Monday, 27 January 2014

The Revolution condemns Man's Best Friend........

Yes, the Revolutionary Tribunal really did order the execution of a dog!

Here is the story as told by Hector Fleischmann in his splendid Behind the scenes in the Terror, and this time it is clear Fleischmann had full documentary evidence for his tale.  Even I feel a bit sorry for this particular mutt!

18c French study of a spaniel, Ashmoleon Museum
(formerly attributed to Watteau


ON Sunday, 11th November, 1793, the Revolutionary Tribunal condemned a dog to the death penalty. A dog!

On that day a former recruiter of the name of Saint-Prix took his place on the steps. There were few people in the hall. The batch of victims was not very large.  All were reserving themselves for finer " platoon firing." Saint-Prix was accused of counter-revolutionary talk. One of his female neighbours had inquired if he was going to mount guard, to which he had replied :
" I'm not made to mount guard with beggars and scoundrels",

And he had added with a regretful sigh :

" I prefer the old order to the new."

This blunder led to his being brought before pitiless judges who struck without appeal allowed. They had found the accused guilty of lesser offences. Saint-Prix's sentence was what everyone expected, but it involved his dog at the same time. It had been trained to give notice of strangers approaching its master's lodging. One day the bearer of an order for Saint-Prix was bitten in the calf by the watchful animal. The Court condemned it and next day, Monday 18th November, the judgment was executed. The National Archives have preserved the details of the strange trial, and we will reconstitute its epilogue as they give it.

A letter enclosed with the official account informed Fouquier-Tinville about it the same day.

" Archives Nationales," Series W, carton 296, piece 253.


On 28th Brumaire, second year of the French Republic one and indivisible.

To Fouquier-Tinville, Public Prosecutor.

On receipt of the sentence of the Revolutionary Tribunal condemning Saint-Prix to the death penalty and ordering his dog to be killed, we proceeded to execute this last portion of the sentence.

We are sending you the official account drawn up to that effect ; we beg you to reimburse us the expenses to which we have been put.

Towards noon the Commissary of the Tuileries Watch Committee, a man called Claude-Charles George, had gone with the police-inspector, Pierre-Louis Hostaux, to a house named "Le Combat du Taureau," which, though the proces-verbal is silent, was probably a public house of some kind, for it is stated that the house is kept by the Citizen Maclart. On the arrival of the two men, Citizen Maclart being absent, his wife receives the visitors. They solemnly show the astounded woman the Revolutionary Tribunal order commanding the dog's execution. They summon her in the law's name to bring forth the beast, a formality which she obeys without answering.

She goes into the courtyard of the house, removes the animal from the corner where it was slumbering, and leads it to the Commissary and Inspector.

A serious discussion then arises between the august personages. Who is to kill the animal? Pierre-Louis Hostaux or Claude-Charles George? They both refuse, and the Citizeness Maclart emphatically declares herself unable to do what the two men refuse to do. Doubtless to end the discussion she proposes a middle way. A few paces away, at "Le Combat," there is a post of National Guards. From among them might be requisitioned a man who would execute the sentence. Citizeness Maclart 's ingenious proposal is accepted, and George, holding firmly in his hand the Order of the Revolutionary Tribunal, runs to the post.

Meanwhile the animal is yelping, jumping, gambolling about. Quickly returns the Commissary of the Tuileries Section accompanied by Citizen Bonneau, sergeant of the Arcis section, belonging to the guard on duty. It is difficult to think the sergeant accepted George's proposal. Doubtless the latter simply used him as a witness. However that may be, he accompanies the Commissary; and in the presence of Citizeness Maclart and the Sergeant, Saint-Prix's dog is done to death with cudgel-blows.

And gravely the four assistants sign the official account of the execution. The woman Maclart no doubt performs the burial of the corpse. The sergeant goes back to his post, the two envoys of the Tuileries Section to their Committee. Justice is done.

Hector Fleischmann, Behind the scenes in the Terror (English version 1914) p.296-8.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Robespierre's speech to the king.

