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More Perronnoia: his brother’s letter

5 April 2017

lettreDo great artists have to be nice? In a word, no; and a good many of them demonstrate personality traits that border on the sociopathic. We explain (but not necessarily excuse) this by reflecting on the intense effort and focus required to achieve greatness in any creative field; but all too often we find our heroes driven by ambition to the point of turning their back on their origins or behaving tyrannically in their immediate family. That is not the traditional impression one has of Jean-Baptiste Perronneau, whose correspondence suggests a mild man with a tendency to melancholy – much like so many of his portraits. But it is time to consider a different side of him, as revealed – or at least alleged – in a letter by his younger brother written towards the end of 1753.

You will remember the brother because of the wonderful painting of him at a date I discussed in my last post, and you may remember the discovery I announced two years ago (courtesy of the wonderful site familleparisiennes.org which includes scans of many neglected genealogical files in the Archives nationales) of the deed of rectification concerning the spelling of their mother’s name. That you will recall was a formal application to correct certain registers, accompanied with supporting documents, among which were conformed copies of lost parish records of Jean-Baptiste-Henry’s baptism (1730) and of their parents’ marriage (in 1708 – when Marie-Geneviève Frémont was no more than 13 years old: no wonder her eldest son was not born until rather later). The baptismal register reveals not only that Henry’s parrain (godfather) was his elder brother, but that his marrain was one “Anne Charlotte fille”: quite probably an unrecorded sister, older than the one at whose marriage, in 1749, the pastellist acted as proxy for his father, and presumably dead soon after Henry’s baptism.

You can find all these documents as well as the letter I’m going to discuss transcribed on my site here (as always I try to reproduce what I find without adding punctuation or correcting spelling, but sometimes there are words which are completely illegible: corrections will be welcome). You might want to read the letter there (it’s currently at p. 7 in the pdf, but just look for 1753) and draw your own conclusions without my commentary below.

The letter is attached to the formal bundle of documents in the rectification d’erreurs file although one would not expect to find such a personal document in this context. It is four pages long (the fourth is shown above), and it starts with a lengthy explanation of why Henry is writing to his brother – put simply, there is a mismatch between his mother’s maiden name in his birth certificate and the one that went onto the lettres de tonsure granted in 1748, and this means that he can’t obtain the further orders he needs:

Mon cher frere

je prend la liberté de vous ecrïre pour un sujet important. Je nai pas recües les ordres mineurs parceque mes lettres de tonsure ny mon papier baptistiare ne sont pas en regle. Je ne puis m’adresser a autre qu’a vous pour cette affair. Vous penserez ce que vous voudrez de la difficulté qu’on me fait a ce sujet mais elle sera toujours capable de m’empecher de recevoir les ordres tant que les lettres de tonsure ny le papier baptistaire ne seront pas rectifiés premierement le papier baptistaire n’est pas legalisé il faut qu’il le soit pour que je recoive le sousdiaconat pour les quatre moindres que j’ai manque de recevoir ou me l’auroit passé pour cette fois mais cequi a esté le plus decisive, cest que les lettres de tonsure que je vous envoie portent fils de marie genevieve fromont aulieu que le papier baptistaire porte fremont et voici la difficulté car ou je nai pas de papier baptistaire si je fais recevoir mes lettres de tonsure ou je nai pas de lettre de tonsure si je fais recevoir mon papier baptistaire, par ceque le fils de fromont marqué sur les lettres de tonsure n’est pas le fils de fremont du papier baptistiare il faut que vous remarquiez que ce papier baptistaire est en second, que les lettres de tonsure ont eté faites sur le premier que sans doute il portait fromont ou pour rectifier tout cela il faut voir premierement si le registre baptismal porte fromont sil sepent faire vous ferey mettre fremont par consequent faire demander au Secretariat de l’archeveché dans les lettres de tonsure qui soient absolument conforme au papier baptistaire rectifié ou pourra vous en donner dautres dautant que lles sont fort delabrées si le registre porte fremont il y aura pas tant de peine mais neamoins il faut que les noms soient ecrits avec exactitude vous ferez ecrire perroneau[1] tel que le voila et tel que mon excorporation que larchevesque de paris a envoiée porte vous verrez les fautes des noms du papier baptistaire ou celui qui le fait mal perronault au lieu que les signatures portent perroneau perroneau, il faudra toujours neanmoins d’autres lettres de tonsure et les faire insinuer cequine sepent faire sur les autres pour la raison que vous voiez. Voici ce quon madit de vous expliquer je ne puis le faire mieux on madit aussi afin que cela soit mieux fait que vous prier quelques ecclesiastiques de faire cela comme Mr Lecure de St Germain[2] dautant plus quil faut une personnne a qui on puisse accorder le denouement de ces difficultés ou bien quelqu’autre prestre.

