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La Tour, Mme Boët de Saint-Léger

30 October 2018

La Tour Boete de Saint Leger SQ

There are many hurdles to be overcome in cataloguing the work of some artists, especially so in the case of Maurice-Quentin de La Tour. With a career almost entirely in Paris, never dating or even signing his portraits, working in a technique that altered little rather than evolving steadily (he exhibited works showing the range of his different styles side by side), La Tour challenges us in many ways. So the art historian must cling on to whatever can be found, and establishing sitters’ biographies is an obvious starting point. I’ve written repeatedly about the hazards of guessing age from appearance in portraits, but at least some bounds can be established for sitters whose identities are known. But not of course for the “inconnus” so many of whose masks are found in the artist’s collection now in Saint-Quentin.

La Tour Maron SQAmong those famous “préparations” are some where the names are known – but seem not to advance us very far, in spite of the apparently exhaustive researches carried out on that collection by dozens if not hundreds of scholars. One such example is the portrait identified in Fleury & Brière 1954, no. 36 (and all earlier and later sources until now) as of “Charles Maron, ancien avocat en parlement”, a phrase derived from a faulty transcription of La Tour’s brother’s will. In fact the transcription correctly has “au parlement”, not “en” – the distinction ignored by Fleury is between a practising lawyer, “au parlement”, rather than a bachelier en droit, called but not practising, to whom the honorific title of “avocat en parlement” applied. (Such pedantry may well have been ignored in the eighteenth century too.) Fleury did of course note that no Charles Maron is to be found among the lists of avocats; but he did not comment on how odd it was that J.-F. de La Tour should have provided a forename for this sitter, but not for the 29 others in his list (apart from a royal). The solution is extremely simple, once you spot it: the sitter was surely Nicolas de Channe-Maron (1734–1782), avocat au parlement from 1764; a straightforward mistranscription of Channe as Charles. I’m afraid it means I have to renumber the pastel, which is now J.46.1433 (but I retain a note of the former number J.46.2338: you need to be confident these numbers will always take you to the work).

But the pastel I want to discuss more fully is the study (above; Saint-Quentin inv. LT 50; J.46.1318 in the Dictionary) known in every source as of Mme Boëte (or Boëtte) de Saint-Léger. The name (without a title) comes from La Tour himself – written on the slip of paper that was originally included within the frame, and remains visible in some of the old reproductions, but is no longer to be seen today (the Goncourts 1867 went too far in doubting the inscription, while Champfleury 1886 and later Lapauze 1905 both insisted that the name was written directly on the pastel itself, which is evidently incorrect):

La Tour Boet de Saint Leger SQ old

La Tour paraphe SQIncidentally you can just make out in the lower left corner of this full image (from the 1916 German monograph by Hermann Erhard) the curious paraph that looks like an M which is found on quite a number of the préparations at Saint-Quentin (most again concealed by the new mounts), and has not as far as I know yet been deciphered. My suggestion is that these marks were added by Félix Mennechet at the time of the 1849 inventory; he was the administrator and perpetual secretary of the École de dessin (the symbol is probably a contraction, “Mt”).

All the La Tour literature to date has followed La Tour’s phonetic misspelling, and adds only the single fact mentioned in Champfleury’s discussion in 1886 (p. 38; the pastel is reproduced in a drawing by Henri-Patrice Dillon on the opposite page):

Certains de ces portraits portent un nom inscrit sur le papier même du pastel, qui ne laisse aucun doute sur la qualité des personnes: … ; Boëte de Saint-Léger, qui fut presque la compatriot du peintre, et que ses charmes aidèrent à tirer de la tourmente révolutionnaire.

This remark Champfleury justifies in a footnote:

Un registre de 1793 de la mairie de Ham constate que la citoyenne Anne-Julie Boëte de Saint-Léger habitait cette village depuis 1786 jusqu’au 3 février 1793, jour auquel la municipalité lui accorda un certificat de résidence.

