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La Tour and Mme de Graffigny

19 March 2017

Clavareau Mme de Graffigny LunevilleFor anyone reading this blog, the name of Mme de Graffigny will immediately suggest an image of an Enlightenment blue-stocking – a woman writer with connections to Rousseau, Voltaire and other such figures. Perhaps you conjure up a portrait of a lady with a book – rather like Mademoiselle Ferrand. You might recall that Graffigny was the author of the fictional Lettres d’une Péruvienne (1747), but have you ever read it – or indeed any of the 2518 real letters which have, over the course of more than 30 years, been published by team of scholars in a project between the Voltaire Foundation and the University of Toronto? The final volume of the letters appeared last year, while a comprehensive index is planned for next year. There is in the meantime an extremely useful working index online, as well as a wealth of explanatory material about the project which obviates the need for me to explain its overall aims or scope. These are freely available: the books themselves however are understandably rather pricey, and perhaps – with library cutbacks and so on – less available, and less consulted, than they should be.

You will of course have read the extract from her letter about Mme Supiot which I included in my last post. But while I was trying to find a copy of the volume that contained it, I noticed that the British Library (which had a copyright copy) hadn’t got round to cataloguing it (that has now been rectified), while the London Library only had some earlier volumes in the set (that too has now been rectified). However the reason for this post is my astonishment at discovering some key passages about one of my favourite subjects – Maurice-Quentin de La Tour – which have been (please do correct me if I’m wrong – I welcome any opportunity to update my bibliographies) completely overlooked by art historians.

Mme de Graffigny wasn’t perhaps as intensely interested in art as say Diderot, but she attended the Louvre salons and usually had something of interest to say in her letters (albeit they do not appear in standard bibliographies of salon criticism). But the artist who interested her most – and whom she knew personally – was La Tour. I’ve included their encounters in my chronological taLa Tour Mme de Graffigny BW166 f76ble of La Tour documents, and won’t repeat all of this here (just search Graffigny in the linked pdf). There are of course several references to Graffigny’s own projected portrait, possibly to be engraved to enhance her publications, and those have set off many fantasies. The pastel from the Marcille collection (J.46.1855; left), once thought to be of the dancer Mlle Sallé, was reidentified by André Michel in 1884 with no logic beyond enthusiasm, and subsequently included without qualification as of her in B&W, Adrian Bury’s monograph and the Paris 1927 exhibition (even the reference to that in the 2004 La Tour exhibition expresses no reservation).

It was however judiciously rejected by Colin Harrison in his 2004 SVEC article on the iconography of Mme de Graffigny. Excellent though that article was at debunking the ridiculous claims of a number of similar inconnues, it fell into exactly the same trap of wishful thinking by promoting, to the much wanted position of the lost La Tour, a rather modest pastel connected with a minor artist called Garand which it was suggested was a copy after the great master. In fact (as you can see in vol. XIV of the Correspondance, reproduced above, at the top of this post) the source of this image is the signed oval oil in Lunéville by the actor/painter Augustin Clavareau. (He was not only a protégé of Mme de Graffigny, but the father of the pastellist Victoire Clavareau.)

But it’s time to turn to a couple of extracts from the correspondence which are of far greater interest, and which illustrate just how significant Graffigny’s testimony is. Remember that, unlike the other biographies of La Tour (see here), these passages are immediate reportage, not the repetition of others’ stories with the propagation of error that I set out in my analysis.

The first comes in a letter to her friend Devaux (as almost all the letters are) of 14 September 1742. She has been two days before to the salon, noting that there was nothing there so extraordinary as the La Tour pastels, all masterpieces,

Schmidt d'a La Tour Auto BW243

surtout le sien, peint avec un chapeau a point d’Espagne, detrous

sé d’un coté, qui lui fait un ombre sur le visage. C’est un morceau parfait: je ne pouvois m’en arracher.

We’ll come back to that: it’s the famous autoportrait au chapeau de clabaud, now known only from the Schmidt print (right).

Three years later, she again reports to Devaux after a visit to the salon, in a letter of 7 September 1745. She is disappointed, particularly as the artists have had two years since the last salon (they had previously been held annually). Once again however it is the La Tour portraits that captivate her: “La Tour empeche de regarder les autres.” She picks out two in particular: one the famous, and much written about, Duval de l’Épinoy (here is my essay on this masterpiece of Western art, now in the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon), of which she thinks “rien n’est si admirable”.

La Tour Duval de l'Epinoy

But she then picks out another:

Disenteuil y est de sa façon, si singulièrement ressemblant que je pensai lui aler parler.