In 1775 the schoolboy Robespierre was chosen from among five hundred pupils at the Collège Louis-le-Grand to deliver compliments in Latin to Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette who stopped briefly as their coach crossed Paris following their coronation in Reims. It rained and the royal couple did not deign to descend from their carriage. This is the stuff of myth: the future regicide slighted by his future victim, nursing his inferiority complexes and unaware of the Revolutionary events to come.

Here is the episode as depicted in the film The French Revolution (1989) directed by Richard T. Heffron: . 

And here is the story as told by Hilary Mantel in A place of  greater safety:

IN JULY 1775, it was arranged that the young King and his lovely Queen would pay a visit to the College Louis-le-Grand.  Such a visit was traditional after coronations; but they would not stay or linger, for they had more entertaining things to do.  It was planned that they should be met, with their retinue, at the main gate, that they should descend from their carriage, and that the school's most industrious and meritorious pupil would read them a loyal address.  When the day came, the weather was not fine.

An hour and a half before the guests could reasonably be expected, the students and staff assembled at the rue Saint-Jacques gate.  A posse of officials turned up on horseback, and pushed them back and rearranged them, none too gently.  The scanty spots of rain became a steady drizzle.  Then came the attendants and bodyguards and persons-in-waiting; by the time they had disposed themselves everyone was cold and wet, and had stopped jockeying for position.  No one remembered the last coronation, so nobody had any idea that it was all going to take so long.  The students huddled in miserable groups, and shifted their feet, and waited.  If anyone stepped out of line for a moment the officials jumped forward and shoved him back, flourishing weapons.

Finally the royal carriage drew up.  People now stood on their toes and craned their necks, and the younger ones complained that it wasn't fair that they couldn't see a thing after waiting all this time.  Father Poignard, the principal, approached and bowed.  He began to say a few words he had prepared, in the direction of the royal conveyance.

The scholarship boy's mouth felt dry.  His hand shook a little.  But because of the Latin, no one would detect his provincial accent. 

 The Queen bobbed out her lovely head and bobbed it in again.  The King waved, and muttered something to a man in livery, who conveyed it by a sneer down a line of officials, who conveyed it by dumb show to the waiting world.  All became clear; they would not descend.  The address must be read to Their Majesties as they sat snug in the coach.

Father Poignard's head was whirling.  He should have had carpets, he should have had canopies, he should have had some kind of temporary pavilion erected, perhaps bedecked with green boughs in the fashionable rustic style, perhaps with the royal arms on display, or the monarchs' entwined monograms made out of flowers.  His expression grew wild, repentant, remote.  Luckily, Father Herivaux remembered to give the nod to the scholarship boy.

The boy began, his voice gathering strength after the first few nervous phrases.  Father Herivaux relaxed. He had written it, coached the boy.  And he was satisfied, it sounded well.

The Queen was seen to shiver. "Ah!" went the world. "She shivered!"  A half-second later, she stifled a yawn.  The King turned, attentive.  And what was this?  The coachman was gathering the reins!  The whole ponderous entourage stirred and creaked forward.  They were going - the welcome not acknowledged, the address not half-read.

The scholarship boy did not seem to notice what was happening.  He just went on orating.  His face was set and pale, he was looking straight ahead.  Surely he must know by now that they are driving down the street?

The air was loud with unvoiced sentiment.  All term we've been  planning this...The crush moved, aimlessly, on the spot.  The rain was coming down harder now.  It seemed rude to break ranks and dash for cover, yet no ruder than what the King and Queen had done, driving off like that, leaving Thing talking in the middle of the street....

Father Poignard said, "It's nothing personal.  It's nothing we did, surely?  Her Majesty was tired...."

"Might as well talk to her in Japanese, I suppose, " said the student at his elbow.

Father Poignard said, "Camille, for once you are right."

The scholarship boy was now concluding his speech.  Without a smile, he bid a fond and loyal goodby to the monarchs who were no longer in sight, and hoped that the school would have the honour, at some future time....

A consoling hand dropped on his shoulder. "Never mind, de Robespierre, it could have happened to anyone."

Then, at last, the scholarship boy smiled.

This is fiction not fact.  There is no evidence at all - certainly not from Robespierre himself - that the event was even remembered, much less impacted upon his Revolutionary career.  

