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La Tour’s copyists (2): Anne Féret, Mme Nivelon (1711–1786)

17 May 2020

Anne-Baptiste_Nivelon,_Louis_de_France,_dauphin_(1764)The Dictionary of pastellists has limited room for the biographies of copyists who worked in other media. In an earlier post, I explored one of the miniaturists who copied La Tour, and who had escaped attention through obscurity. The same cannot be said of the oil painter “Anne Baptiste Nivelon”: if you search online you’ll immediately find dozens of references to this artist who made excellent oil copies after portraits by La Tour, Van Loo and others. (As they are not in pastel there’s no entry for her in the Dictionary of pastellists.) You’ll also find that nothing is known of her biography, other than that she worked for the Menus plaisirs and was favoured by the dauphine. Thus there are several references to her copies in the 2004 La Tour exhibition catalogue, notably the portrait en pied of the dauphin (above) with its pendant of the dauphine, executed in 1764 for Christophe de Beaumont, archevêque de Paris, and now in Versailles (MV 3793; MV 3797), both after pastels by La Tour. Laurent Hugues discussed her work at length in De soie et de poudre, 2004. There are also large oils of the duc de Belle-Isle (again after La Tour), and a Louis XV after Louis-Michel Van Loo.

That information is readily available and I need not repeat it: but published sources do not disclose her dates, quoting instead floruit 1754-71. All this is summarised in Xavier Salmon’s catalogue of a portrait exhibition at the musée Lambinet (Cent portraits pour un siècle, 2019). For an exhaustive genealogical analysis of the family, including this apparent impasse, I can refer you to this recent document which concluded (in the version online at the time I am writing) that “sa biographie reste étrangement mystérieuse.” Art history has got no further until now.

The pendants of the dauphin and dauphine are signed “Fait par Anne Baptiste Nivelon [l’an] 1764” though it is difficult to make this out in the reproduction. Some further light on these is shed by a curious and slightly puzzling document which was published in 1930, but seems to have been largely overlooked since (you can find it in my Chronological table of documents relating to La Tour, at 1 July 1761). It’s a note from Louis-Marie-Augustin, duc d’Aumont (1709–1782), premier gentilhomme de la Chambre du roi, directing Jean-Jacques Papillon de Fontpertuis (1715–1774), intendant of the Menus plaisirs to have Mlle Nivelon make copies of the La Tour pastels of the dauphin and dauphine.

Mr le duc d’Aumont prie Monsieur de Fontpertuys de faire faire les portraits de Mgr le Dauphin et de Me la Dauphine par la demoiselle Nivelon; elle demeure à Versailles, rue de Satory. Mr de Fontpertuys aura la bonté de faire demander au nommé Latour, concierge de l’Hôtel de Nesles les portraits originaux de M. le Dauphin et de Madame la Dauphine. Ce sont les plus ressemblants qui aient été faits, ils sont en pastel. Il faut les ménager dans le transport.

Ce 1er juillet                         Le duc d’Aumont

La demoiselle Nivelon annonce les portraits finis le 22 décembre

Among other things it tells us that the versions in Versailles made in 1764 were not the first copies Mme Nivelon made. (It also reminds us that the hazards of moving pastels were well understood even then.) But although we know that dukes at this time were apt to call any bourgeoise “Mademoiselle” whether married or not, it adds little to help identify Mme Nivelon beyond the address, rue de Satory, which was already known from Germain Bapst’s Inventaire de Marie-Josèphe de Saxe, dauphine de France, 1883.

I ought perhaps to write this blog as a detective story, planting clues along the way for you to work out, but some of you just want to know the answer. Suffice it to say that, after working through the parish records at Versailles (Saint-Louis), I concluded that the only likely candidate for Mme Nivelon was an Anne Féret who, on 16 January 1741 at Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois in Paris, married François Nivelon (1692–1770). The marriage contract, signed two days before (AN MC/ET/VII/263), tells us more:

Contrat de mariage entre François Nivelon, valet de chambre de la maréchale d’Estrées, demeurant à l’hôtel de ladite dame, rue de l’Université, fils majeur de défunts Jean-François Nivelon, peintre du roi, et de Marie-Anne Regnault, et Anne Feret, majeure, demeurant rue Saint-Thomas-du-Louvre, fille de feu Jean-Baptiste Feret, peintre ordinaire du roi en son académie, et de Marie-Anne Thibert, dressé en présence du comte de Gramont, de la maréchale d’Estrées, de la comtesse de Mailly et de la comtesse de Vintimille qui ont signé.

