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Another side of Perronneau: Mme Supiot and her doctors

6 March 2017

by permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections

Just when you think you have understood an artist, something comes along that reminds you how impossible that task is 250 years later. Readers of this blog will be aware of my interest in Jean-Baptiste Perronneau (c.1716–1783), of the research you can find in the Dictionary of pastellists and in Dominique d’Arnoult’s 2014 monograph, and in my various minor subsequent trouvailles posted on this blog (e.g. here, here, here and here – or just type Perronneau into the search box for more). But I confess the latest discovery (above) made me wonder if there weren’t an as yet unidentified homonym at work: not just because the reproduction I first saw (the woodcut from Morand, below) was so bad, but also because I could at first see no reason why Perronneau would have undertaken such a commission.

In 1752, Perronneau was at the height of his powers. Six years before he had been agréé to the Académie royale, and his exhibits to the subsequent salons had revealed him to be the true competitor to La Tour. He would be reçu just the following year (1753). But at the moment when you would have expected him to be focused on completing his morceaux de réception (canvases of Adam l’aîné and Oudry) for the Académie, he wrote to Caroline Luise expressing a “grande envie de voyager en Allemagne” (17 August 1752). All of this of course is generally known.

What isn’t is that that very same month he had been commissioned to document a bizarre medical condition, the unfortunate case of Anne Supiot who was dying from a monstrous disease. I found this from the book about her condition by Morand,[1] Histoire de la maladie singulière, et de l’examen du cadavre d’une femme devenue en peu de tems toute contrefaite par un ramollissement général des os, Paris, 1752, where, on p. 38, we read–


Evidently suspecting that many would not buy the print, the book itself included a wretched fold-out woodcut taken from it:


Anne-Élisabeth Queriot or Queriau (1716–1752) was the wife of Pierre Supiot, a cardeur de laine in the parish of Saint-Roch. For several years, following each confinement, she had suffered from a hideously painful condition resulting in deformation of the bones. We would recognize it today as an extreme case of osteomalacia (the adult form of rickets), caused by malnutrition (vitamin D deficiency) and exacerbated during pregnancy (the overwhelming number of cases are among women).[2] Needless to say its cause and cure were not understood fully at the time, and there were joined to a general distaste for such things a suspected (false) link with insanity and (in this case) a ghoulish interest in the spectacle of deformity.

Morand called in all the leading doctors of the day, and conducted a meticulous autopsy. His very full investigation and documentation was printed in full in December 1752, signaled at the time in various periodicals, including the Journal des sçavans, and cited in medical texts for centuries. This elicited a few years later a response from Dr Pierre Toussaint Navier (1712–1779) who correctly identified the link with rickets in his Observations théoriques et pratiques, sur l’amollissement des os, en général, & particulièrement sur celui qui a été observé dans la femme Supiot, dont l’histoire a été communiquée à la Faculté de médecine de Paris, en 1752, Paris, 1755.

Even outside medical circles the case attracted much attention – it was for example taken up by Mme de Graffigny.[3] She interested herself in it long before the medical reports were published. On 2 August 1752 she wrote to her friend François-Antoine Devaux:

Il y a ici une femme dont les os se sont fondus, en comensant par les pieds et les jambes. Quand cette maladie plus que singuliere n’etoit qu’au genoux, elle a encore fait un enfant. A present les bras, les cotes, et les clavicules du col sont fondues. Elle paroit grasse parce que son corps s’est ratatiné, n’ayant plus de soutien. Elle etoit d’une grandeur ordinaire. On la couvre a present toute entire d’un mouchoir. Elle boit, mange et digere. Tu pense bien qu’elle ne sort pas du lit et qu’elle n’a aucun movement. L’Accademie de chirurgie la visitent tous les jours et font leur remarques. Elle jase et n’a point du tout l’air triste. …Voila, je crois, une maladie unique et dont ny encien ny moderne n’avoit jamais eu de connoissance d’une telle folie de la nature. Eh mon Dieu, elle n’avoit pas besoin d’inventer de nouveaux moiens de nous tuer; il y en avoit assés.

Evidently many people were suspicious that this was a freak or a hoax: Mme de Graffigny reassured Devaux in a letter the next month that he should tell sceptics to go and see for themselves: “la femme fondue” lived in the “rue et but Saint-Roch” (near Sireul).

Unsurprisingly however the patient died shortly afterwards, in November, as reported even in the Affiches announces et avis divers, 16 November 1751:


But as noted above Perronneau’s role took place while the patient was still alive, in August. The legend is quite specific: “Dessiné sur le Sujet vivant agé de 35 ans en Aoust 1752 par Peronneau“. We don’t know what medium he used: dessin might just mean black chalk, or it could possibly have involved pastel. Unlike the genre of anatomical drawing which was well developed in the eighteenth century (among pastellists, see Gautier-Dagoty, Wandelaar, Gamelin, Rymsdyck, Blakey etc.), working from a patient who was still alive (albeit in great pain) was a very different process. Nor can it have been easy for Perronneau to handle a naked rather than nude female subject, with a physician who required maximum exposure. This was not what he was taught at the Académie.