  • Although Robespierre may have been less well off than most, he was not marked out by being a provincial or a "scholarship boy". Peter McPhee points out that, thanks to more efficient management of endowments, by the time Maximilien arrived at Louis-le-grand virtually all the five hundred boys were on scholarships. Although a few sons of nobles attended, the great majority were boys like him, sons of lawyers and other professionals or of merchants and manufacturers. Like Maximilien, the majority were from the northeast of the kingdom [as for example his contemporary Desmoulins from Guize]  (p.15)
  • Robepierre was not a small boy; he would have been 17 at the time.
  • There is no question of Robespierre having written his own speech. This was, as Hilary Mantel says, a set oration composed by his Professor of Rhetoric, the abbé Hérivaux. 
  • Robespierre was not treated rudely by the royal couple.  It is by no means clear where the story of the rain and the new king's unduly rapid departure originated. His former teacher the abbé Proyart, an implacably hostile source, has only this to say: 
    • "In 1775, Louis XVI, after the ceremony of his coronation, made his solemn entry into Paris, accompanied by the Queen and the Royal Family. Their Majesties...stopped before the College of Louis Le Grand, where they were complimented by the University's staff. This college, which subsisted on the benefits of our Kings, also owed a special tribute to Louis XVI and Robespierre was chosen to offer it in the name his classmates, in a speech composed by his teacher. I was present at the time and remember that the King deigned to lower a look of kindness at the young monster...who was one day to take the first stab at him" Life and crimes of Robespierre,( p.46-8)


Peter McPhee, Robespierre: a Revolutionary life Yale University Press 2012, p.15.

See also the discussion, "Danton, Robespierre, Louis XVI's coronation, and a legend unsubstantiated by primary sources"  on the Tea at Trianon forum

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

McPhee on Robespierre

I didn't much want to read another biography of Robespierre. I didn't think it could add much to Ruth Scurr's chatty Fatal purity or Hilary Mantel's sympathetic imaginary reconstruction in A Place of Greater Safety

However, I was given Peter McPhee's book for Christmas, just started reading and have changed my mind.  This is a brilliant book! 

Here are some of the reasons why.

1. McPhee self-consciously avoids a teleological approach: "Write of the past as though it was the present rather than read history backwards". (How would this biography read if we didn't know...?) 

2. Throughout the book Maximilien is referred to as a "young man" - even, skipping forward, in the account of his death.  This is a good reminder that Robespierre and co. did not set out as hardened ideologues; they remained men struggling to make sense of unprecedented events in terms of their (mainly classical) education and limited experience.

3. McPhee weights his evidence carefully.  For Robespierre's personal life in Arras, there really isn't much - public speeches, a few letters and occasional writings, Charlotte's Memoirs, the overtly hostile testimony of the abbé Proyart.  It is tempting for biographers to wring huge significance out of the tiniest detail; McPhee resists this.

4. He is hostile to pop-psychology.  We should not base explanations of later events on Robespierre's supposed personality or childhood experiences.  There is simply not enough evidence for psychoanalysis even if anyone wanted to attempt it. At the very least, the onus of proof is heavy on the historian.  McPhee's premises his understanding on the assumption that Robespierre was an ordinary (if talented) man of his time. 

In particular McPhee challenges the view that the early loss of his mother and effective desertion by his father somehow warped Robespierre's personality. Since Maximilien mentioned none of it, all we have is Charlotte's testimony that he was deeply saddened by his mother's death and embued with a new seriousness and sense of responsibiilty for the family  - both reasonable and unsurprising  responses.  The two brothers were taken care of by their youthful Carraut aunts whilst the girls lodged a few minutes away across town with their paternal relatives.  Not ideal, but hardly traumatic.  McPhee uses the evidence to conclude provocatively that Robespierre "enjoying a happy and supportive family life"

5. There is a heavy weighting in these opening chapters on Arras, its geography, its social and administrative hierarchies.  The Robespierres belonged to this milieu. We follow Maximilien as he returns from Louis-le-grand and makes his way in the legal profession, negotiating carefully the complex structures of civil and ecclesiastical patronage and provincial social life. He was an ambitious young lawyer - these things mattered. There is no implication, as there is in other biographies, that he was disappointed not to remain in Paris after his education.