The contract was under the communauté des biens regime, and the dowry a modest 500 livres. We can amplify François Nivelon’s parentage: his father was also known just as François Nivelon (1663–1733), peintre du roi, born and died in Fontainbleau, and is the painter mentioned in the genealogy above at 1.19. But his second wife’s name was Regnault, not Arnault, and their eldest son François (born in Fontainebleau on 17 August 1692) did in fact survive, to become valet de chambre to the recently widowed maréchale d’Estrées, née Lucie-Félicité de Noailles (1683–1745) and later to her brother, Adrien-Maurice, maréchal-duc de Noailles (1678–1766).

Pursuing further records, notably the marriage in Versailles on 25 April 1765 of their daughter Félicité-Marie-Anne (baptised at Saint-Sulpice on 15 April 1745, so just 20 years old, no doubt a god-daughter of Mme d’Estrées) to Michel Laseigne, a géographe des Bâtiments du roi (aged 44½), the ceremony presided over by Pierre Astoin, chapelain to the queen and the dauphine:


François Nivelon’s death, again in Versailles (paroisse Saint-Louis ), occurred on 17 June 1770, and he was buried the next day; the witnesses included again abbé Astoin:

Nivelon_Francois deces

Nivelon’s death in 1770 explains why the copyist is referred to as la veuve Nivelon in January 1771 when she delivered a copy of Madame Louise en carmélite (MV 6613).

Anne’s own burial entry, still in Versailles, in 1786, again attended not only by her son-in-law, but by Toussaint-François Remond, chef de bureau des Bâtiments du roi (the most senior officer under Montucla, the commis):

NivelonAnne VersaillesStLouis1786

The age of 74 on 16 February 1786 implies a year of birth of most probably 1711 or (much less likely – a one in eight chance) 1712.

Now Anne Féret’s connections with the Bâtiments du roi and relations with painters are all very suggestive (as is the fact that she was widowed between 1764 and 1771), but two obstacles remain to complete proof that she herself was “Anne Baptiste Nivelon”: why would she add a forename that does not appear in any document? And is there any evidence that she wielded a brush?

The answer to both questions emerged from researching her father, Jean-Baptiste Féret, a competent landscape and history painter at the Académie royale (even if the name is today little known: Pierre Rosenberg called him “ce paysagiste méconnu” in his brief entry in the 2005 exhibition catalogue Poussin, Watteau, Chardin, David…): he was agréé 26 February 1707 and reçu 26 October 1709. According to Jal’s biographical dictionary (p. 573), Féret used the soubriquet “Baptiste” on its own, and it seems highly plausible that she added the name (which would have been known in the circles that employed her) in tribute to her father. Féret was born in Evreux c.1665, and on 23 April 1708, in Paris, Saint-Merry, he married a Marie-Anne Thibert. (The witnesses included Louis Galloche. She also came from a family of painters, including her brother Louis-Jacques Thibert, who married the daughter of a Daniel Thierry, maître peintre.) When he died in Paris, 12 February 1739, leaving the then unmarried Anne Féret and her brother, the seals were applied and an inventory taken (AN Y11669). And among the pictures listed were “huit esquisses ébauchées dans leurs cadres de bois, ouvrages de lad. demoiselle Ferret.” There was also a portrait of her father whose authorship is ambiguous. But I think there is no longer any ambiguity about one of La Tour’s best copyists.


From → Art history

  1. William Newton permalink

    Interesting post. Did you know that there was a picture gallery in a building annexed to the Surintedance des Batiments were novice painters could make copies of the King’s picture… under stirck rules?

    I dont know if this Nivelon is one of the family you speak of.

    NIVELON, Michel, sommier de l’Échanson¬nerie-bouche de la duchesse de Bour¬gogne avant la mort de la princesse en 1712 : sommier de l’Échansonnerie-bouche de la reine Marie Leszczynska à l’établissement de sa maison en 1725 ; en service brièvement jusqu’en1726 quand il démissionna en faveur de François DuCocq

    • I think that Michel Nivelon was born in Fontainebleau 9 juin 1679 and married in 1702 Marie-Anne Soucatel. He was the 2nd cousin 3 times removed of the Francois Nivelon who married Anne Feret. But there is scope for confusion! Also with the dancing master who came to England and sued John Rich etc. Do you have more details or a reference for the picture gallery?

  2. Rémi DEDOURS permalink

    Bonjour Neil et merci beaucoup pour cette réponse bien documentée.
    Votre hypothèse paraît très vraisemblable et met un terme à l’énigme de l’identité dAnne Baptiste Nivelon.

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