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Mitoire et boule de gomme

29 April 2021


[NB For the version of record (containing additional material etc.), see]

By some way the most ambitious work in pastel by Mme Labille-Guiard,[1] Mme Mitoire et ses enfants (pastel; private collection) has attracted a great deal of critical attention while a number of basic facts have remained unresearched or incorrect until now. It is hardly surprising that feminist art historians have taken it up as an emblem of the virtues of maternal breast-feeding and rousseauisme, a subject to which I can add nothing – except to point out that this was by no means “the first modern French painting of breast-feeding”, as Simon Schama describes the miniature version[2] (in pastel alone one could mention Perronneau’s Mme Poissonnier with the duc de Bourgogne, c.1751, J.582.1684; more proximately one might note that Mme Labille-Guiard’s partner, François-André Vincent, painted a woman holding an infant in 1782, for which he made a careful study: see Cuzin 2013, 407D and 408P). Nor shall I analyse the striking visual accomplishment of this composition with complexities that are seldom required in the world of pastel. Even the still life of the table with its glass of water, so reminisicent of Liotard’s Belle Chocolatière, replaces the Swiss clinical precision with the warmth and humanity that characterize Labille-Guiard’s art.

The pastel was first exhibited in the salon of 1783. According to Anne-Marie Passez’s monograph, it was shown anonymously, as “Madame *** avec ses enfants…”, but in fact at least one further edition of the livret provided her name in full (we reproduce the whole context as it is important to see how Labille-Guiard saw it among her other submissions; this was the only alteration on the page):

In any case no one was in doubt about the lady’s identity at the time. The critic in L’Année littéraire, having praised her portraits of her fellow artists, said “Je ne suis pas aussi satisfait du Portrait de Madame Mitoire, qui est un peu gris”, a sentiment not quite shared with the author of Messieurs, Ami de tout le monde!:

Pour celui de Mad. Mitoire, que je crois très-ressemblant, le coloris ne m’en a point paru si vrai, la carnation si naturelle, & le dessin aussi pur. La Figure est même un peu lourde & ronde, cela pourrait venir du modele.

Most of the other critics however, while enthusing over Labille-Guiard’s other submissions, passed over this portrait in silence – and perhaps a little male embarrassment that one detects also in baron Portalis’s account in 1902. He however is ready to dissociate himself from the criticism of the colouring:

L’ensemble forme un agréable tableau et la tonalité de ce pastel est blonde, argentine et non pas grisâtre, comme l’a osé dire un critique du temps.

By then the pastel belonged to “Mme veuve Sanné”, a provenance Portalis leaves unexplained, and which has not been subsequently decoded in the modern literature (Anne-Marie Passez’s flawed catalogue of 1973, updated by Laura Auricchio in 2009) – although this puzzle is easy enough to decipher. As my Van Loo genealogy reveals, Mme veuve Sanné was Mme Albert Sanné, née Sophie-Adrienne-Marie Barthez de Marmorières (1840–1923), Mme Mitoire’s great-granddaughter by the younger child shown. We will return to his identity, and that of his brother, below.

We can complete the provenance with a few tools that may not have been available to Passez or Auricchio. By the time Portalis’s monograph appeared, the pastel had already been sold, and in July 1901 passed out of the hands of Kraemer to Duveen Brothers for £1440 (with a commission of £233/17/6 paid to the agents Carlhian & Beaumetz), as their stockbooks reveal:

There it was also photographed in its neoclassical frame, which may well have been original, although it is no longer present.

Duveen Brothers stock photographs and records, 1829-1965

It was sent on consignment soon after (on 3.vii.1901) to one of Duveen’s favourite clients, Mrs T. Henry Mason, née Emma Jane Powley (1850–1918) (although as my blog post Jeffares 2018r shows, Mrs Mason didn’t always like what she was sent, and much of it was returned unpaid). In any case, by 1923 it was back on the market, consigned anonymously (by Duveen?) to Christie’s in a sale in which Viscountess Northcliffe was also a vendor (but not, pace Passez, of this lot). Cailleux bought it, apparently through Percy Moore Turner, and included it in a spectacular exhibition of French eighteenth century pastels in 1923. There it was singled out for praise by the anonymous “Curieux” (Henry Lapauze?) in La Renaissance de l’art who commented:

Le portrait de Mme Mitoire et de ses enfants par Mme Labille-Guiard est plein de grâce et d’une remarquable science de composition; il fut exposé au Salon de 1783; l’émule de Mme Vigée-Lebrun voit de plus en plus grandir sa reputation et ses somptueux portraits, à Versailles, des filles aînées de Louis XV, montrent une vigueur et un accent de verité inoubliables. Le mari de cette Mme Mitoire était peintre lui-même et a travaillé en Russie. Fort bien conservé, ce pastel soutient le redoutable voisinage d’un Jeune femme en robe bleue, par Nattier[3]….

It’s evidently time to turn our attention to the sitters in this portrait – particular since the painter in Russia was not Mme Mitoire’s husband, but the infant she is suckling. Although Mme Mitoire herself has been correctly identified as Christine-Geneviève Bron, granddaughter of Carle Van Loo, to date the Labille-Guiard literature has said nothing about the children, and little about the husband. Several years ago I updated the Dictionary entry with details of the younger child, Charles-Benoît Mitoire, who indeed grew up to be a painter (see below). On 27 floréal an II (16 May 1794), he obtained a notarized “certificat de vie” stating that he was aged 12 and had been born in Clichy. His mother obtained a similar certificate a month later; it failed to mention her husband’s name. Charles-Benoît’s document had no birth certificate attached, and the documents raised questions while at least allowing us to identify the infant shown in the salon of 1783 as likely to have been born just before 16 May 1782. But who was the elder child?

And how did this fit with a troubling “legend”, alluded to obliquely by Portalis when discussing the “belle gorge de la mère”, that Mme Mitoire’s cousin, the gourmand Grimod de La Reynière, “n’avait pas eu trop mauvais goût”? The allusion is traced easily enough, since Desnoireterres’s 1877 biography of Grimod discusses it at some length, and refers to the curious relationship the young and rather wayward boy had with his (third[4]) cousin Christine-Geneviève Bron, and which he apparently confided to his friend, the novelist Rétif de la Bretonne, who fictionalized the liaison, disguising the girl under the name Angélique de Bissi, but giving the game away by disclosing her real married name (Mitoire) once her parents had put the 17 year old out of harm’s way.

I’m not the first person to decode this, although I did so before finding that Philippe Havard de La Montagne had published a detailed analysis of the novel and the reality (at least as far as it may be gleaned from Grimod’s numerous letters which he continued to send to the girl for many years), appropriately in Etudes rétiviennes in 2011, to which I willingly refer you (it has so far escaped the attention of art historians and Labille-Guiard specialists). Havard de La Montagne was aware of a painter called Benoît-Charles Mitoire who had died in 1832 (age unknown to him), and guessed from the names he might be one of the children shown (but chose the wrong one on the basis that the forenames were those of the father and maternal grandfather, most likely given to the first-born son).

Havard’s logic might have been fruitfully applied to the name of the elder boy shown. A search of the parish register at Clichy (which, despite the notarial declaration, failed to reveal any baptismal entry for Charles-Benoît[5]) shows that, on 13 September 1780, a boy was baptized and given the names Alexandre-Laurent:

With these names, it will come as no surprise that his parrain was a Grimod de La Reynière: not Antoine-Laurent the son but his father, Laurent Grimod de La Reynière (1733–1793), fermier général 1753–80, administrateur des postes, who was also an amateur pastellist and later (1787) an honoraire associé libre de l’Académie royale de peinture. He was also seigneur de Clichy-la-Garenne. I doubt if we will ever know for certain whether the relationship was closer than that. We note too that the 76-year-old Christine Somis, Mme Van Loo was the marraine to her great-grandson.