What can have induced him to take on the job?

I wondered at first whether there was any family connection: Pierre Supiot after all was a cardeur de laine, and Perronneau’s family were tapissiers back in Tours (at his parents’ wedding in Paris in 1708,[4] the guests included a Tapissier et Brodeur du roi – but he had died in 1712, and in any case occupied a far grander position in the fabric business than M. Supiot, whom Mme de Graffigny described as a matelassier). I wondered then if Dr Morand might have had an interest in portraiture: but an engraved portrait said to be of him is in fact of this grandfather, and the Ambroise Tardieu who engraved it was from a much later period.

There is I think a clue in what may seem even more puzzling: the choice of engraver, the virtually unknown Anton Schlechter. I have pieced together some information on him. He was in Paris as a pensionnaire of the Austrian empress Maria Theresia. In a letter (Archives nationales) of 26.ii.1752 to Johann Georg Wille in Paris from Martin van Meytens (1695–1770), Hofmaler und Direktor der Kunstakademie in Wien, he adds a postscript sending his greetings to Massé and “Beiliegend Schreiben für Schlechter”. (This would not have been difficult, as the address given on the plate, quay des Augustins, was Wille’s: it appears in almost exactly this form on his engraving of Daniel Klein’s portrait of Marie-Josèphe de Saxe.) There is a drawing by Schlechter in the Albertina, a full-length pen and ink portrait en pied of his protector copied from the Meytens painting in the Schönbrunn of about 1752–53.

It is unclear if Schlechter completed his study before his arrival in Paris, or after his return, which presumably happened after 1754 when he engraved his best known work, the large-scale ceremonial (and politically significant) Entrée publique de son Excellence M. le Comte de Kaunitz-Rittberg, ambassadeur de l’Empereur et de l’Impératrice, Reine de Hongrie et de Bohême faite à Paris le 17 septembre 1752, after Eyssen (presumably Charles-Dominique-Joseph Eisen). We can probably infer how unsuccessful he was at selling prints in Paris by the fact that the only copy of the Mme Supiot print I can find anywhere in the world is that in the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow (and I am extremely grateful to the staff there and at the University of Glasgow Library for making the image available).[5]

After his return to Vienna his name appears fairly rarely: he engraved the maps for Hell’s map of Hungary (1771) and in 1770 he worked for Adam František Kollár, the historian and ethnologist, in the production of an edition known as Die Wiener Genesis. His dates are otherwise unknown.

But there is one other crucial piece of evidence, the print Schlechter made after Chardin’s portrait of the celebrated gynaecologist André Levret (1703–1780), de l’Académie royale de chirurgerie. Chardin had exhibited the portrait[6] in the salon of 1746; its critical reception led to his withdrawing from portraiture until the wonderful pastels he made in the 1770s. Schlechter’s print (right)

has been rather badly documented in the literature: in Bocher’s catalogue of Chardin engravings (no. 32) it is mentioned as a first state, but as with the legend “Gravé à Paris par Ant. Schlehter Pens. De S. M. Imple. 1758” [sic]; in the second state these words are replaced by “Louis le Grand 1760”. The normally reliable Rosenberg & Temperini (122a) simply give Louis le Grand as the engraver’s name (Roland Michel does the same), while the Chardin 1999 exhibition catalogue (p. 23) gives the year 1758 for the appearance of the engraving.

Rosenberg & Temperini do not know what connection there may have been between Chardin and Levret to lead to the 1746 commission: I can offer a hint. Mme Chardin was Françoise-Marguerite Pouget (1707–1791), while Levret’s father, also André, had been “valet de chambre du sieur Pouget, secrétaire du roi”.[7] This was Honoré Pouget, of the parlement de Montpellier, or perhaps his brother André (both held the title). Mme Chardin’s family remains somewhat complicated: I have pieced together a Pouget genealogy which identifies her father and several other close relatives as procureurs au Châtelet, but the link with the Montpellier branch remains obscure.

Schlechter’s print was actually dated 1753, and he was presumably safely back in Vienna before his name was removed from the plate. But it is Legrand’s name that appears very widely: Louis-Claude Legrand (1723–1807) made other engravings after Eisen, and so presumably took over Schlechter’s plates on his departure. Legrand (and possibly Schlechter, although I have no evidence of this) worked on La Fontaine’s Fables with Perronneau’s teacher Laurent Cars. But any such connection post-dated the Supiot print and cannot explain the circumstances of its commission.

In any case a comparison of the Chardin oil with Schlechter’s print allows us to form some idea of the engraver’s accuracy, and thus to work back to what Perronneau’s original drawing might have looked like (at least to a far greater extent than we can with the woodcut in Morand or the later reproductive engravings in other sources[8]).

Levret in fact was the consultant gynaecologist for poor Mme Supiot. (How did her husband afford all the fees? As my piece on Citoyen Coiffier demonstrated, a single visit from a physician would cost a month’s wages for the lower orders. Presumably these visits were pro bono, or rather for the benefit of the mystified professionals themselves.) Of all the physicians Morand mentions it was Levret who carried out the detailed physical examination while the woman was living. It is surely too much of a coincidence for him to be involved in two pieces of work for this obscure engraver. And yet the engraving of the Chardin was made after the print of Mme Supiot had been issued.