Je vous aurai une obligation infini, je ne voudrois pas manquer la prochaine ordination qui se sera peut etre a noel et par laquelle on m’accordera et les quatre moindres et le soudiaconat.

faites en la diligence je vous prie au plustot.

So far there is nothing too extraordinary about this – at first sight. But he does seem to take an astonishingly subservient tone with his brother, and clearly regards him as a paterfamilias rather than an equal. Why otherwise would he feel the need to write rather than simply drop in to chat about this? The letter also seems to me, even by the standards of the day, overly long-winded: the discrepancy between the documents could be explained in a few lines; Henry’s difficulty in doing so suggests that he may not have been particularly bright, an impression reinforced by the fact that he seems not himself to know the correct spelling of his own mother’s name. Does this make him an “unreliable witness” or diminish the interest of his letter (particularly what follows)? I rather doubt it; to me it suggests a naiveté incapable of distortion beyond an element of exaggeration.

The next paragraph turns to domestic matters, a request for nine yards of coarse woollen fabric against the winter (the letter is undated, but no doubt written in November or very early December 1753):

Je suis tout nud en verité obligez donc votre frere en quelque chose je ne serai pas longtant a vos charges, priez votre l’<lacune> qu’il vous leve six aulnes et demie de cadidagnau c’est une grosse etoffe de duree. La Saison approche je ne scai qu’emploier pour vous toucher me voilla a la veille de n’avoir plus besoin de vous.

Je vous lerendrai en le rendant a ma mere.

Equally surprising here are Henry’s poverty and his longing to be released from his brother’s charge – the “emancipation” of minors, at the age of 25, which was still 18 months away for him. Now comes the hardest part of the letter, which I won’t interrupt:

Si vous avez encore quelques bontés pour moi faites moi recommander a Monseigneur ou au doien de St Martin qui se nomme de ponnarelle par Mr de lovendal[3] ou par quelqu’un de distinction comme Mr de Kelus[4] qui connoissent notre archevesque comme aiant demeure aupres d’eux aux tuilleries vous etes en estat de me rendre service par vos connoissances. ce ne sera pas vous deshonorer mais pour achever de vous temoigner ma peine et ce qui mal le comble a mes maux je vous dire que ma mere est dans la plus extreme pauvrete elle na pas de bas a ses pieds elle s’est defait de tout. Je ne crois pas quon puisse estre plus malheureuse je verse des larmes elle perd l’esprit, ses voisins me l’on dit comment elle parle sans cesse de vous, elle sevie que vais-je devenir mon fils ou est mort ou m’a abbandonné le jour, elle vat chez ses voisins elle ne fait que leur parler sans cesse ou la montre au doigt a cause de sa situation. Mr gigandet lui a presté douze francs elle en a paye son terme. Elle na plus rien. Cest un homme dure et austere il a cepandant un bon cœur mais comme lui mesme s’est trouvé bien embarrassé il voit d’un œil tranquille la misere d’une femme qui ne devroit pas y estre. Elle se trouve souvant mal, lui mesme laretenne a sa port preste a se fendre la teste que puis je vous dire pour remuer chez vous les sentiments de la nature, excusez moi c’est la nature chez moi qui vous parle – vous aimez ma mere mais elle est eloigné de vous et vous ne voiez que de loin ce quelle souffre elle devient infirme et vat devenir dans un estat avoir besoin d’un quelquun qui pour ainsi dire la leve dessus sa chaise, il faudroit que vous la fissiez venir a paris et la lafaire mettre chez quelque communaute de filles vous ne pouvez faire autrement car on la trouvera morte dans sa chambre comment voulez vous qu’une femme si puissante puisse agir si vous lui parlez d’un courant a tours premierement il faudroit que Mr Gigandet vit de largent secondement que vous lui fassiez signifier que vous ne voulez pas lui rien envoier quelle n’aille dans lendroit qu’on lui trouvera je ne scaurois vous dire d’autres moiens que de la mettre a paris car ce sera toujours la mesme chose elle voudra vous aller voir au lieu que vous seriez aportée de la voir quant elle ne seroit eloigné je suppose de trois leiues vous lui rendrez un grand service. Vous vous acquitterez devant dieu de l’obligation ou vous etes de la voir mourir dans un etat plus avantageux que j’en ai vu mon père.

