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Nattier’s portraits of M. et Mme Royer

3 February 2018

Nattier M. Royer

It’s hard to believe that it’s nearly 20 years since Xavier Salmon’s wonderful Nattier exhibition at Versailles. Those were the days before it had become popular to borrow pastels for temporary shows (see my piece), and with conservation-minded curators in control, the decision was reluctantly taken not to include any of Nattier’s pastels in the exhibition. Instead Salmon wrote a much-needed separate article in L’Objet d’art (1999) setting out Nattier’s claims as pastellist. Formidable though those are, and despite the discovery since of another half dozen autograph pastels in the online Dictionary, it remains fair to say that “Nattier pastelliste” has not received the same recognition as has been accorded to La Tour, Perronneau, Carriera or Liotard. And in part that is due to the fact that his best work has not been seen together – which isn’t going to happen; but we can go part of the way, in relation to two magnificent pastels which represent the high point of his art in this medium, by offering a colour image of one hitherto only glimpsed through the fog of a 100-year-old plate.

The portraits of the composer Jean-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer (J.554.177) and his wife, Louise-Geneviève Le Blond (J.554.179), were last seen together in public in 1908 in the famous exhibition of Cent pastels. (As always you can find full details in the Nattier article in the Dictionary.) They then belonged to the collector Sigismond Bardac; sadly we know nothing of their earlier provenance. The Royers’ identities were confused with those of the magistrate Le Royer and his wife in the catalogue, but immediately rescued by Adolphe Jullien, although the name of the composer’s wife was not given even in Salmon’s article. I published it online (with the date of her burial, noted in the Annonces, affiches et avis divers…) in time to get into the catalogue of the 2011 New York exhibition at the Met., where the portrait of Mme Royer was for me one of the triumphs in a brilliant show: I reproduced her in my review of the exhibition in the Burlington Magazine, commenting

Reproducing pastels is tricky: glossy paper and hyped colour values flatter some but diminish better works, one of which is the superb Jean-Marc Nattier (no.11; Fig.74). Here ‘le peintre du beau sexe’, who normally reserves his traitement psychologique for male sitters, breaks his rule. Amid what initially appears as beribboned frippery is a face of penetrating intellect and composure, achieved by the subtlest of touches around the eyes and mouth: they vanish in the camera lens.

But at least we had her in colour. Of M. Royer, until now, only the dreadful 1908 image has been seen. After the 1908 exhibition, René Gimpel acquired the pair (in 1920 he described them as “mes deux merveilleux pastels de Nattier que j’ai achetés à Sigismond Bardac”), and by 1930 they were with the wealthy collector Antenor Patiño. Madame, but not Monsieur, went into the New York sale (at Sotheby’s, 22 May 1992) of his nephew, Jaime Ortiz-Patiño, where she sold against reserve for $270,000, and since then she has been in a private collection in New York. But Monsieur’s whereabouts since 1930 remain a mystery.

Seeing these marvels together for the first time, albeit in reproduction, prompts some reflections beyond mere admiration their beauty. They are certainly Nattier’s masterpieces in the medium, and have a fair claim to match the best of any of his rivals’ work. The technique is entirely personal to Nattier: it represents the pastel-as-painting tradition he inherited from his parents’ friend and portraitist Joseph Vivien, diametrically opposed to Perronneau’s graphic approach and noticeably separated from La Tour by extreme refinement. The two portraits are conceived as pendants: and while that is not in itself unusual in portraiture, the frequency of pendants among pastel portraitists varies enormously. Nattier made very few, and no others in pastel are known. They are rare too in La Tour’s œuvre, but far commoner with Perronneau. And among the minor itinerant pastellists, or those working in Germany, the frequency is even higher: the pendants as marriage portraits seem to carry a particularly bourgeois connotation. But among artistic subjects such as these, there is a slightly different message: these are portraits of status, reflecting an equality between the sexes that was possible in the world of music but which would have been awkward for the nobility of sword or robe (of course there are plenty of exceptions). Just how and why Nattier came to devote his greatest pastels to this couple is an intriguing question.

Perhaps the most visually striking thing that emerges from the new image is the complementarity of the colour schemes of the pendants. Her tones are of cold blue, yet she leans forward as if to compensate: his are of warm earth colours, yet he retreats from us. He epitomises introversion; she, extroversion. The pastels are on a large enough scale (81×64 cm) to require several sheets of paper (the idea of pastels in pieces is the ingenious theme of Emily Beeny’s current show at the Getty), with joins in unexpected places. Yet they retain their intimacy through clever spatial tricks: the ledge, foreshortened arms; here the guillotine has fallen on the neck not of the sitter, but of his violin. There is intimacy (if not perhaps eroticism) too in the gants à doigts ouverts, as described in the Encyclopédie: the function was to allow wearers to sew or play cards without removing the entire garment.