While we will never know for certain (unless more documents turn up) it seems plausible that Levret was the instigator of the medical drawing, and that he turned to his own portraitist, Chardin, who presumably declined the commission but passed it on to Perronneau. Schlechter may have had some previous contact with Chardin, but it would seem that Levret was sufficiently satisfied with his Supiot plate to ask him to engrave his own portrait. Of course this is speculative, but it doesn’t seem to require the facts to be contorted as far as this poor woman’s body.


However hard you try, occasionally the penny drops just after you upload a blog. And since I know some of you shared my reaction to the improbability of this story, the mental wheels remained in action. Niggling was, of all things, the name of the publisher of Morand’s book: veuve Quillau, but I couldn’t work out why this seemed familiar, and dismissed it.

But then I finally recalled that Perronneau’s great teacher and friend was Laurent Cars, at whose funeral in 1771 three nephews of this name were in attendance:


And rapidly I established that Cars’s sister Agathe (1701-1764) was indeed married to Gabriel-François Quillau, imprimeur du roi, imprimeur libraire de l’Université, and that after his death (the month before the Supiot print, in August 1752), she continued as imprimeur-libraire.

Not only does Agathe Cars’s involvement point strongly to a more direct link in how the commission was given to Perronneau, but it surely provides assurance that the reference to Perronneau in the book, without qualification or distinction from the artist well known to the printer, must indeed be to him rather than a homonym.

Perronneau Cars Louvre 32350As everyone knows Cars was the subject of a magnificent pastel by Perronneau now in the Louvre. He left it in his will, together with a pastel of his mother (whose name was Marie Barbery, not Babuty – it was one of Laurent Cars’s sisters who married Greuze’s brother-in-law), to the wife of a nephew. (For more on these family relationships, see Babuty, Cars, Pigalle. Babuty fils also used the quay des Augustins address.) Mme Divry, née Michelle-Élisabeth Mocquin (1735– ), went to live in Stockholm around 1777, and hadn’t been heard of for 25 years when her husband died in Paris. While the pastel of Cars was with the Académie by 1782, that of Marie Barbery was lost: was it taken to Stockholm, and might it one day turn up there?


[1] Jean-François-Clément Morand (1726–1784), docteur régent de la faculté du medicine; confused with his father in the BnF catalogue.

[2] An alternative diagnosis, of Gorham–Stout Disease, has however been suggested, in La Correspondance de Madame de Graffigny, cited below, volume 12, p. 444n.

[3] La Correspondance de Madame de Graffigny, ed. J. A. Dainard, English Showalter, Dorothy P. Arthur, D. W. Smith & al., Oxford, 1985–2016; vol. 12, pp. xx, 441, 443n- 444n; vol. 13, pp. 36, 38n. I am extremely grateful to Penny Arthur at the Graffingy Project for making these texts available when it seems that the British Library and all others in London have failed to take volume 12 of this important publication.

[4] I found the parish register extract in 2014, too late to make it into Arnoult, but you can find it and other pieces in my table of Perronneau documents. (It is interesting  because the artist’s mother was far younger than one would expect, but that is another story.) Pierre Lefort Duplessis had supplied luxury furnishings to the gouverneur of Béthune in 1704.

[5] MS Hunter HF246. Dr Mayet in 1909 (see note below) had seen one, but in so damaged a state that he was unable to reproduce it. The wretched woodcut and other reproductions have supplanted the Schlechter almost completely.

[6] Sold most recently in New York, Christie’s, 25.i.2012, Lot 122.

[7] AN Y5383, registre de clôtures d’inventaires, 28.viii.1728.

[8] Notably P. K. Stanski, Du Ramollissement des os…, Paris, 1839; Lucien Mayet, “Un cas d’ostéomalacie: Anne-Elisabeth Supiot”, La Province médicale, 2.i.1909, pp.4ff.


From → Art history

  1. The face of suffering medical subject, it seems to me, looks supremely at ease almost to the point of stupor in spite of her terrible deformity and pain. Could it be that (1) she was drugged heavily for pain during the depiction or (2) her head was even captured by the artist, or another, on an earlier, healthier occasion? Sorry, but I enjoy reading your fascinating explorations of art history so much, I must join in when something catches my attention so strongly.

    • Thank you for doing so. I think we have to make allowances for the fact that Perronneau was as far from his comfort zone as we 21st century viewers are from ours. He would have had no experience of depicting pain and suffering except perhaps as a student required to copy conventional tetes d’expression, and my guess is that we see what he imposed as much as what he saw. It’s M. Supiot’s conduct which disturbs me most, knowing what previous pregnancies had led too…

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. La Tour and Mme de Graffigny | Neil Jeffares
  2. Perronneau in Orléans | Neil Jeffares
  3. Encounters with Perronneau: Archival and other minutiae | Neil Jeffares

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