6.  McPhee challenges the view that until the Revolution Robespierre was just a hopeless provincial no-body brought to the world stage by chance.  This is a tempting view; as with other Revolutionary figures, before and after contrasts make for a good story.  McPhee's Robespierre is a clever and successful young man on the make, confident of his own ability, well-established in a significant provincial capital and, in 1789, eager for his chance to contribute to political change.


Peter McPhee, Robespierre: a Revolutionary life Yale University Press 2012

McPhee's view of Robespierre's early life is also available online in:
French history and civilisation; papers from the George Rude Society Seminar:

"The making of Maximilien: Robespierre's childhood, 1758-69"
2008 Seminar vol.3

"Integrating private and public in the life of Maximilien Robespierre"
2010 Seminar vol.4

Monday, 20 January 2014

An early portrait of Robespierre?

I was really pleased when I recently found an e-version of  Hippolyte Buffenoir's Les portraits de Robespierre (Paris, 1910)  (buried in  Mathiez's Annales Révolutionnaires  for 1908 where it must have been originally published (vol.1, p.244-)

Since I now have access to this key source, I return to portraits of Robespierre.

Musée Carnavalet
Anonymous portrait, presumed to be Augustin Robespierre (1763-94)
67cm x 52 cm

A first oil painting of Robespierre? 

This portrait, now in the Musée Carnavalet, was identified throughout the 19th century as the earliest known depiction of Maximilien Robespierre.

Hippolyte Buffenoir has this notice:
"Robespierre is depicted half-length, turned towards the left, but almost facing the onlooker. He is wearing a very dark bluish coat with big buttons, a white cravat with a knot of falling lace, and a yellow waistcoat in which his left hand is hidden".
"The portrait was painted and signed by Boilly at Arras in 1783. It was kept in the Robespierre family for a long time but bought several years ago, in the sale of the Dancoisne collection in Arras, for the Musée Carnavalet where remains today." (p.247-51).

The picture was first reproduced as the frontispiece to J.-A. Paris,La jeunesse de Robespierre et la convocation des Etats-géneraux en Artois (Arras, 1870). According to M. Paris the portrait was signed by Boilly, painted about 1783 and given by Maximilien to one of his relatives in the nearby town of Meurchin.  It was photographed by permission of a M. D.... who had acquired it directly from the family and could guarantee its authenticity. 

Further corroboration was provided in a notice by Victor Advielle written in 1884, immediately following the sale of the work to the Carnavalet. Advielle reproduces the sale notice. He points out that Robespierre did indeed live in Arras in 1783 and had just become a member of the Rosati, a local literary society. He also identifies M. D.... as Auguste Demory, a well-known figure in the local art world.

"I can affirm, by the most secure of traditions, that there has never been known in Arras any other picture of Robespierre besides that of which we speak. It is therefore the only one which could have been made before the Revolution. In about 1850, as a pupil of the School of Design in Arras, my teacher M. Auguste Demory, to whom the portrait belonged, offered to sell it to me for 50 francs. He presented it to me as a work of Bailly [Boilly] and as representing Maximilien de Robespierre; he had acquired it, he told me, from a family in the rue de Beaudimores (whose name I know), related to the family of Robespierre. The museum in Arras, to whom M. Demory had offered the picture, had refused the acquisition for political reasons. I was young then and not yet a collector, but a short time later M. Demory sold the picture to the amateur who has just now sold it, and who kept it for more than 30 years.....The honorable character of M. Demory is for me the guarantee of these attributions....Those who know him know that he would be incapable of making a false attribution in order to sell a picture...."

Robespierre by Boilly
Musée des beaux arts de Lille
Is it really by Boilly?

The dates fit.  In 1780-85 Boilly was Arras, working under the patronage of the bishop, Monseigneur de Conzié, and there were other portraits by him in Arras dating from this time. However, it doesn't feel accomplished enough to be by his hand, even at this period, and especially given his beautiful later portrait of Robespierre now in Lille.