Of course for the many contemporary viewers who knew the aria, the real intimacy was on the sheet he writes: Zaïde is alone (Acte I, scène iv from Royer’s ballet héroïque) as she sings

Témoins de mon indifference,
Lieux charmans, apprenez mon secret en ce jour…

In the 1739 first performance (for the wedding of Madame Infante), Zaïde was performed by Marie Pélissier, and Pierre Jélyotte and Marie Sallé also starred. All are well known from portraits of the day. It was revived in 1745 for the festivities at Versailles marking the wedding of the dauphin, and again in 1770 for Marie-Antoinette’s wedding. We don’t know when the pastels were made: Salmon conjectures c.1750, but it might well be just after the 1745 revival.

Royer is the subject of many studies (there is even an informative entry on the French Wikipédia which is a useful starting point), so I shan’t rehearse his musical achievements. There is also a useful iconographical study of these pastels in Gétreau & Herlin’s 1997 paper on portraits of French clavecinistes (tantalisingly, but erroneously, it states that the portrait of Royer was sold in 1988). But it is worth reviewing his social position, if only to understand why Nattier lavished upon this couple the attention of by far his most ambitious works in the medium. There’s a genealogy here which has been surprisingly stubborn to produce.

Royer was born in Turin on 12 May 1703 (the “c. 1705” in most sources comes from a misprint in Fétis; in his burial entry, he was “agé de 54 ans ou environ”). What we know of Royer’s family background comes from Jean-Benjamin Laborde: he was the “fils d’un bon gentilhomme de Bourgogne, capitaine d’artillerie & Intendant des jardins de son Altesse Madame Royale Régente de Savoie”. (That must be Maria Giovanna Battista di Savoia-Nemours (1644–1724), herself the subject of portrait by Nanteuil and Tempesti; she was the mother of Vittorio Amedeo II, whose mistress was Mme de Verrue, and whose daughter Marie-Adélaïde married Louis, duc de Bourgogne; both died in 1712, but indicate just how close the links between the two courts were.)

The summary of Royer’s career in Titon du Tillet is the basis of most subsequent biographies:


Royer’s first major success was his opera Pyrrhus, performed in 1730. A few years later he became maître de musique des Enfans de France, with the much older Jean-Baptiste Matho remaining titular holder until his death in 1746. Although he was granted a lodgement at Versailles (“numéroté 9 derrière l’hôtel de Mademoiselle”), he continued to live in Paris (rue Sainte-Anne, paroisse Saint-Roch, where he died). But it was as director of the Concert spiritual, which promoted popular public concerts held at the Tuileries palace, that he is best remembered.


Royer and his associate Gabriel Caperan ran what was effectively an entrepreneurial business. It employed many of the leading musicians of the day, including Cassanéa de Mondonville whose portrait, with a pendant of his wife, represent the closest examples to the Nattier pendants in the œuvre of Maurice-Quentin de La Tour (these are the pair in Chicago; there are other versions):

When Royer became inspecteur général of the Opéra (the duc de Luynes gives a lengthy account of the financial transaction involved in his memoirs, 23 September 1753), shortly before his death, it was rumoured that he had an affair with La Camargo, again the subject of a La Tour pastel.

After Royer’s death Caperan was appointed guardian to his children, and his widow acquired Royer’s interest in the enterprise. She was also granted an immediate royal pension of 1200 livres:

Le feu sieur Royer, avait acheté la survivance de cette charge du sieur Matho et en a fait les fonctions et tous les voyages de Versailles, Fontainebleau et Compiègne sans en retire que des gratifications. Il a commencé à en jouir en 1746 jusqu’en 1755 qu’il est mort. Le roi a bien voulu accorder à sa veuve qui était chargé de famille cette pension de 1200 livres

We don’t know when Royer married (before 1736), but we can learn a bit more about the couple’s position in society from researching their children. Three daughters are known from the glorious Carmontelle watercolour in the musée Carnavalet:

Carmontelle Filles Royer Carnavalet

Made in 1760, the girls’ dresses alone place them socially. They play of course from the score of their deceased father’s most famous composition, the opéra-ballet Zaïde, although you can’t tell from Carmontelle’s portrait which page they have reached. In contrast Nattier notates precisely the opening of the most famous aria in the work, which you can check for accuracy against the score printed in 1739 (the latter includes several of the suave tirades, or ornamental sweeps up the scale, for which his music was distinguished, and which somehow seem to be echoed in the velvety technique of Nattier’s pastel):