We do know what happened to the boy, as he died in Martinique aged 36, his profession being described as marchand modiste:

Much more is known about the younger brother, although it is easier to find it in Russian (where his name is transcribed as Бенуа-Шарль Митуар). Despite exhibiting in the Paris salon in 1819 (from Paris, rue des Tournelles, during a temporary visit home) and in 1822 (from St Petersburg), he is omitted from most art reference works. Cuzin 2013 records him as a pupil of Vincent, enrolled during messidor and thermidor an IV (i.e. June–August 1796). The short entry in Bénézit notes that he was a member of the Academy in St Petersburg in 1813. He was in fact a prolific portraitist in oil and miniature (and is represented in the Hermitage and other Russian museums), having emigrated, obtained Russian citizenship and married a Russian – presumably the Annette-Marguerite Berg recorded in the Paris index cards for his death, which took place in Paris, rue Notre Dame des Champs, on; he had it seems returned there shortly before. An inventaire was taken on 3.ix.1832 (AN mc/re/xx/14).

Returning to the parents, a search of the notarial archives in the Minutier central gives the date for their marriage contract as 14 October 1779 (AN mc/re/lvi/13).[6] We have also located the parish record of the marriage, which did take place at the church of Saint-Médard in Clichy on 19 October 1779:

The parish register provides us with a number of interesting details. There is probably no particular significance in the waiver of the customary three banns, nor is there any surprise in the appearance of Charles-Amédée Van Loo whose portrait (now in Versailles, MV 5874) Labille-Guiard would exhibit in 1785, one of her morceaux de réception set at her entry into the Académie royale in 1783. It is easy to pass over some of the less well-known names, but the Bron family were close friends with Paul-César Gibert (1717–1787), a music teacher who had studied in Italy (where he may well have known Christina Somis, Mme Carle Van Loo); he died leaving children called Christine-Geneviève, aged 10 (so born in 1777) and Benoît-Charles-César, aged 8.[7]

But perhaps the most interesting information is about Christine-Geneviève Bron’s husband, the elusive Charles Mitoire (or Mitoire Dumoncel as he signs) of whom all that art history has hitherto reported is that he was connected with the finances de Lyon. The research set out below may seem somewhat remote from Labille-Guiard’s family portrait, but the questions that emerge go to the nature of Mme Mitoire’s marriage. Was Mitoire induced to marry a girl whose reputation was already in danger by the offer of a position in her father’s gift?

The marriage contract reveals that Mitoire brought assets up to 30,000 livres into the marriage, while Bron settled on his daughter the same sum – but made up in part by her share of her mother’s estate. The contract followed reasonably standard terms, with one important reservation: the communauté des biens was limited, as to future acquisitions, to a value of 10,000 livres, so that any assets acquired by either party above that limit are not shared. However the terms don’t clearly establish whether the marriage was one of convenience.

It is perhaps worth noting that one rapidly comes up against surprising barriers in following Mitoire’s career. He was probably the “Mitoire, bourgeois de Paris” recorded as a member of the masonic lodge L’Amitié in 1778.[8] Havard de La Montagne notes that Mitoire was cited as a “commis à la Recette Générale du Lyonnais” in some documents, and wonders how this could have been combined with his position as “sous-visiteur” at the Direction générale des postes aux chevaux, relais et messageries de France shown in the Almanach royal for 1787. As is well known the Bron family (and the Grimods) were very closely connected with the French postal service.

The phrase “commis par arrêt du conseil à la recette général des finances de Lyon” in the parish register again might excite suspicion of something not quite routine about the appointment. But in fact we can show that Mitoire was in this position a year before the marriage, as he was implicated in a complex legal case relating to the acceptance of bills of exchange.[9] The case involved bills sent by a M. de La Borde to an agent de change called Offmann which Mitoire (the legal reporter does not give a forename for “le sieur Mitoire, commis par arrêt du conseil, à la recette générale des finances du Lyonnais”) had already endorsed as “pour acquit”. Offmann disappeared, and the question was who should face the loss amounting, by December 1778, to some 153,000 livres; the case appears to have been decided (in February 1779) against Mitoire, making him personally liable for a sum he could not afford.