There is clearly some question mark over the signature "Boilly" on the picture. M. Advielle thought the work had no identifying marks, and the Carnavalet say it is a "signature apocryphe".

Is it Augustin Robespierre?

The Carnavalet now identifies the sitter as Augustin Robespierre and this identification has become almost universal on the internet, but I can't find any documentary evidence to support it. The conclusion is plausible. But maybe it is just wishful thinking on the part of viewers who can't find any echo of Maximilien in this mediocre painting.


Musée Carnavalet notice

J.-A. Paris, La jeunesse de Robespierre et la convocation des Etats-géneraux en Artois (Arras, 1870)  (p.cxiv: Appendix )

Hippolyte Buffenoir, Les portraits de Robespierre (Paris, 1908), p.247-8.

Victor Advielle, "Les portraits de Robespierre & de Lebon au Musée Carnavalet", La Revolution francaise, revue historique, vol.6 1884, p.823-4

David P. Jordan, The Revolutionary career of Maximilien Robespierre (1985) reproduces the portrait; he isn't convinced it is Robespierre either, p.253

Friday, 17 January 2014

The portable guillotine of Lyon

Back to death and gore....
 Until recently the last guillotine in Paris could be found on view in an unlikely location - a jazz club/bar called Le Caveau des Oubliettes (“the dungeon cellar”) at 52, rue Galande in the Latin Quarter. Downstairs, where the guillotine was housed, the bar is formed from the remains of a cell from the Petit-Châtelet, the medieval fort protecting the Île de la Cité from the south.  

There are loads of internet posts reporting the existence of the guillotine but its provenance is much less well-known. Sandrine Voillet's BBC TV programme, Paris: an insider's view (2007) solves some of the mystery, identifying it as a "portable guillotine" from Lyon.  In her programme the proprietor confirms that the guillotined was bought in Lyon in 1920 and dates from 1793. It was used by the Republican Army against the Royalists; it packs up to be carried and it weights 37lbs.

Sandrine Voillet  with the guillotine in situ in the Caveau des oubliettes

Perhaps the bar has fallen on hard times for the guillotine was sold at auction on 15 June 2011. The notice identifies it only as one of several "1792 model" guillotines which travelled with Carnot's Armées de la revolution and says simply that it was bought by the great grandfather of the present owner in the Lyon region.

The sale was worthwhile - this macabre relic fetched 195,000 Euros!.

The guillotine assembled for sale

The execution of Jacques Chalier: 

Although there is no real evidence that the same machine was involved, I would like to end this post with the sorry story of the first guillotining in Lyon:

By summer 1793 use of the guillotine had been threatened in Lyon in for some time.  It was a particularly theatrical proposal of the local Jacobin leader Joseph Chalier - who rivalled Marat in his bloodcurdling oratory - that one should be erected on the narrow Morand bridge over the Rhone, so that heads would fall into the river on one side, and bodies on the other. His intention, he announced to an enthusiastic crowd, was "to purge the town of aristocratic vermin by cutting off fifty heads."

A guillotine was duly dispatched from Paris in a box and set up in the place des Terreaux, behind the Town Hall, with a ring of soldiers to guard it. It was supposed to warn those who conspired against the "patriots" of the fate they might expect. Ironically, following the taking of the Town Hall by federalist forces on 28-29 May, it was Chalier himself who was to be its first victim. The execution took place on 16 July.  It was a memorable fiasco.

Here is  the occasion as recounted by John Haycraft, In search of the French Revolution (1989), p.196:

"The official executioner in Lyons was called Ripet, and he came from a family which had held the post as a hereditary fief for generations.  He was a jocular individual who had a teasing relationship with his assistant, Bernard, whom he called "Mon commis" (My errand boy), whilst Bernard called him "Mon Bourgeois".  Despite Chalier's threats, the guillotine had never been used before, and Ripet and Bernard were uncertain how to use it.  Furthermore, the crowd who came to witness the elimination of the man who had kept them sleepless at night swarmed over the platform of this unfamiliar instrument to examine it, and unbalanced it.

