Sunday, 25 May 2014

Portrait in silk - Catherine the Great by Philippe Lasalle

Philippe Lasalle, Portrait of Catherine II of Russia, c.1771
103 cm x 73 cm
Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
 The verse embroidered along the bottom reads:
"DU NIL AU BOSPHORE. L'OTTOMAN FREMIT. SON PEUPLE L'ADORE. LA TERRE APPLAUDIT" (From the Nile to the Bosphorus the Ottoman trembles: Her people adore her, the world applauds.)

This portrait in silk of Catherine the Great, dating from 1771 and now in the Hermitage, represents a virtuoso technical feat: it is neither an embroidery nor a painting but an image actually woven into the fabric.(The grisaille bust is, I think, a separate piece of silk stitched onto the gold background.)  As the "LASALLE FECIT" proudly proclaims, it is the work of the celebrated Lyon designer Philippe Lasalle, and it was sent to St Petersburg by none other than Voltaire, who is the author of the obsequious verses (commemorating Catherine's recent victories over the Turks).

In May 1771 the Princess Dashkova, visiting Ferney as part of an extensive European tour, had admired a portrait in Voltaire's own possession. On 15th May Voltaire wrote to inform Catherine that he had arranged for her to receive a copy:  "Madame, I must tell you immediately that I have had the honour of receiving Princess Dashkova in my hermitage. As soon as she had entered the salon, she recognised your portrait in mezzo-tinto, made with a shuttle on satin, surrounded by a garland of flowers.  Your Imperial Majesty should have received one from Sieur Lasalle; it is a masterpiece of the arts that are practised at Lyon......"

Metropolitan Museum
101.6cm  x 74.9cm
(The portrait in the Met. is not on display and the 
website only has this old black & white photo.)
The portrait had evidently become one of the sights of Voltaire's house. The Duchess of Northumberland described it clearly in 1772, although she mistook it for an embroidery.  It can also probably be identified with the otherwise unknown "life-size portrait of the Empress Catherine II embroidered in petit point by herself" described by Voltaire's secretary Wagnière. In 1967, when Edith Standen published a study in the Metropolitan Museum Bulletin, the original portrait from Ferney was still extant and in the possession of  Mme Pierre Lambert David, whose family owned the château.   According to the Dictionary of pastellists it is now in the collection at Ferney, though I haven't been able to corroborate this.

Other examples exist in the Metropolitan Museum (acquired in 1941 from the collection of Mrs. Henry Walters) and in the Musée des Tissus in Lyon, which apparently also possesses (or possessed) Lasalle's original design.  In 2012 the museum displayed the silk as part of an exhibition of woven portraits entitled La Fabrique des grands hommes which also included a Louis XV by Lasalle.  (You can find Louis on their website, but not, as far as I can tell, the Catherine.)  Another copy, in the Schossmuseum Berlin, was destroyed during the Second World War.
Lasalle fecit, Lyons le 3 May 1771
The exact circumstances surrounding the production of the portrait is not really known but the general consensus is that the initiative was probably Lasalle's own.  By this time he was already famous as the acknowledged premier designer of Lyon and, although in the early 1770s he began his association with the firm of Pernon which was responsible for many of his later prestigious commissions, he still maintained a workshop of his own. Woven portraits were quite a fashion, though not in silk, the most conspicuous example being the Gobelins tapestry of Louis XV exhibited at the Salon of 1763.  According to one old biographical dictionary, Lasalle's first creations were portraits of Louis XV and the comte de Provence, which he offered to the future comtesse de Provence, Princess Marie-Josephine-Louise of Savoy  when she passed through the city in May 1771 on her way to be married. (According to Princess Dashkova the manufacturers of Lyon were vying with each other to produce the most beautiful specimens of their art, as offerings to the Princess of Piedmont and her train. The portrait of Louis in Lyon is explicitly dated, "Lasalle fecit, Lyons le 3 May 1771".) In the following year Lasalle created a companion portrait of the comtesse of Provence  which he had the honour of presenting to her personally at Versailles and for which he was "well-rewarded".  He then sent off portraits of the comte and comtesse to Turin as well as executing others of the King of Sardinia and Princess Marie-Thérèse of Savoy, future  wife of the comte d'Artois. [See Biographie des hommes célèbres du Département de l'Ain (1835) Google e-book]

La Salle,  Comte and Comtesse de Provence c.1771
Examples from the  
Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt,  National Design Museum.

Why, though, the Catherine? Again, it seems likely that Lasalle, who was the associate of such Enlightened ministers as Turgot and the younger Trudaine, was the instigator of the portrait.  According to Edith Standen, the copy at Ferney was embroidered, "Presented to Monsieur de Voltaire, by the author". There is also a letter dated March 24 1771 in which Voltaire sends his verses to M. Tabareau, director-general of the post office at Lyon: "Here, Sir, is the shortest thing I have been able to compose for your protegé; and in such cases the shortest is always the best." The letter is endorsed, presumably by the recipient: "Verses intended to be placed at the foot of a portrait of the empress of Russia made at Lyons on the loom by M. Lasalle, manufacturer ["par les soins de m. Lasalle fabriquans"]."  No doubt Lasalle also had his eye on the lucrative Russian market and indeed, Catherine the Great subsequently became an important patron.

The original on which Lasalle based his bust is not certain;  this portrait by Fyodor Rokotov dating from 1769,  features similar hair decorations.  

Edith Standen suggests a print by Louis Bonnet after an original by Jean-Louis de Veilly (from the coronation in 1763), but I haven't been able to trace this.


"In memory of Philippe Lasalle"
Lyon silk portrait of 1842
Metropolitan museum

Metropolitan Museum:

John Goldsmith Phillips, "A silk portrait of Catherine the Great",The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 36(7) 1941, 1941), p. 151-3

Edith A Standen, "The mistress and the widow" The  Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 25(5), 1967 p.185-96.

Musée des Tissus, Lyon
Portrait of Louis XV of silk portraits held in Lyon in 2012

Cooper-Hewitt,  National Design Museum
Portraits of the comte and comtesse de Provence

See also:
Philippe Lasalle in Dictionary of pastellists

Lasalle on "A textile-lover's diary" [blog]

Notice from the Metropolitan Museum on Lasalle's "Partridges"

1 comment:

  1. I clearly worried unduly whether Voltaire's portrait of Catherine still exists - see post of 11 September 2015. It is hangs prominently on the wall of Voltaire's bedroom at Ferney (and is really quite large!)