To the three girls in the Carmontelle I can add two more children. One, a boy named Louis-Marie-Thimoléon, was still alive (he was born in 1747, much later than his sisters) when his father died in 1755, but is recorded only in the registre de clôture d’inventaire, although he lived until 1768. (Curiously the inventaire was conducted more than 18 months after Royer’s death rather than immediately after, suggesting a possible dispute among the widow and her children or their tuteur.) His name suggests that his parents might have been close to the Cossé-Brissac family (but I cannot trace a link with the Jacques-Thimoléon Royer born 1765 who became peintre-décorateur to Monsieur under the restoration). A fourth girl, in fact the eldest, Louise-Charlotte, was born in September 1736, and sent out to nurse in Saint-Nom-la-Breteche, where as so often happened her burial, aged four months, was recorded only by the local school master:

Royer L Ch deces2

Of the remaining girls, Marie-Anne-Charlotte (born 1739) married a Claude-Nicolas Famin, intéressé dans les affaires du roi, from a Rouen family of négociants, while the youngest, Marie-Jeanne (born 1740), became femme de chambre du dauphin. She married a Pierre Belliard, receveur de tailles, whose mother, née Geneviève-Françoise-Anne Clement, was nourrice du duc d’Anjou (Philippe-Louis (1730–1733), a younger brother of Louis le dauphin) – a position of considerable importance and commensurate remuneration, as indicated in the État de la France for 1736:

Clement Beliard 1736edf

But it is their eldest surviving sister of whom we are best informed (from documents recording a pension sur le trésor awarded to her after the death of her husband in 1786). Marie-Sophie-Armande was baptised in Paris, Saint-Roch, 7 April 1738; her godparents were Armand de Rohan Ventadour and Marie-Sophie de Courcillon. To understand this, we must recall that the princesse de Rohan (1713–1756; she was the subject of the pastel by La Tour which I discovered, now in Stockholm) was the second wife of Hercule de Rohan; his first wife was Anne-Geneviève de Lévis-Ventadour, daughter of the celebrated duchesse de Ventadour, gouvernante des Enfants de France, through whom the office of gouvernante passed into the Rohan family, and to Hercule’s granddaughter, Mme de Marsan – sister of the parrain, Armand de Rohan-Soubise, abbé de Ventadour (1717–1756), later Cardinal de Soubise and grand aumônier de France 1745. In other words these were very grand people indeed to hold your daughter over the font: they illustrate the exalted social status of higher royal servants. Marie-Sophie-Armande went on to marry Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste-Michel Boutet d’Egvilly (1735–1786), écuyer, maître d’hôtel du roi, a position inherited by their son Armand-Henry Boutet (1769–1856), who became a baron and chevalier de la Légion d’honneur under the restoration.

We should remember also that Nattier himself was closely interested in music, and numerous portraits, including those of the royal family, show their subjects with musical instruments. It has been noted that, like Royer, Beaumarchais taught the royal children music; but Nattier’s splendid portrait of the playwright dates from 1755 and was surely later. It is Nattier’s own family self-portrait which perhaps most closely testifies to his love of music: commenced in 1730, it was not finished until 1762, with his wife (by then dead for some 20 years) turning the pages of a score as yet unidentified; nor do we know from whom she or her musical daughter received lessons.

Nattier famille

While the Nattier pastels were never exhibited at the time, a curiosity is the appearance in the 1751 Salon de Saint-Luc of two pastels by Nattier’s follower Pierre Mérelle of  “Les Portraits de Monsieur & Madame Roger en Pastel, l’un dans son Cabinet, l’autre en Habit de Bal” (no. 136; J.532.129, J.532.13). It seems highly probable that the g is a misprint (in Guiffrey’s edition of the livret: Deloynes’s transcription has “Royer”), and that these lost works are copies of the Nattier pastels. Their function, and who commissioned them, is for now as much of a mystery as those of the originals; but at least they provide a terminus ante quem for the Nattier pair.

Another footnote to this essay concerns the two rather weak pastels which seem to be inspired by the Nattier. They will be found among the anonymes, at J.9.128 and J.9.1282, although whether they portray André Cardinal des Touches or Antoine Dauvergne as has been suggested seems unlikely. That at least spares us the irony of seeing Dauvergne in Royer’s shoes, as he is reported to have forced Royer’s widow out of the Concert spirituel in 1764.