In the late afternoon, Chalier, surrounded by troops, walked from the Prison de Roanne, which was where the Palais de Justice now is.  With watery eyes fixed on the sky, seeing the reincarnation of a martyr who had denounced "heretics" too fiercely, he mounted the scaffold.  Ripet and Bernard seized him, bound him to the plank, tilted him down, placed the top of the "window" over his neck, and released the blade.

However, the guillotine wouldn't work.  The blade stopped half-way.  Ripet and Bernard tried again with the same result.  The third time, the knife grazed Chalier's neck, and the fourth, cut it in half.  Ripet had to detach the head with his knife and , as Chalier was bald, held it up by an ear, while the crowd shouted abuse at such incompetence." (p.196)

Other references
"Executed today": Joseph Chalier

Notices of the sale of the Lyon guillotine in 2011.
For the spec of the 1792 guillotines, see "History" on the Bois de justice (blog)  
There are surviving examples in  museums in Venlo (Netherlands), Liège, Bruges and Luxembourg.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Sociability and la toilette

Family in an interior about 1750. Etienne Jeaurat.
J. Paul Getty Museum
The well-to-do lady's "toilette" attended by friends, family members, servants and tradesmen is a strong theme in French art and well-attested in reality. No doubt took its cue, however distant,  from the royal levee, and reflected the leisure and ease of a nobility who could confidently expose their private routines to their associates and inferiors.  The aristocratic bedchamber or dressing room could function as semi-public space - see above (and the illustration on the Choiseul snuffbox) .  Earlier habits were easily assimilated later Enlightenment values of domestic intimacy, informality and emotionally charged friendships.  

In art, the toilette as a theme in genre painting was popularised  in the first half of the century by Jean-François de Troy (1679-1752) and  Nicolas Lancret (1690-1743).

Nicolas Lancret, "Lady at her toilette". Sold at Christie's New York in 2006

 Here is Lancret's "Lady at her toilette", identified, almost certainly erroneously, as the society hostess Madame Geoffrin.  The probability is that the piece was intended to represent "Morning" in a conventionalised set of "Times of the Day", similar to the set by Lancret in the National Gallery.

"The Four Times of Day: Morning", Nicolas Lancret, 1739
National Gallery London
This is the corresponding "Morning" scene from the National Gallery. A young woman seated at her toilette pours tea for the visiting abbé, her gown parted to reveal an enticing naked breast. It is hard to decide how risqué this is intended to be; the bare breast is a standard feature of "toilets of Venus" and Lancret was fond of satirising mythological scenes.  Presumably the picture is intended to be amusing rather than censorious.  Exhibited in the Salon of 1739.

Jean-François de Troy, A lady showing a bracelet miniature
to her suitor (c.1734).
 Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

This is the most reproduced of the toilette scenes by Jean-François de Troy: a woman standing half-undressed in her boudoir: as her maid helps her dress, she leans over to show a miniature to the gentleman sitting nearby. Although there is an implied intimacy between the two, the composition is again not sexually charged.  In fact Monsieur seems remarkably unfazed by the sight of those blue silk stays.

Jean-François de Troy, "La toilette pour le bal", 1735.
J. Paul Getty Museum, with its companion "Retour du bal" 

De Troy's most highly regarded pictures were a pair of portraits, again themed on the passage of time, "before" and "after" the ball, which were commissioned by Louis XV's finance minister Germain-Louis de Chauvelin and exhibited in the Salon of 1739.  Again the presence of the opposite sex in the lady's dressing room, albeit suitably agog with admiration, is comfortably accepted.  The emphasis is on the close conspiratorial nature of the group; we are invited to speculate not so much on illicit intimacies as on the pleasurable gallanteries of the ball, to which we, as mere spectators, have not been privy.

The moralists' view -
a bourgeoise gets ready for church
:Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin
 Morning toilette c1741.
Nationalmuseum, Stockholm
The sociability of the toilette was never, of course, without its critics; it smacked of social pretension, wilful idleness and conspicuous consumption, to say nothing of the moral ambiguity of appearing in careless deshabille.

From the mid-century criticism gained momentum; as one feels did conscious exploitation of supposed aristocratic insouciance among a widening social spectrum of women themselves.   It seems that the rite of the toilette hardened into a definite two stage process, carefully stage managed, to hide the unsightly dressing and powdering of hair and application of cosmetics. Only the final touches were open to public view.

