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Antoine Levert, maître menuisier-ébéniste

4 March 2018

Opnamedatum: 2012-06-07 SK-L-5512

Introducing his magisterial catalogue of the Fragonard exhibition in 1987, Pierre Rosenberg borrowed the injunction “Gens, Honorez Fragonard” from a letter of the artist’s grandson written at a time (1847) when the great rococo painter had sunk into obscurity. But while everyone now knows the important painters of the dix-huitième, almost no one pays any attention to the framemakers of Paris whose extraordinary skill embellished and enhanced the productions of artists from Fragonard to Vigée Le Brun. In part that is because we rarely look behind the frames of pictures on the wall, and in part it is because even when we do, so few of the frames bear the maker’s mark. This article is about one who is known – and indeed has caught my eye because a disproportionate number of the original stamped eighteenth century pastel frames are by him: and because hitherto virtually nothing is known about his life. As I shall show, the full name of the frame-maker whose stamp is shown above was Honoré-Antoine Levert, and he was born around 1710 and died in 1785. Honorez Enfin Levert!

You won’t find those dates in reference books. Indeed in Mitchell & Roberts’s excellent History of European Picture Frames, or Paul Mitchell’s original 1985 article (helpfully reproduced on The Frame Blog) all you get is a list of the 14 Paris framemakers known from their stamps, among them “Abraham or Antoine Levert”. A subsequent article by Edgar Harden, also now available online at the NPG website, extended this list to 22, and (correctly) narrowed Levert to Antoine; it also provided excellent background to the distinctions between menuisiers, ébénistes and sculpteurs and outlined the training and hierarchies in the related professions. As Harden observed, the battles between the guilds were complicated and confusing. (The much needed longer study promised in the article has however not materialised.) Harden noted too that the Paris framemakers all worked in the faubourg Saint-Antoine district.

As for our “A Levert”, Mitchell’s uncertainty stemmed from two entries in the still essential reference, Henri Vial & al.’s Les Artistes décorateurs du bois (Paris, 1912) which appear thus:

Vial

Before you get too excited in assuming Abraham Levert must have been Maurice-Quentin de La Tour’s framemaker, have a look at the 1779 document referred to (you can find it on my La Tour chronological table of documents, currently at p. 54): there are a dozen artisans listed from various trades. We can in fact trace this Abraham Levert quite easily from the parish registers at Saint-Quentin (at Notre-Dame, later Sainte-Pécine): he was born in 1719 or 1720, outlived two wives, Marie-Louise Douet and Catherine Gobron, and died 17 septembre 1783. There is no evidence that he ever worked outside Saint-Quentin or that he ever made a picture frame. And anyway La Tour’s pastels were made and framed in Paris, not Saint-Quentin.

We should also dispose of another possible homonym (Levert is as common a name in France as Green is in England): an Alexandre Levert, maître menuisier (although omitted from Vial) was recorded in Paris, rue de la Clef, paroisse Saint-Médard in 1731, when he was witness to one of those “miracles” so elaborately documented for the purposes of canonisation. However, he was probably the Alexandre Levert from that parish who died aged 39 at Les Invalides.

But what of our Antoine Levert? Vial’s references add nothing to the bare facts of his maîtrise in 1774, when he lived in Saint-Jean-de-Latran. Based on the examples known when I first encountered a frame with his stamp (Edgar Harden, private communication, 2008), Levert’s output was confined to fewer than ten frames, all oval, and it was thought that he died soon after his maîtrise, perhaps c.1779. The date sparked my interest as some of the pastels seemed a little later (well into the 1780s), and while framers might have some frames for stock which were not used immediately, the date of his death seemed an important clue in dating several pastels I was researching. (Many pastels remain in their cadres d’origine – although one has to be careful with bigger names: works by La Tour and Perronneau were routinely reframed by dealers in the early twentieth century to make them look more important and justify higher prices for what were then fashionable. Subsequently good frames became more valuable than the pastels they housed.)

Armed only with this information you might conclude that Levert had been born around 1750, had been apprenticed at the normal age and served his nine years before his mastery, and must then have died very young.