“Disenteuil” is her pet name for Henri-Ignace de Chaumont, abbé de La Galaizière (1706–1784), a particular friend, and brother of the intendant who was, as it happens, married to the sister of Philibert Orry, whose portrait La Tour also exhibited that year (no. 166; below left).La Tour Orry Louvre 27613 As far as I am aware, art history has not yet recorded this mention of a new, if lost, La Tour portrait, evidently one of the “Plusieurs autres portraits, sous le même numéro” [168] at the salon. But it may also unsolve another mystery: when the abbé’s nephew (and Orry’s) emigrated, his goods were seized by the state in 1798 including “un grand portrait d’Argenson, fait au pastel par Latour, monté sous glace, hauteur 3 pieds 6 pouces sur 2 pieds 7 pouces environ.” It was apparently deposited in the Muséum central, and it has for long been regarded as the portrait of Orry now in the Louvre (the known La Tour portraits of d’Argenson are smaller, and done when he had abandoned the larger format): the Orry pastel measures 116.7×89.5, near enough to the 114×84 of the saisie de l’émigré; but could the latter not equally well be of the abbé (unless we believe that its entry to the Muséum central was definitive)?

We must now move on to the most important encounter between Graffigny and La Tour, which took place on 7 July 1748 at Passy in the home of the famous fermier général La Pouplinière, in the company of Rameau and Vaucanson. The next day she wrote a second letter about this to Devaux, in which she included “deux anecdoctes toute fraiche de ce maitre peintre et plus, maitre fol.”

The first goes back to the autoportrait au chapeau de clabaud which she wrote about above. (The editors helpfully cite Trévoux’s Dictionnaire to explain that “on dit qu’un homme secoue les oreilles, quand il se moque, quand il ne soucie pas de ce qu’on lui dit”.)

Tu m’as peut-etre entendu parler d’un portrait qu’il avoit fait de lui, qui reellement me ravit en admiration quand il l’exposa au Louvre il y a quelques années. Je lui en demandai hier des nouvelles. Il secoua l’oreille et me dit qu’il etoit perdu. Je voulus en savoir l’histoire. La voici. Il avoit d’abort fait cette tete pour la galerie de Florence, où sa place est marquée. Il trouva qu’il avoit si bien reussit qu’un sentiment de patricien l’engagea a faire voir cette piece au roi, comptant comme il le dit, que son excelence le fraperoit et qu’il le metroit dans sa chambre. Le roi dit : « Cela est beau, » et le rendit. Ce fou, ce archifou, le mit en piece. Il s’en repend mais le mal est fait. Je l’ai bien flatée en ne lui parlant presque de cette piece, ou du moins en lui donnant la preferance sur ses autres ouvrages. Il ne l’a pas moins eté de mon entousiasme pour elle, que je rendois comme je l’ai sentie, car jamais rien ne m’a fait une plus vive impression ; mais il a bien flaté mon dissernement en m’avouant qu’il n’avoit jamais rien fait d’aussi bon, et qu’avec ce morceau il ne craignoit ny la posterité antecedente ny la subsequente. Aussi etoit-ce en verité un chef-d’œuvre. Il n’y avoit que la tete, coeffée d’une peruque et d’un chapeau clabot avec un vieuxpoint d’Espagne. C’etoit une espece de prix. Ah, la belle chose !

The lost pastel has been discussed many times, including in the La Tour 2004 exhibition catalogue, but this fascinating story has never (as far as I am aware) been cited in the art historical literature. It provides I think the only evidence that he was asked to send his portrait to the grand-ducal collection at the Uffizi (the pastel there purporting to be La Tour’s self-portrait seems in my opinion neither to be of nor by him). It again reinforces his proximity to the king and his patriotism (“patricien” has however been correctly read; Mme de Graffigny used it to mean “haughty”) that are picked up in other stories in his hagiography. Of course it reinforces the trope of the fastidious artist willing to destroy anything which was less than perfect.

So does this final story, continuing the same letter . Having extracted an invitation to dinner from the painter (a rare privilege), she continued:

Je lui dis que j’etois fort curieuse de voir un portrait de Mde de Pompadour, dont j’ai beaucoup entendu parler, comme d’une merveille non achevée. Le boureau secoua encore l’oreille, baissa les yeux, et dit: « Il n’est plus. » Il l’a encore brulé parce qu’il avoit donné un faux trait. Il etoit en grand. C’etoit un tableau de la taille de ceux dont il prend jusqu’à dix mille francs. Il est brulé. Avez-vous une idée d’une tete aussi folle ? Je lui chantai pouille. Il me dit que j’avois bien aise de peindre a l’ancre, que j’en etois quitte pour une feuille de papier quand il me faloit retoucher une phrase, mais qu’il lui faloit des mois pour raccomoder un faux trait, et qu’il aimoit meux reccommencer. Voila l’homme; au demeurant, de l’esprit et des sentimens.

Indeed. Again this passage is not mentioned in Jean-François Méjanès’s monograph devoted entirely to the portrait of Mme de Pompadour, which was finally exhibited in 1755 and is now in the Louvre. As you can see if you look closely, the head has been done on a new sheet of paper pasted over the rest of the work.La Tour Pompadour Louvre Apart from the claim to have destroyed the picture (which we can neither prove nor disprove, although it is more likely that he relented and effected the correction on the new sheet), we find what La Tour had in mind for its price (his later demand for 48,000 livres, nearly five times as much, was famously rejected). And we have evidence that the work was not merely well under way, but already destroyed before the date when we thought it had been commenced – even to the point that Mme de Graffingy had already heard so much about it.

Brava Mme de Graffigny for telling us so much. Bravi Oxford, Toronto and all those involved in this important project.


From → Art history

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