To male eyes there were clear overtones of flirtation.  A mid-century writer describing the daily life of a woman de bon ton explains that she arises only very late in the morning and then spends the rest of the day at her toilette whilst receiving visitors;  such a lady, he adds, will be scantily clad, "in a state of undress that is more than ordinarily seductive".  (Pierre-Joseph Boudier de Villemert, L'Ami des Femmes (1758), quoted in Posner p.136).  Madame d'Epinay remarked that a lady en négligé will be "less beautiful" than when finely dressed, "but more dangerous....less elegant, but more appealing".  Mercier writing in the 1780s, comments squarely , "the second toilette is nothing but a game invented by coquetry"

François Boucher, The Milliner, 1746
Nationalmuseum, Stockholm
François Boucher, Woman fastening her garter
(La toilette),

Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.
The move towards titillation is evident in the toilet genre scenes of Boucher.  The male admirer disappears entirely from the picture - it is now the spectator who plays the role of voyeur at an exclusively feminine rite.  When the gentleman reappears, as in productions by Boucher's son-in-law Pierre-Antoine Baudouin, the subtext is evident. La Toilette (1765) shows a young woman being laced into her stays by a maid.  A gentleman visitor sits in front of her, his sword pointing at her outstretched leg.  The symbolism is clear and the expressions say it all!

A Woman at Her Toilette, After Pierre-Antoine Baudouin.
Etching and engraving by Nicolas Ponce 1771


Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, "Dressing to impress: the morning toilette and the fabrication of femininity"
in Paris: life & luxury in the 18th century by Charissa Bremer-David et al. Getty Museum 2011 [Extracts on Google books]

Donald Posner, "The 'Duchesse de Velours' and her daughter: a masterpiece by Nattier and its historical context", Metropolitan Museum Journal (1996), 131-142.

"At the Vanity" - Madame Isis' Toilette blog

"Lady at her toilette" - Jane Austen's world [blog]

Here is the very informative notice on Lancret's Toilette de Madame Geoffrin  which accompanied the painting's sale at Christie's New York in 2006
(The picture was resold at Sotheby's in Paris  in 2010, with the identification of Mme Geoffrin reinstated..)

Description: A lady at her toilette
oil on canvas
29 7/8 x 22 7/8 in. (76 x 58 cm.) 

A Lady at her toilette is one of Lancret's most successful forays into a genre more closely associated with Jean-François de Troy and later François Boucher, the tableau de mode or fashionable scene from daily life. Lancret's painting meticulously chronicles the morning routine of a wealthy lady of fashion: in a sumptuously appointed Louis XIV-style bedroom, a pretty young matron sits at her dressing table, gazing into a red lacquer mirror, as she applies a mouche to complete the elaborately powdered and rouged maquillage that her maid would have just completed. Indeed, the lengthy ritual is not yet done - she still wears the white peignoir, or powdering mantle, around her shoulders that protects her clothing from falling powder, and her afternoon dress sits on the frame on which it is stored awaiting the return of her maid who will fasten her into it. The servant has presumably shown discretion by stepping away to allow the visiting abbé to share with her lady in confidence the contents of the letter he reads.

Although the painting has traditionally been identified as a depiction of the celebrated patroness of the arts, Marie-Thérèse Rodet, Madame Geoffrin (1699-1777), this is unlikely to be the case. Mme. Geoffrin is not known to have had any association with Lancret and her career as a supporter of the arts was confined to her long widowhood. By her own acknowledgment, she began to collect art only in 1750 - nearly a decade after Lancret's death - and her commissions went to younger generations of French painters, notably Boucher, Hubert Robert, Joseph Vernet and Vien. Furthermore, the pretty, pert model in Lancret's painting bears little resemblance to the known appearance of the sharp-witted but plain, long-faced salonnière. (For her portrait, see C.B. Bailey, Patriotic Taste: Collecting Modern Art in Pre-Revolutionary Paris, New Haven & London, 2002, p. 63, fig. 52.)

