’s recent exhibition Noir: the romance of black in 19th-Century French drawings and prints.

Among the inventors of artificial crayons the name that survives today is that of Nicolas-Jacques Conté (1755–1806) – soldier, aeronaut and inventor, granted a patent in 1795 for his idea of compressing a mixture of graphite and clay. The basic Conté principle results in materials that are harder than traditional pastels, and it is likely that Coiffier and Lemoine’s inventions were adaptations of Conté’s theme, resulting in softer material with more painterly qualities.

But how can we tell? Unfortunately the inventaire does not include any recipes, and the lengthy list of glass vessels etc. equipping the “laboratoire du défunt” could as easily be devoted to alchemy as to the invention of artificial crayons. But in addition to the laboratoire, and separate from the “attelier des toiles”, there was a “Piece dite l’attelier aux Crayons” where among other tools and stocks there was a “Presse à crayons”. That does indeed suggest that Coiffier was pursuing an idea similar to Conté’s. But these experiments and the rooms devoted to them were not in David’s house in the rue du Coq, but in the country house in Nouvelle France. So he didn’t keep on the property to escape from noxious fumes, but to immerse himself in them.

What seems to have happened is that Mme Coiffier moved quickly to dispose of the business after her husband’s death – probably spurred by the need to pay David’s rent. (She also married a third time, her third husband being a marchand de perruques who supplied the Comédie-Française.) As mentioned above, the immediate neighbour was Alphonse Giroux, a picture restorer who is said to have been a pupil of David and who had run a more modest shop on the Pont Neuf before establishing a restoration business Au Coq Héron, at 7 rue du Coq-Saint-Honoré. It is clear from the series of advertisements which appeared within months in the Journal de Paris that Giroux’s business suddenly expanded in scope and scale, and it seems most likely that he took over the Coiffier business or at least much of its stock. (I even wondered whether there had been yet another change of numbers, but I don’t think so; no. 9 was still no. 9 at the time of David’s inventaire après décès.) Giroux continued to broaden the firm’s activities (selling toys, furniture and pictures as well as stationery and artists’ materials), and it remained for many years a fashionable shop in Paris, later moving to larger premises at 43, boulevard des Capucines. His story has been told elsewhere.[4]

lemoine-deux-fillesBut there is one other intriguing possibility. Lemoine himself went on to make his own crayons, modifying the recipe from Coiffier’s which he found was too greasy to use satisfactorily with stump; his “crayons dit de Sauce” were continued to be made after his death, winning praise at the Exposition of 1834. Much of our knowledge about Lemoine came from an interesting letter written just after his death in 1824 by one of his daughters (Agathe-Jeanne-Thérèse (1784–p.1825), who the following year married a Joseph Rey; the other sister was Antoinette-Félicité-Virginie Lemoine (1791–1850), who, also in 1825, married  Aimé-Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Bleve: the two girls are shown in this moving exhibit from the Salon de 1795 of “une miniature, représentant les deux filles de l’Auteur, brûlant des fleurs sur le tombeau de leur mère morte, qui leur apparoît”). In the letter, Agathe states-

En 1811 [Lemoine] établit pour nous deux ma soeur une petite manufacture de crayons à dessiner qui ont acquis une reputation méritée d’après le dire des artistes, et le débit que nous en avons.

The timing seems so specific: just after Coiffier’s death. Is it just possible that Lemoine took over some of his equipment?


[1] My catalogue raisonné appeared in the Gazette des beaux-arts in 1999.

[2] Marie-Anne Dupuy-Vachey, “The portrait of Fragonard by Jacques-Antoine-Marie Lemoine”, Master drawings, liv/4, 2016, pp. 491–500. A minute point in this otherwise exemplary article, arising from the translation: a fourbisseur du roi supplies swords, not outfits.

[3] Tony Halliday, “Academic outsiders at the Paris salons of the Revolution: the case of drawings ‘à la manière noire'”, Oxford art journal, XXI/1, 1998, pp. 71-86; the article does not however mention either Lemoine or Coiffier.

[4] See my Suppliers as well as Jacob Simon’s directory for the main sources.


From → Art history

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