It is also worth noting that the enclos de Saint-Jean-de-Latran is a different part of Paris than the faubourg Saint-Antoine. It was where the place Marcelin-Berthelot currently stands. But, as you can read in Vial’s introduction or in more recent studies such as Alain Thillay’s La Faubourg Saint-Antoine et ses “faux ouvriers”: la liberté du travail à Paris aux XVIIe et au XVIIIe siècles (2002), both areas enjoyed special protection from the guild system that otherwise would have made it impossible for many of these workers to survive. These rights were granted by a king anxious to find something to do with soldiers returning from wars. Saint-Jean-de-Latran was of course far smaller than the faubourg Saint-Antoine: only a handful of menuisiers operated there.

The document I have now unearthed that allows us to identify Levert is another precious find in the Registres de tutelles at the Archives nationales (AN Y5065A). Dated 5 février 1780, it concerns the guardianship of the four minor children of Levert’s recently deceased cousin, who bore the unusual name of Wanang-Crispin Levert [sic], and had been a maître perruquier in the rue Saint-Honoré. His widow, Margueritte-Gabrielle Bécüe, was the sister of Antoine-Martin Bécüe (1732–1793), marchand de tableaux, rue des Grands Augustins, and the other “parents et amis” included more perruquiers, a marchand de vin and a maître tailleur. None of this will come as a surprise to readers of this blog: the families of many eighteenth century pastellists often included artisans in these luxury trades.

We know from a further document in the same registres de tutelles (Y5139A) dated 4 mars 1786 that Marguerite-Gabrielle was remarried after Wanang-Crispin’s death, to Jean-Antoine de Melun, another maître perruquier, a document necessitated by her own death. We shall see why Antoine Levert does not appear in it. Her brother Antoine-Martin Bécüe had by then abandoned picture dealing, and was described as an “officier au Charbon”; when his carte de sécurité was issued, 22 juillet 1793, just a few months before his death, he was a “journalier”.

But let us return to the 1780 document, where Antoine Levert is described as “S Honoré Antoine Le Vert mtre menuisier a Paris y demeurant enclos et paroisse de St Jean De Latran oncle paternal a la mode de Bretagne” to the children, i.e. their first cousin once removed.

LevertV enfants tutelles 1780i

That suggests that he was considerably older than we thought. Indeed the full name makes it pretty certain that he is the Honoré-Antoine Levert, menuisier, who was married in Dijon in 1734:

LevertHonoreAntoine mariafe DijonND16ix1734

His bride was Jeanne Breton, daughter of a local maître menuisier, Jean Breton (surely the “Breton” mentioned in Vial, p. 68, without prénom as in Dijon in 1718, when he signed a document concerning the rights of apprentices) and his wife, née Jeanne Gage (they had married in the same church, Notre-Dame de Dijon, in 1712). Levert, whose name appears in the register with the “Honoré” inserted later suggesting that he was habitually known as Antoine, is described as “natif de Am en Picardie”, his parents being Furent [?; illegible] Antoine Levert, menuisier and Marie-Gabriel [sic] Cohardy. Sadly the parish records for Saint-Martin in Ham (Somme) are not available, but the Cohardy family records overlap with nearby parishes, and Levert’s mother was surely related to Charles Cohardy (1692–1757), a butcher from Ham, whose brother was also called Vaneng (the more usual spelling of this seventh-century saint).

So in all likelihood the framemaker was born in this village, about 13 miles from Saint-Quentin, probably about 1710. He had no doubt completed his apprenticeship and was travelling around France as a journeyman when he probably worked for Jean Breton in Dijon, and married the patron’s daughter. The witnesses included several compagnons menuisiers, doubtless colleagues. There is then a forty year interval before his maîtrise in Paris: but given the exemptions enjoyed by the enclos Saint-Jean-de-Latran, it seems quite possible that he traded in Paris from much earlier than 1774, as work of his quality has nothing provincial to it.

One cannot completely exclude the possibility that he had a son with exactly the same name, but Occam’s razor dissuades us from inventing such an unnecessary hypothesis. And while the differences between his signature on the 1780 document (above) and the marriage register entry (below) are considerable, they are consistent with some infirmity at this much greater age:

Levert sigs 1780 1734

What then of his death? An entry in the notary’s records for 1 août 1785 records a “renonciation à la succession” to an Antoine Levert of unspecified trade or age by his heirs, two daughters, Jeanne, wife of Jacques-François Noël (who I think is the son of a vitrier) and Claudine, wife of an Yves Le Valois (whom I have not traced).

