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An elusive abbé

3 August 2018

Orleans Cab des pastels Twitter14vii2018In the last few years, the musée des Beaux-Arts in Orléans has been transformed with a complete renovation, a pioneering exhibition devoted to Perronneau in 2017 and most recently the reopening of the cabinet des pastels – vying with Saint-Quentin for the second place after the Louvre’s unequalled holdings. But more than that, the museum under Olivia Voisin’s guidance has taken a far higher profile in promoting its work, including intelligent use of social media and other ways of engaging the community of art historians to develop an understanding of the collection. In particular the works on paper, in the capable hands of Valérie Luquet, have been more open to discussion than ever. This blog – which doesn’t however provide a complete answer to the question, but perhaps illustrates the uncertainties I grapple with daily – is prompted by one of Valérie’s recent tweets, including photographs taken while caring for the beautiful La Tour known as the abbé Reglet (it’s second from the right above, but you can find it in the online Dictionary of pastellists at J.46.2679; B&W 416):

La Tour Reglet Orleans

Several confusions surround the work which the shorthand in the Dictionary compact too far for most readers. They stem from unfortunate conflations made in particular by Georges Wildenstein in 1928 (“B&W”) and probably before. The clue is in the graphite inscription of which Valérie posted this image (detail):

La Tour Reglet Orleans d3 ed nj

From which you can see that whenever the inscription was added, there was something different underneath. This is not La Tour’s writing, nor is it likely that the earlier, now illegible, words were his. We can almost certainly conclude that they were placed by a dealer who wanted to relate the portrait of an inconnu to one of the named sitters La Tour is known to have exhibited. Why not choose the pastel shown in 1769, of an “abbé Reglet” (Dictionary, J.46.2675) whose name comes from an annotation of the salon livret by Gabriel de Saint-Aubin? It’s an abbé, from about the right period (on technical grounds), and it has the advantage of being lost. Further Diderot commented favourably (you can find all the salon critiques of La Tour’s work here):

Mais venons aux morceaux de cet artiste. Savez-vous que c’était? Quatre chefs-d’œuvre renfermés dans un châssis de sapin, quatre Portraits. Ah! Mon ami, quels portraits, mais surtout celui d’un abbé! C’était une vérité et une simplicité dont je ne crois pas avoir encore vu d’exemples: pas l’ombre de manière, la nature toute pure et sans art, nulle prétention dans la touche, nulle affectation de contraste dans la couleur, nulle gêne dans la position. C’est devant ce morceau de toile grand comme la main que l’homme instruit qui réfléchissait s’écriait: Que la peinture est un art difficile!…et que l’homme instruit qui n’y pensait pas s’écriait: O que cela est beau!

So the pastel with this inscription, which was sold in 1910, 1917 and 1992 (when Orléans acquired it), was considered to be of the abbé Reglet and conflated with the work exhibited in 1769 – even though Gabriel de Saint-Aubin had added a sketch in his copy of the livret which was plainly of a completely different portrait:

Saint Aubin ar La Tour Reglet

Bafflingly B&W reproduced both images, but didn’t seem to see the problem – although it has not escaped later authors, among them the useful discussion in Debrie & Salmon 2000, p. 88. There it is suggested that the sitter might be another abbé – the abbé de Lattaignant, exhibited two years previously, and also described by Diderot (in less flattering terms: “la figure crapuleuse et basse de ce vilain abbé de Lattaignant” – but then it was the sitter rather than the pastel that he didn’t like). Although the suggestion is seductive, no attempt is made to support it by investigating this poet’s iconography – which in any case is always hazardous. You could perhaps almost persuade yourself that this profile (from Lattaignant’s poems, 1757) is of the same man:

An Abbe Lattaignant

But what isn’t plausible is that in 1767, Lattaignant was 70 years old. The Orléans man is far younger. (The profile incidentally is by Garand, of whose portraiture Diderot also had something double-edged to say: “Je n’ai jamais été bien fait que par un pauvre diable appelé Garand, qui m’attrapa, comme il arrive à un sot qui dit un bon mot.“)

Two further points have not I think been noticed, although Ólafur Þorvaldsson has tweeted the reference to an earlier sale (28.iii.1860, not reproduced) which I have as J.46.2682 (B&W 417):

Par 1860

Isn’t this the Orléans pastel? It’s certainly quite possible, even probable; but not I think certain. The pastel is described as of “L’abbé Réglet, curé et fondateur de Saint-Sulpice”, a description that finds its way into the headline for B&W 416 too. Of course if B&W were simply transcribing what was on the back of the pastel sold in 1910, the conflation would be complete. But if so that label (which has not survived) would probably have been picked up in 1910 or 1917. Rather I think B&W have simply obtained the biographical information from the 1860 sale and simply assumed it was correct, and applied it also to the 1769 pastel.