And so all subsequent writers. Thus in 1991 Christine Debrie repeats this, adding only “On ne sait rien de plus de cette agréable personne”, described as Anne-Julie, Mme Boëte de Saint-Léger, while Debrie & Salmon in 2000 merely reproduce the pastel under the same name with no further comment. Erhard (1916, no. 37 repr., p. x) phrased it slightly differently: “Die munter-selbstgefällige Frau Boëtte de Saint-Léger stattet er mit einer fast belustigenden Gesundheit aus.”

What Champfleury (and all subsequent writers) failed to disclose was his source for the Ham certificat. It comes from a book by Charles Gomart, Ham, son château et ses prisonniers, 1864, p. 231, where the pastel is explicitly mentioned. The entry in fact spells her name correctly as “Boët de Saint-Léger”. The author was a local historian, and came across a name he recognised (he had donated a view of the Hôtel de ville to the museum in Saint-Quentin in 1850, and was evidently familiar with its contents) and assumed it must be the same person.

And although she (apparently) spent some eight years living in this small town, about 21 km west of Saint-Quentin, she was not in any sense a compatriot of the artist. She was not born there; there is nothing to suggest she lived there before 1785, and an exhaustive search of the burial records at Ham indicates she did not die there. (She might even have claimed a longer residence to avoid disclosing her Parisian background.)

Anne-Julie (Julie was her preferred name) was the daughter of Louis Boët de Saint-Léger ( –1741), an avocat au conseil du roi in Paris (reçu 1692: successive Almanachs record various addresses including the rue Saint-André). He also held a position as conseiller au présidial de Caudebec. The family may well have had its origins in Normandie, although I have been unable to demonstrate the connection with the family of the wealthy négociant Daniel Boüette of Rouen conjectured in one recent source.[1]

We do not know Julie’s exact date of birth, but it is likely to have been c.1720 as she married in 1738, according to this entry in the minutes of the notary (and La Tour subject) Pierre Laideguive (AN mc/xxiii 3.vii.1738):

Buterne Boet de St Leger

Her husband (whose name is not given in any La Tour publication I have seen) was Charles Buterne ( –1752), gendarme de la Garde ordinaire du roi, according to all documents in the Archives nationales. But in fact he was a musician and composer. He was the son of Jean-Baptiste Buterne ( –1727), composer, organiste de la chapelle du roi, maître de clavecin de la duchesse de Bourgogne and a former capitoul of Toulouse. Charles’s conversion from a military career to music is hinted at in the preface to the sonatas and method for the publication of which he obtained a royal warrant in 1745:

(Fétis and all subsequent musicological sources seem to err in misreading the warrant at the end of this volume as conferring on Charles the offices of his father.) The pieces may be slight, but it is difficult not to feel that the composer himself was rather engaging and as amiable as La Tour’s sitter appears. Nevertheless, following the birth of three children in quick succession after their marriage (first a son Louis-Charles, then two daughters, Charlotte-Jacques-Eléonore and Charlotte-Julie, baptised respectively at Saint-Louis-en-l’Isle 16.vii.1740 and Saint-Sulpice 17.x.1741), Julie obtained a séparation de biens from Charles, registered in 1742, after suing her husband for reasons that are not now clear. Charles’s death in 1752 would have simplified her legal position, and the Archives nationales include deeds for a number of property transactions in Paris until the move to Ham for which no other document has been found. One complication however concerned her son: in disposing of some property from their inheritance in 1786, Julie (still apparently in Paris rather than in Ham) required the court’s consent because her son had disappeared for several years without his family having any knowledge of his whereabouts or fate. The amounts involved were small, and it does not seem that Julie was particularly wealthy.