Levert renonciation 1785

I speculated previously that this was our framemaker, consistent with the absence of his name from the 1786 entry in the registres de tutelles. One further document surely confirms this: an entry in the table alphabétique des scellés (AN Z2 3675) showing that the seals were applied to the premises of a menuisier named “Leverre” [sic], first name unknown, on 10 mai 1785. Two months later the daughters went through the formalities of renouncing the estate, presumably encumbered with debts exceeding the assets. Who pays their framemaker when he’s dead?

Fortunately Levert’s stamp means that he has left a rather different legacy, which increasingly careful cataloguing at auction is bringing more and more to our attention. Not all of it were picture frames: as an ébéniste, his stamp appears on a number of items of furniture such as these commodes which have appeared at auction in recent years:

Nor were all his frames oval: here is a rectangular example (Binoche & Giquello, 15.x.2015, Lot 157):

Levert cadre rect Par15x2015 L157

Despite the quality and no doubt expense of his frames, they appear on works by artists of varying quality. Here are two on the pastels which originally caught my attention (both in a private collection), by Ducreux:

Levert Cadre ducreux fill

and Mosnier:

Levert Cadre Mosnier

Click on the links for essays on the pastels concerned, and a discussion of the dating of the two works.

Another stamped frame recently seen at auction (Doullens, Herbette, 24.vii.2011, Lot 65) is from an oil portrait of a woman signed and dated 1775 by the 22-year-old Lié-Louis Perin-Salbreux:

Perin JF hst Cadre Levert

It is an oval adaptation of the standard French flat seen so widely in the Louis XVI era, including on many pastels. This is one of the earliest stamped Levert frames, from the year after his maîtrise (perhaps only weeks later).

Two pendants which will shortly be auctioned in Bruges (Carlo Bonte, 20–21.iii.2018, Lot 497), described as of the marquis de Corberon and his wife (but rather of his brother, Marie-Daniel Bourrée, chevalier de Corberon (1748–1810), the diplomat and writer, and his wife, née Charlotte-Marie-Christine de Behmer) are in frames by Levert that have lost much of their delicate ribbon superstructure, revealing mouldings very similar to the 1775 example above (swapping the pearl and leaf decorations):

An. ms de Corberon Bruges29iii2018 L497

They are probably marriage portraits, and the date of the union (1781) sets a terminus post quem for Levert’s activity (assuming, as seems most probable, that these are cadres d’origine).

A simpler model appears on this anonymous pastel (J.48.114: Vendôme, Rouillac, 20.ii.2017, Lot 67) copied from a 1776 print by Helman after Leprince:

ar Leprince Astronome Vendome20ii2017 L67 fr

Another more elaborate example, closer to the frame on the Mosnier, is found on an oil of a lady whose costume seems to belong to the mid-1780s. The unsigned painting could belong to the circle of Labille-Guiard, but it is not inconceivable that it is a copy of a lost Vigée Le Brun: a particularly interesting possibility since this moulding is very close to those by an unidentified framemaker that I discussed in my blog post on Vigée Le Brun’s frames.

An. D cadre Levert o

Lastly I turn to the Levert frame most widely cited in the literature (see, for example, Henry Heydenryk, The art and history of frames, London, 1963, pp. 80–81, fig. 3; Claus Grimm, The book of picture frames, New York, 1981, p. 229, no. 307): the oil of the marquis de Saint-Paul in the Rijksmuseum traditionally attributed to Greuze and dated c.1760:

Greuze Saint-Paul rijksmuseum

The traditional attribution of this painting has recently been questioned, and Joseph Baillio (private communication, 2016) sees it as an early work by Vigée Le Brun (c.1776: he compares it with her portrait of Jacques-Louis-Guillaume Bouret de Vézelay exhibited in the recent Vigée Le Brun show, no. 24).

We have no firm evidence as yet that Vigée Le Brun’s mystery framer was Antoine Levert, but certainly a number of his frames were very similar to those she used in the early part of her career. Perhaps the most striking thing that emerges from this brief survey is the range of his work: by no means was he restricted to turning out identical mouldings.

In any case we are perhaps a little closer to the social circle in which Levert developed his remarkable skills, even if the full biographies of craftsmen of his day will never be known for certain.

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