In fact as far as I can see it is simply wrong. The curé de Saint-Sulpice at the time was Jean du Lau d’Allemans, whose face (known from an engraving after a portrait by Chevallier) was completely different (nor could I find any other Saint-Sulpice clergy with names similar to Reglet in this period). And the “fondateur” of the church would have come from a different century altogether. Yet I don’t think the name Reglet for a La Tour pastel from the 1769 salon would have been widely known until Saint-Aubin’s sketches were systematically studied, unlikely before 1860. So my marginal preference is to think that the 1860 sale might have been of the 1769 pastel (perhaps with a corrupted inscription), since lost totally.

The other thing that no one else seems to have noticed was that the “abbé Reglet” shown in the 1769 salon was almost certainly named in La Tour’s 1768 will (you can find transcriptions of all these documents in my annotated expansion of B&W ‘s table):

A Mrs Laideguive, notaire, Geulette, conseiller de Pondichery, hotel de Conti, rue des Poulies, à Mrs les abbez Raynal et Reigley, de Bar sur Seine, chez M. l’abbé de Crillon, place Royalle, à chacun des quatre, un diamant ou en argent cent pistoles.

This allows us to identify him as abbé Charles Régley (1719–p.1791), aumônier du prince de Marsan, prieur d’Estréchy et de Baigne, translator of Spalanzani, and the author of (among many other things) an Éloge historique du brave Crillon, discours qui a remporté le prix d’éloquence de l’Académie d’Amiens, 1779. He retired to Bar-sur-Seine (not far from Les Riceys, where he was born) c.1791 but no further trace is known. La Tour of course was later a member of the académie d’Amiens. Incidentally Régley’s address was given as that of the abbé de Crillon, Louis-Athanase de Berton-des-Balbes, abbé de Crillon (1726–1789), agent general du clergé de France; younger son of the duc de Crillon (and a descendant of the brave Crillon the subject of Régley’s éloge); he was well known as a shell collector, with a cabinet de curiosités.

None of this answers the question of the identity of the Orléans sitter. Perhaps La Tour made a second pastel of Régley (the age would fit). Probably it’s a different abbé – La Tour seems to have known a good many. There may be a clue in the illegible inscription, but I can’t decipher it (the last word perhaps looks like Censeur).

I should perhaps add a word about Diderot’s text and the four La Tours in the 1769 salon. Several of the other critics praise them too, some naming Gravelot, and adding general praise for these four pastels. The other names come from Saint-Aubin: Patiot (secrétaire du duc de Belle-Isle, a natural history collector, mentioned in La Tour’s 1784 will) and a name B&W read as Cars but looks to me more like Cangy; both are lost.

SaintAubin ar La Tour Salon

La Tour Gravelot bThe pastel of Gravelot is (said to be) in the musée des Beaux-Arts at Bordeaux (left) – but although the orientation is correct, the mise-en-page (so often accurately captured by Saint-Aubin even in his tiny sketches) looks rather different. The Bordeaux pastel measures 45×35 cm, considerably smaller than most La Tour finished pastels (even the Orléans Reglet is larger, at 48×43 cm). Is it a guide to the size of the other three “heads” in the 1769 salon, which Diderot tells us were all shown in a single pine frame? That presentation is rather strange for pastels, and one is tempted to dismiss the words as some kind of metaphor: but he goes on to describe Reglet as “grand comme la main”. None of the other critics say anything about this. But if the Gravelot shown were only a study for the final work, then perhaps the 1769 Reglet gave rise to further versions, perhaps completely reworked. Too much speculation.

It is of course even more tangential to point out that Régley’s name (insofar as it has survived at all – one book is aptly named The Quest for the Invisible), rests in his translation of Spallanzani’s work on spontaneous generation, with notes from Needham, an enemy of Voltaire. Régley appears in Voltaire’s correspondence, just before the 1769 salon, in a letter to the comte de La Touraille, who by a curious coincidence was married to Louis Patiot’s niece (she was the subject of a Carmontelle portrait). La Tour was more interested in telescopes than microscopes, but one can’t help noticing the scientific (or natural history) interests shared by Régley, Crillon and Patiot.



From → Art history

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