She would have been known as Anne-Julie Boët de Saint-Léger, femme de Charles Buterne. Here is how she signed[2] in 1754, two years after her husband’s death:

Boet de St Leger Avis Buterne AN Y4749B 29xi1754

Of course during the Revolution she was more likely to revert to her maiden name alone, as Citoyenne Boet de Saint-Léger. But La Tour’s inscription was surely written in the 1740s or 50s.

The question neither Gomart nor any subsequent art historian has asked was whether there was another Mme Boët de Saint-Léger? Debrie’s and other authors’ references to “Anne-Julie” simply derive from the Ham reference, which is only linked to the Saint-Quentin portrait by Gombert’s suggestion. The name is unique and the pedigree I have compiled, reproduced here with an extract below, lists only one other possibility (indeed one of the documents in the registres de tutelles comments on the absence of relatives): Julie’s sister-in-law.

Julie’s brother, Gabriel-Louis Boët de Saint-Léger (Paris 22.x.1705– Paris 20.xii.1779), was a wealthy financier with connections in international trade, extending from representing the Rouen Boüettes to Russian and Italian commerce with St Peterburg, Florence and Leghorn. One of the financiers heavily involved with the Italian trade was the subject of perhaps La Tour’s greatest portrait, Louis Duval de L’Épinoy (1745), while another fermier général who joined the same syndicate (awarded a nine-year lease by the state of Tuscany in 1741) was Jean-Baptiste Philippe, the subject of another very fine pastel by La Tour dated 1748 (J.46.2508).  One historian[3] described Boët de Saint-Léger as “un escroc” on the basis of his arbitrage operations for this syndicate, essentially involved in discounting bills on which he was entitled to a commission of 1/3% as well as the profits that accrued to his 5/24ths share of the bank they co-owned. His fraud led to complicated litigation in the 1740s, and it seems from information provided by the marquis de Stainville (Choiseul’s father), the chargé d’affaires for Tuscany in Paris, that Duval and Philippe were implicated in the scam: they and three of their colleagues were expelled from the syndicate. Immediately after, in 1746, Gabriel-Louis went to Russia to establish a new trading business there.

At some stage before 1734 Gabriel-Louis married Charlotte Courtois, the daughter of François Courtois, chef d’échansonnerie and pâtissier du roi (her parents married in 1710, but her date of birth is not known more precisely; she was probably several years older than Julie). There were at least three children, born from 1734 on; a grandchild even had the celebrated composer and chess-player Philidor as godfather (1774). But by 1749 the marriage had soured (perhaps Charlotte had no desire to go to St Petersburg), and Charlotte (like Julie, seven years earlier) obtained a séparation de biens from Gabriel-Louis. Unfortunately such arrangements did not have the full force of divorce, and when, in 1761, Charlotte was entitled to her share of a deceased aunt’s estate, Gabriel-Louis simply refused to give permission, and she had to go to court to obtain the necessary authorisation to inherit. The papers are all in the name of “Charlotte Courtois, femme Boët de Saint-Léger” as of course she still was.

Unless and until a finished portrait turns up corresponding to the preparation with an inscription or provenance that decisively identifies the sitter as Charlotte, Mme Boët de Saint-Léger, or as Anne-Julie Boët de Saint-Léger, Mme Buterne, I don’t think we can be entirely certain which lady La Tour portrayed, or precisely when. If we think the pastel was made in the mid-1740s, depicts a lady of a certain maturity, and was more likely to be commissioned by a wealthy husband of a wife from whom he was not yet separated, that husband working closely with other financiers portrayed by La Tour, we would be inclined to go for Charlotte rather than Julie. Such a narrative can easily be extended to explain why no finished pastel was completed, if the marital breakdown (or the discovery of financial irregularities and flight from France) supervened.

But in either case, the sitter was not a local Saint-Quentinoise: rather a member of a family of wealthy financiers, possibly connected too with the musical world – two of the other spheres from which La Tour drew so many of his clients.

