Saturday, 15 February 2014

Surviving the Revolution: Dominique Doncre, provincial artist

Following on from the trompe l'oeil, here is a little more information on the Arras artist Domnique Doncre.  Apart from a small exhibition Arras and Hazebrouck in 1989-90, Doncre has attracted little attention.  Not quite in the top flight of artistic accomplishment, his works on public display are relatively few  -  though his output was prolific, many of his decorative creations were ephemeral in nature, and other pieces were sold off and scattered after his death because he lacked direct descendants.  

His career illuminates the questions of how to make a living from art in 18th-century France and, secondly, how to survive and prosper as a professional artist in the Revolutionary era.

Early life and career

Self-portrait with Dominique Herment,
Musee de l'Hotel Sandelin, Saint-Omer,
"Painted by Dominique Doncre, his pupil, in 1769"
Guillaume-Dominique-Jacques Doncre was born in 1743 in the Flemish village of Zegerscappel, ten kilometres south of Dunkirk.  Nothing is known of his training as an artist - his virtuosity in trompe-l'oeil and grisaille recall the work of Antwerp artist Martin Geeraerts (1707-1791) which has led to the suggestion he studied there. He probably started his career in Saint-Omer, where there is a 1769 self-portrait with the local sculptor Dominique Herment, in which he identifies himself as Herment's "pupil". 

Monseigneur de Conzié,
 Diocese of Arras

By March 1772 he was firmly established enough in Arras to be made a bourgeois of the town and to join the local confraternity of Saint-Luc.  He developed a clientele  among the local noblesse de robe, particularly members of the Conseil d'Artois. Various decorative commissions and portraits are recorded: numerous fashionable grisailles,  Christ on the cross  for the cathedral in Arras, a portrait of the bishop, Monseigneur de Conzié.

Joseph II , 1783
Naumur, Collections
 artistiques communales

In 1783 Doncre was invited by the Imperial Princess Marie-Christine, wife of Albert duc de Saxe-Teschen  to restore the picture gallery of the château de Mariemont at Morlanwelz near Mons. It was at this time that he received a commission for a portrait of Joseph II, later presented to the town of Naumur to mark an imperial visit there during Joseph's six week tour of the Low Countries in 1781. 

Portrait du peintre et de sa femme Agnès-Rose 
Arras, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Amongst the princess's paid companions was Doncre's future wife Marie Agnès-Rose Dineur. Already in her forties when they married in 1784, Marie Agnès-Rose had a great reputation for beauty as well as for her sweet nature. She was a frequent model - the Flemish-born Doncre's taste in women clearly ran to the Rubensque! They had one child, a boy who died when he was three and was painted by his heartbroken father as an angel ascending to heaven.

The Revolutionary Years

There is no real first hand evidence for Doncre's reaction to Revolutionary events. However, his biographer Le Gentil cites, with some justification, Sieyès's "J'ai vécu"; close as his relations were with the local nobility and haute bourgeoisie, Doncre's position no doubt suggested prudence.  

Judge Pierre-Louis-Joseph Lecocq and his family 1791
.Musée de la Révolution, Vizille
 At first, at least, the Revolution allowed a measure of continuity.  In 1984 the Musée de la Revolution at Vizille acquired a  painting by Doncre, dating from 1791, which depicts a prosperous member of the Conseil of Arras. No doubt the Judge had been compensated for the loss of his magistracy, then re-elected - note the little angel or figure of liberty revealing his splendid robes of office.

During the Terror Doncre was credited with exercising a mitigating influence though his friendship with the numismatist  Effroy, the commissioner for prisons in Arras and one of the few men with the strength of character to stand up to Joseph Le Bon.  Artistically, however, Doncre firmly towed the line.

Doncre, his wife and their friends Effroy, 1803
Arras, Musée des Beaux-Art
Like David, he was involved in the confection of scenery and props for various Revolutionary and Napoleonic pageants ("travaux de circonstances") in Arras, including temples to "the Fatherland" and "the Law" and a pyramid erected to commemorate the defeat of the Chouans.  At the height of the Terror, in January 1794, "Citizen Doncre" supplied portraits for a fête to celebrate the anniversary of Louis XVI's execution which included the ceremonial burning in effigy of the monarchs of the Coalition.  It was his massive allegorical canvasses which transformed the Church of St-John-the-Baptist into a Temple of Reason - a letter exists from the artist to the district administrators, dating from Year IV, in which he seeks the payment outstanding for these works.  We are told too of an enormous Goddess of Liberty, complete with trident, which once hung in the Arras town hall, modeled we are told on Doncre's (substantial) wife. He also painted Revolutionary genre paintings of more modest proportions, such as this set of patriotic singers:
Patriotic singers ("la Marseillaise"). 
Inscribed on the back of the chair : "D.Doncre fecit 1794"
Musée  Carnavalet, Paris

As we have seen, Doncre also drew and painted portraits of Revolutionary figures. M. Le Gentil mentions a series of portraits "à la sanguine" of  the members of the National Convention, Robespierre, Lebas, Lebon, Peltier, Combe-Sièyes. Other drawings, also in "trois crayons", depicted Arras notables such as the younger Robespierre and Demeuliez the public prosecutor.  In 1906 the Pas-de-Calais Commission for historical monuments received notice of a fine portrait by Doncre in red and white chalk, thought to be one of Robespierre's three cousins on his mother's side, from the Carraut family, brewers of the Abbey of Saint-Vaast: "The Revolutionary is three-quarters turned, dressed in the costume of the day with a soft shirt and high collar, and with vivacious and intelligent eyes.  He has fine long nose, thin and small lips, prominent cheeks, disordered hair - the portrait of a poet or a thinker."   None of these drawings is traceable today, at least not on the internet.

Under Napoleon we find Doncre still painting for the regime, this time celebrating the Peace of Amiens in 1802.  After this he seems to have happily reverted by to his pre-Revolutionary mélange of historical and religious pictures, interspersed with portraits of society sitters.

Arras, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Perhaps more crucially for posterity, Doncre's position of trust allowed him a formative role in preserving the artist legacy of Arras throughout the Revolutionary period. In March 1793 the district directory charged him with valuing works of art among the sequestered goods of the  émigrés and in 1794 he became first curator of the museum in Arras, with a mandate to make his choice from the "works of religion and feudalism" in local churches, religious buildings and émigré households, in particular the great Abbey of Saint-Vaast. As his inventories in the Departmental archives of the Pas-de-Calais show, many medieval pieces now to be seen in Arras owe their preservation to Doncre.


Dominique Doncre 1743-1820.  Notice of an exhibition in 1989-90 in Hazebrouck and Arras.

Catalogue of works by Doncre in the museums of the Pas-de-Calais

C.  Le Gentil,Dominique Doncre (1743-1820) [1868]

Victor Advielle, Dominique Doncre [1902]

Charles Oulmont. Notice concerning a drawing (la sanguine) by Dominique Doncre.
Bulletin de la Commission départementale des monuments historiques du Pas-de-Calais (Arras)1889-1981. 5th April 1906.

Notice of portrait of Joseph II by Doncre

No comments:

Post a Comment