One further document that has so far eluded most commentaries on Royer is his 1754 exchange with Voltaire concerning Royer’s proposal to set to music a Voltaire piece adapted by Royer’s friend Jean-Claude-Gaspard Sireul, ancien valet de chambre du roi, best known for his connection with Boucher. I have discussed this incident in my essay on Sireul: the matter was only resolved by Royer’s unexpected death, on 11 January 1755. That in turn led to a string of unpleasant letters from Voltaire to his friends (from which we learn that Royer died from “indigestion”); to abbé Cideville (23 January 1755) he wrote:

La seule chose dont je puisse bénir Dieu, est la mort de Royer. Dieu veuille avoir son âme et sa musique: cette musique n’était point de ce monde. Le traître m’avait immolé à ses doubles croches, et avait choisi pour m’égorger un ancien Porte-manteau du Roy nommé Sireuil. Dieu est juste; il a retiré Royer à lui, et je crains à présent beaucoup pour le Porte-manteau. Si on s’obstine à jouer ce funèste Opéra de Promethée que Sireuil et Royer ont défiguré à qui mieux mieux, il faudra me mettre dans la liste des proscripts de ce vieux fou de Crebillon: j’y serais bien sans cela.

Whatever the literary skills of Sireul (and setting aside Voltaire’s evident prejudice), the project illustrates again the close connections between these higher royal servants whose exquisite and informed taste was so important in the commissioning of portraiture and patronage of the arts generally in ancien régime France.

Postscript – October 2020

In March 2018 I checked the posthumous inventories of both Royer (1756) and his wife (1770), both in the Archives nationales; the former is heavily abbreviated, the later more descriptive (particularly of the dozens of wonderful dresses she owned). Although a number of pictures are listed, there is nothing in the 1770 inventory to correspond with the pastels. However the 1756 inventory did include two memorandum entries using the formula applied to portraits de famille. I initially missed (in very small writing) the entry which probably corresponds to the Nattier pendants (it’s the eighth item on side 4 of the document, line 18, in one of the bedrooms):

à l’egard de deux tableaux portraits peintes en pastel et dans leurs bordures carrés de bois sculpté doré representan l’un le defft l’autre lad. de sa ve ils n’ont été prisés cme portraits de famille et le prest article seulemt tiré pour memoire

The second entry, which I reported previously, is in the “salle ensuite” (line 35 on the same page of the inventaire), reads

à l’egard de quatre tableaux representan lad. Ve [illisible] du defft dans leur bordure de bois doré sculpté il n’y a eté fait aucune prisé et le prest article sera seulemt tiré pour….Memoire

Unfortunately the words between “veuve” and “du deffunt” are illegible to me. However as the pictures are not described as in pastel they are unlikely to include the Nattier portraits.

It would have been helpful (since they are hard to find) to provide Mme Royer’s dates. She was born in Paris on 15 January 1715 (Etat civil reconstitué); her marriage took place in 1735 (contract of 30 October); and she died on 2 July 1770 (burial 4 July, inventaire après décès 9 July).

I should also have explored further her family background. She was the daughter of Antoine Le Blond, who died when she was 3, resulting in two key documents in the AN (Y5334 20.xii.1718 and Y4303 19.xi.1718). Her father had been maître d’hôtel to Louis-Maximilien Titon de Villegenon, directeur général du magasin royale des armées – and the brother of Evrard Titon du Tillet, whose praise for Royer (cited above in this post) is perhaps more readily understood. As Titon de Villegenon’s wife was called Geneviève, it is also not impossible that she was marraine to the future Mme Royer.

We also learn that among the tutors appointed was a cousin, « Pierre Jacques Le Moyne ancien conseiller aumosnier ordinaire de la maison du roy », possibly a member of the dynasty of famous sculptors (a Le Blond – Le Moyne marriage occurred  in the previous generation).

Postscript – September 2021

In 2021 both pastels were reunited, in the Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe.

Sources and acknowledgments

I am most grateful to Joseph Baillio for sharing the colour image of Royer. I have benefited from private communications also with Aileen Ribeiro (gloves); Óli Þorvaldsson (livret de l’Académie de Saint-Luc); and William Ritchey Newton (whose 2006 publication contains some of the archival material cited above), as well as with Beverly Wilcox (October 2020). Published sources will be found in the online Dictionary where the J numbers cited above will take you to the entries for each pastel. There are also useful genealogies for many of the families discussed above, including of course the Royers. Early notices on Royer include Jean-Benjamin Laborde’s Essai sur la musique ancienne et modern, 1780, tome iii, p. 483f and Titon du Tillet, Second supplement du Parnasse françois, 1743–55, pp. 78f. I failed to find any recording of Zaïde’s aria to put up (there is a samizdat recording of the 2005 London performance at St John’s Smith Square, using a new score edited by Lionel Sawkins: apparently the audience was “deplorably small”), but Royer produced a keyboard piece with her name which might give you some flavour.

From → Art history

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