The 1780 Almanach civil, politique et littéraire de Lyon…, p. 119, gives the “Commis par Arrêt du Conseil” at the Recettes généraux des Finances de Lyon as “Paul-René Mitoire”, a name for which I have failed to find any genealogical data.[10] He is indicated as based in Paris, carrying on the functions of Jacques-David Ollivier who had died on 3.v.1777, leaving a widow, née Anne-Marguerite Lamouroux. Their son François-Marie-David Ollivier de Montluçon (1743–1790), a soldier, was appointed in succession on; Paul-René Mitoire carried out the duties in 1778 and 1780. He is evidently the Mitoire in the law case – but the office is exactly that claimed by the Charles Mitoire in the 1778 marriage in the Clichy parish register. The identification is confirmed by the presence at the Mitoire–Bron marriage contract (although not the church ceremony at Clichy six days later) of “Mme Olivier et M. Olivier son fils receveur général des finances.”: they signed respectively “Lamouroux Ollivier” and “Ollivier”.

If the Ollivier papers can be relied upon, Mitoire’s position in the finances de Lyon ended in 1780. He still cited this position when he appeared as a witness to his sister-in-law’s marriage which again took place at Saint-Médard, Clichy, attended by the bride’s father, Benoît Bron “demeurant à Monceaux de cette paroisse son domicile de droit et de fait”, and Amédée Van Loo (again), while Mitoire is shown as living in the rue Thévenot in Paris. (This is curious because the certificate de vie obtained by Christine-Geneviève and the young Charles-Benoît Mitoire in 1794 indicate that they were still living in Monceaux.)

It was some time before Charles Mitoire formally received his commission[11] of “sous-visiteur ordinaire des Postes aux chevaux, relais et messageries du royaume” (2.iv.1786), no doubt with support from the family he had married into. But that position too soon came into jeopardy, as we learn from a letter from Grimod de La Reynière, who had continued to write to Mme Mitoire long after his father terminated the relationship. His letter of 21.ix.1787[12], addressed from the abbaye de Domâvre near Blamont (where his father had had him confined for errant behaviour) to Angélique [sic] Mitoire in Monceau, sympathized with the difficulties facing her husband:

En apprenant la reunion de la poste aux chevaux à celle aux lettres[13] j’étois pris de peurs que M. Mitoire dût perdre son etat à cette révolution. Il est bien faisant pour lui qui né avec son talent et de la fortune il ait toujours préféré des emplois incertains et précaires à des charges decoratives qui l’eussent mis à l’abri de tous les événements. S’il étoit notaire par exemple, il verroit avec l’indifférence toutes les reformes de la finance…. Heureusement qu’il vous reste dans les debris de sa fortune … [Il faut maintenant] attendre patiemment que les circonstances deviennent plus favorables.

* * *

What we also find from the marriage contract and parish register entry is that Charles’s parents were “deffunt Jean-Claude Mitoire et Charlotte Lardant de la paroisse de Saint-Eustache”, and his uncle, a witness, was Pierre-François Lardant. These facts, albeit spelled not quite consistently with other records, are sufficient to direct us to a clearer picture of M. Mitoire’s background. The widowed Jeanne-Charlotte Lardant, Lardent or Lardain died in 1781, rue d’Anjou, in the Marais; her brother was an architecte entrepreneur des bâtiments à Paris, and her husband was better known as Jean-Baptiste Mitoire (1718–1772), maître cartier in Paris.[14] They were married on 12.v.1746 in Paris, Saint-Paul, appearing in the Fonds Andriveau records as “Jean Baptiste Claude Mitouar, fils de Claude, et de Marie Bouliard”; while “Charlotte Lardant” was the daughter of François Lardant and Catherine Rolland. Charles, Mme Mitoire’s husband, must have been born c.1750, so the Charles Mitoire who was reçu maître cartier in Paris in 1758[15] (if correctly reported) was probably his uncle or cousin.

Mme Mitoire’s husband was surely a brother of the Jacques-Charles Mitoire (1749–1805), compagnon cartier de la ville de Paris, recorded in Clermont in 1769 when he alleged that a bill presented to him was a fake (the matter was referred to the duc de Choiseul before the Intendant de l’Auvergne declared the bill valid). Jacques-Charles later returned to Paris: “Le sieur Mitoire, marchand papetier, rue Phelippeaux” supplied paper to the value of 222 livres 7 sols, invoiced 23.xii.1792, to the commissaires du Conseil du Temple (where the royal family had been imprisoned).[16] “Mitoire papetier” appears in the 1800 Almanach du commerce de Paris from a new address, 111 rue du Temple, the street where Jacques-Charles died in 1805.