Je suis

Mon cher frere avec toute lamitié possible

Votre tres humble et tres obesissant serviteur

perroneau

That heartfelt plea needs no comment from me. But what happened subsequently?

As the rectification documents show, Perronneau did indeed support the application which was duly granted. It does not seem that Henry obtained all the degrees of ordination he sought that Christmas: when he died, Henry was still a “clerc minoré”, which means only the four lowest orders (the “quatre moindres”) but not (I think – but I am not well versed in Catholic theology) the subdiaconate. Instead of getting testimony from important clergymen, however, Perronneau rounded up just two witnesses: one a cobbler from his own street, rue Froidmanteau, the other an obscure 25-year old painter, Claude-Jérôme Saussay, who would join the Académie de Saint-Luc eight years later.[5]

Perronneau did not arrange for his mother to come to Paris – perhaps she was too infirm to undertake the journey, but Henry’s clear allegation is that the famous artist was hobnobbing with the likes of the comte de Caylus, and was too snobbish to be seen with his own family. That I think is how we should read the constant references to “my mother” rather than “our mother” (if we didn’t know otherwise, we might wonder if they were half-brothers).

Indeed Henry himself was not present at his brother’s wedding the following year (the arists’s bride was herself only 13, just as his mother had been at her wedding, while Perronneau was 25 years older) – perhaps because he was ill: but nor had he (or any of their family) been at his sister’s, four years before.

In fact it was Henry who went to Tours to see his mother. He clearly was worried that she would end up in a pauper’s grave like his father, who died in the Hôtel-Dieu at Tours. But in fact it was Henry himself who died, and was buried with his mother in attendance at Saint-Venant, Tours, on 7 avril 1755:

PerronneauJBH inh Saint Venant Tours 8iv1755

Marie Geneviève Frémont, veuve Perronneau, lasted until 1760, when she too died at the hôpital de La Charité at Tours, just as her younger son had feared.

One of the revelations of Dominique d’Arnoult’s 2014 monograph on Perronneau is that the artist did not himself die in poverty, but, in Daniel Roche’s phrase, “parmi les bons niveaux de la richesse parisienne”. Much of that wealth must have been accumulated by 1760.

Notes

[1] There is an ink blot on one n in the manuscript.

[2] Presumably the cure of Saint Germain l’Auxerrois (Étienne de La Brue).

[3] Guillaume-Gabriel de Benoist de La Prunarède (p.1716–1793), doyen de Saint-Martin de Tours, vicaire-général, abbé commanditaire de Jouy. Ulrich Friedrich, baron, puis abbé de Löwendal (1694–1754), associé libre de l’Académie royale de peinture, chambellan du roi de Pologne, doyen de l’Église de Saint-Marcel; Tocqué exhibited his portrait in the salon de 1748, alongside the pastel of his brother Ulrich-Frédéric-Waldemar, comte de Löwendal (1700–1755), maréchal de France, by La Tour.

[4] Le comte de Caylus, who had played a role in commissioning Perronneau’s pastel of Mapondé. He lived near the Orangerie des Tuileries.

[5] While somewhat irrelevant to this post, except on the general theme of female subjugation, I note that Saussay hired a young domestic servant from a small village in the country, one Françoise Vincent, who fled after two months in his service. He took procedings at the Petit Criminel to pursue her; she pleaded homesickness (AN Y9665, 1754: see Julie Elizabeth Leonard, “A window into their lives: the women of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, 1725-1765”, Marquette University, dissertation, 2009, p. 194.

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From → Art history

2 Comments
  1. Very interesting. I find the letters easier to read if done rapidly out loud. The french then sounds much the same as modern french.

  2. Indeed that’s the trick! I’m always tempted to modernize but you lose so much, and in this case where the reliability of the writer is at issue that would be a loss. I can’t help feeling he wasn’t particularly bright, and while the family background was not literate (his father could barely write at all), plunging himself into the church must have been bewildering…

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