Here is the family pedigree:

Louis Boët de Saint-Léger ( –1741), conseiller au présidial de Caudebec, avocat au conseil du roi à Paris, reçu 1692

⇒Gabriel-Louis Boët de Saint-Léger (Paris 22.x.1705– Paris 20.xii.1779) ∞ a.1734 (séparée 1749) Charlotte Courtois (p.1711–p.1761), fille de François Courtois, chef d’échansonnerie;

⇒⇒Francois-Louis Boët de Saint-Léger (1734–p.1781) ∞ Anne-Marie-Louise Lettrier

⇒⇒⇒Marie-Andrée (12.vi1774– ): parain André Danican-Philidor

⇒⇒Louis Charles Boët de Saint-Léger (1736–1812), chev. SL, capitaine du regiment de Soissonois

⇒⇒Charlotte-Elisabeth (Paris 2.vii.1737 – p.1789), pension 1789 ∞ Jean-Guillaume de Masin, comte d’Arquian, commandeur de ND du Mont-Carmel

⇒⇒⇒Gabrielle-Charlotte-Magdeleine (1767– ) ∞ Alexandre Baudron de La Motte

⇒Anne-Julie (a.1720–p.1793), habite à la ville de Ham 1785–93  ∞ 1738 (séparé 1742) Charles Buterne ( –Paris 17.v.1752), gendarme de la Garde ordinaire du roi, compositeur

⇒⇒Louis-Charles Buterne (absent depuis quelques années en 1786)

⇒⇒Charlotte-Jacques-Eléonore (Paris, St Louis en l’Isle 16.vii.1740– )

⇒⇒Charlotte-Julie (Paris, St Sulpice 17.x.1741– )


[1] Jean-Marie Delobette, Ces Messieurs du Havre. Négociants, commissionnaires et armateurs de 1680 à 1830, 2002, p. 274 & passim.

[2] AN Y4749B registres de tutelles, avis Buterne, 29.xi.1754.

[3] Jean-Claude Waquet,  “La ferme de Lombart (1741-1749). Pertes et profits d’une compagnie française en Toscane”, Revue d’histoire modern et contemporaine, xxv/4, 1978, pp. 513–29.


From → Art history

  1. Marcel Roethlisberger permalink

    Dear Neil,

    thank you so much for your study on Mme Boët and others, which I read with great interest and admiration. It fascinates the reader like a detective story with a concluding happy end. It still escapes me how from your computer you succede to bring together all this material without spending weeks in local archives.

    And now also the details and exact dates about the Déjeuner girls.

    With my best regards



  2. How I wish so much material had been available before my paper Dictionary in 2006: but even since then there has been such an explosion of material online, particularly of genealogical documents. While much of it is unreliable and has to be treated very carefully, there are sites like famillesparisiennes which take you to original documents in seconds rather than the weeks I’d have had to spend travelling, and are wonderful resources. For others not online I am grateful to so many archivists and friends. And I seem to keep the copying service at the Archives nationales fully employed, to judge from the lengthening delays. But it beats airport delays and immigration queues any time!

  3. William Ritchey Newton permalink

    I’m not sure my message was sent, so I’ll resent the critical info from the Almanach de la Cour III, 798

    COURTOIS, François († vers 1739) chef d’Échansonnerie-commune de la Maison du roi sur la démission de Denis Auvert en 1704 ; en service au quartier de juillet vers 1715 jusqu’à sa démission en faveur de Nicolas Jean Possard du Mont en 1734 : pâtissier de la Cuisine-com¬mune du roi sur la démission de son père Jean en 1709, servant au quartier d’avril vers 1715 jusqu’à sa démission en faveur de Pierre LeClerc en 1734
    * GC 100 à droite avec 141 à droite
    § 1727 « Le nommé Courtois, garçon-pâtissier du Commun, 150 livres [de pension] . »
    4.6.1739 « Pension de 150 livres à la fille de Courtois, pâtissier du Cuisine-commune du roi . »

    PS. It seems the footnotes didn’t copy. Details on request. ~WRN

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