Jean-Baptiste Mitoire’s speciality was the manufacture of playing cards, in which he was extremely successful. A king of hearts of his design appears in a contemporary genre pastel of a boy with a château de cartes (J.2342.107).[17] But in 1761, as documents in the Archives de la Bastille[18] reveal, he was prosecuted for forgery (using cheaper, unofficial, materials, which facilitated the avoidance of duty), a crime treated very harshly in the eighteenth century. He was sentenced to “déchéance de maîtrise”, i.e. permanently banned from his trade, and fined 3000 livres. This does not seem to have deterred him from working with the engraver Nicolas Poilly on a series of geographical playing cards in Abbeville in 1763. There are further sightings, such as this advertisement in L’Avant-Coureur in 1770:

Was this Jean-Baptiste Mitoire, brazenly defying the order of déchéance – or perhaps his son, the future husband of Mlle Bron, had started on this career? When Christine-Geneviève Bron’s third child, Henriette-Marie-Sophie Mitoire, was baptized (in Clichy, 7.i.1790 – Gibert’s widow was marraine), Charles Mitoire signed the register, but was described as a “négociant” rather than as a commis des finances or sous-visiteur aux postes. It is tempting to speculate that he had helped his parents in the paper business before these more impressive appointments, and had returned to it after he lost them.

The evidence discussed further below suggests that Jean-Baptiste Mitoire had indeed left Paris before 1770: his death certificate (burial 27.xii.1772, “maître cartier de la ville de Paris exerçant en cette ville”) shows him in Metz. It was presumably around this time that Jeanne-Charlotte, veuve Mitoire[19] issued the trade card of which the copy below is in the Waddesdon collection. It shows that she had taken over the business.

The business in the premises at the rue d’Anjou passed at veuve Mitoire’s death in 1781 to a certain “La Chapelle”, and in 1794 adopted the name La Chapelle et Auzou (Grand-Carteret 1913, who however offers no biographical information on the new proprietors). We here identify the new owner as Antoine-François Chapelle or Lachapelle, papetier. On 6.x.1790, in Paris, Saint-Jean-en-Grève, he married (as his second wife) a Jeanne-Marie-Victoire Desmarquest. They adopted and brought up her cousin Jeanne-Marie-Catherine Desmarquest (1775–1835); on 9.xii.1793 she married the papetier Charles-Marie Auzou and became known as the painter Pauline Auzou. There is a further twist that emerges from the marriages indexed in the Fonds Andriveau: Chapelle’s first marriage, on 29.vii.1769, also at Paris, Saint-Jean-en-Grève, he was married (bigamously) to “Jeanne-Charlotte Lardent, fille majeure de François Lardent et de Catherine Rolland”. Jean-Baptiste Mitoire, her real husband (there is no evidence of any annulment), still had three years to live; at the very least she must have assumed he was safely out of the way.

But while Charles Mitoire’s husband did not take over his mother’s business, he (or a homonym[20]) seems to have returned to an activity closely related to the sale of luxury goods, as garde-magasin de l’intendance des Menus-Plaisirs. (Contact might have come about through the patronage of Papillon de la Ferté, who had been one of the administrateurs généraux at the Postes – along with Grimod de La Reynière – while Mitoire was there.) The exact date of his appointment is not yet known, but he was in place by 1807, when Mitoire was accused of assisting one Thorel, portier des Menus-Plaisirs in fraudulently appropriating firewood intended for the Opéra.[21] The police were called in to investigate, and the report exonerated them:

Thorel et Mitoire ont été interrogés séparément. Thorel a prouvé qu’il avait fait ses provisions de bois au chantier de la Bastille. Mitoire a protesté qu’il n’avait livré aucuns bois du magasin confiés à sa garde que pour la consommation de l’administration; il a invoqué le suffrage de M. Mareuil, inspecteur général de l’Opéra, et de M. Vente, agent comptable. Il y a lieu de croire que les plaintes portées contre les sieurs Thorel et Mitoire ne sont point fondées…

More routinely, in a letter of 15.v.1809, he wrote to the directeur de l’Opéra concerning stage decorations for an opera by Spontini, Fernand Cortez ou la conquête du Mexique with costumes by Ménageot. Charles Mitoire continued to be recorded at the rue du Faubourg Poissonnière as garde magasin de l’intendance des Menus-Plaisirs du roi until his death there in 1822. Curiously at his death no heir was nominated.

In any case, Mme Mitoire outlived her husband and died in 1842. Labille-Guiard’s masterpiece shows a picture of conventional domestic tranquility that reveals nothing of the turbulent story unfolded in this essay. The pastel passed down through the family of a daughter born seven years after the salon, Henriette-Marie-Sophie (1790–1818), who married into a medical family.


[1] This essay appears simultaneously on this blog and on my main website in a version of record (containing fuller details etc.), which may be cited as Neil Jeffares, “Labille-Guiard Mme Mitoire et ses enfants”, Pastels & pastellists, Any additions or corrections will be included in that version only. Consult Pastels & pastellists (and in particular the entry for Labille-Guiard) for details of pastels referred to by J number or bibliographic items cited in abbreviation.

[2] Citizens, 1989, p. 148. The miniature was not the version exhibited in the Salon de 1783; because it is in a public collection, it has however been more widely reproduced than the primary version. The secondary literature citing it is too extended to list in full.

[3] This may be the portrait of Mme Royer J.554.179.

[4] See my Grimod genealogy.

[5] One unverified source states that he was born on 6.i.1782. This seems improbable given the difference in age between the children in the portrait. In any case there is no such entry in the parish register for Saint-Médard, Clichy for several years around this date.

[6] A certified copy of the acte de mariage was also deposited on 27.vii.1785 (AN mc/re/xv/992), accompanied by one for Christine-Geneviève’s sister, presumably relating to the death of their grandmother Mme Carle Van Loo which had occurred three months previously.

[7] Although the Chaillot parish registers were destroyed in the Commune (unlike those of Clichy), both entries are preserved in the reconstructed Paris archives. The future Mme Mitoire was indeed the girl’s marraine.

[8] Alain Le Bihan, Francs-maçons parisiens du Grand Orient de France, 1966, p. 359.

[9] Denisart, Collection de décisions Nouvelles…, Paris, 1788, vii, pp. 593ff.

[10] As confirmed in the accounts of the Ollivier estate (AN mc/xxxii, 23.ii.1789), according to Claeys 2009, p. 566, n.5.

[11] AN O1 128, fol. 91.

[12] Sold Paris, Ader Nordmann, 10–11.xii.2018, Lot 221. My transcription from a low resolution image. Other letters were sold c.1975 by the Librarie de l’Abbaye, cat. 242: among them, one of 22.ii.1787, expressing desperation at her coolness towards him and threatening suicide.

[13] This indeed was enacted by order of 12.viii.1787.

[14] There are numerous mentions of Mitoire père in the paper literature; see e.g. Henri Alibaux, “Mitoire, marchand-papetier parisien”, Le Vieux Papier, fasc. 137, .xii.1946, pp. 93-95; Thierry depaulis, Des « figures maussades & révoltantes » :Diderot et les cartes à jouer, Le Vieux Papier, fasc. 414, .x.2014. Those that I have consulted shed no light on the identity of Charles Mitoire.

[15] The standard text on the subject, Henry-René d’Allemagne, Les Cartes à jouer du xive au xxe siècle, 1906, ii, p. 618.

[16] Répertoire général des sources manuscrites de l’histoire de Paris pendant la Révolution française, 1900, v, p. 13.

[17] Bearing a false signature of Drouais, the attribution to Colson is also unreliable.

[18] François Ravaisson, Archives de la Bastille, documents inédits…, 1866, xviii, pp. 122ff.

[19] Grand-Carteret 1913 notes that she appears in some contemporary reference books as “Veuve Mitouart”.

[20] It cannot be excluded that the Charles Mitoire, maître cartier in 1758 and presumably a relative, was still alive; but the son, Charles-Benoît, was in Russia from c.1801 to c.1830 and cannot be the garde-magasin; nor can Jacques-Charles Mitoire, apparently his brother, who died in 1805. Documents in the Archives nationales, not currently available, may yet shed light on the identifications in this essay.

[21] F.-A. Aulard, Paris sous le premier Empire, 1923, iii, p. 374.

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