In subject and style, Lancret's painting is similar to a small copper panel that is one of a series of four allegories of the Times of Day, now in the National Gallery, London. (See M. Tavener Holmes, Nicolas Lancret 1690-1743, New York, 1991, cat. no. 20, pp. 90-3, pl. 20a.) The scene representing Morning is, essentially, a more risqué version of the present painting: in it, a pretty young woman seated at her toilette pours tea for the visiting abbé, who stares in amazement at her breast which has been exposed - inadvertently? - by the opening of her peignoir; observing this comic moment, her maid smiles slyly. In both paintings, Lancret has lavished attention on accurately reproducing the picturesque details of the protagonists' costumes in addition to the furnishings, interiors and accoutrements of fashionable life in contemporary Paris. Following the lead of Jean-François de Troy, who painted similar subjects in 1734 (Rothschild collections, Pregny; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City), it was Lancret who had, by the late 1730s (the period from which both the London and Segoura paintings appear to date), established the fashionable toilette as a legitimate subject for popular genre painting, though it was Boucher who most frequently exploits the theme in genre scenes and portraits throughout the 1740s and 50s.

Although nothing is known of its earliest history, it seems likely that A Lady at her toilette was intended to be understood as an emblem of Morning and, like the copper in London, might have been intended to serve as one in a set of four Times of Day. Since the late seventeenth century, a toilette scene had become the standard representation of Morning in genre depictions of the Times of Day, generally with a depiction of a luncheon for Midday; game playing or sewing indicating Afternoon; and attending or returning from a ball serving to signify Evening. Indeed, in 1746 Boucher created his celebrated toilette scene, The Milliner (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm), to represent Morning in a proposed suite of four Times of Day for the Crown Princess Luisa Ulrika of Sweden. Although the prominently placed Boulle wall clock in Lancret's picture is nearly striking noon, it clearly indicates that the scene is still set in the morning hours.

The present painting was originally shaped and was no doubt made as a decoration that was inserted into the boiserie paneling of an unidentified lady's boudoir. The corners were made up at a later date to regularize the format

Provenance: Baronne de Creutzer, Paris, 1877.
with Wildenstein, Paris, 1924

Exhibited: Paris, Château de Bagatelle, La Folie d'Artois, June 1988

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The Duchess of Velvet

Jean-Marc Nattier, Madame Marsollier and her daughter, 1749
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Still on the theme of "la toilette", among the most regarded works by Jean-Marc Nattier, is this splendid double portrait, exhibited in the Salon of 1750, of Madame Marsollier, wife of a fabulously wealthy Parisian silk merchant, with her only daughter Marie-Thérèse, later marquise de Chamilly.  Despite her fine taste, Madame's social pretensions caused her to be dubbed the "Duchess of Velvet".

Portrait of a woman by
Nicolas de Largillière, 1696
Portraits of women at their toilette, engaged in the rituals of beautification, had long been popular in France, with varying degrees of allusion to the toilet of Venus as a convenient pretext to depict aristocratic ladies in alluring deshabille. In this strand of 17th and early 18th-century thought a certain boldness in the display of physical charms could be construed as a mark of sophistication, whilst a casual state of dress denoted a confident natural superiority. 

 Nattier was a particular master of the mythological and allegorical portrait piece, so Madame Marsollier must have deliberately opted for realism; certainly she might have chosen to have herself depicted as Flora or Venus, or Diana with nymph. That the fashion for such conceits was rapidly waning owed something to Nattier himself who in the 1748 Salon exhibited, to acclaim, his remarkably unceremonious portrait of Queen Marie Leszcynska, wearing everyday clothes and reading her Bible. However, there is just enough hint of Venus or Astrea about Madame's pose to underline her famous beauty. 

Of note too is the openly affectionate and intimate relationship depicted between mother and daughter - novel for the time though prefigured in Nattier's much earlier 1733 double portrait of Madame Crozat de Thiers and her daughter. Mlle Marsollier, an only child, was course a particularly cossetted little girl.

The message to be gleaned above all from the painting is one of richness and luxuriant ease, signalled by both the surroundings and details of dress.  Thus David Posner:  "Madame Marsollier is a statuesque figure in her undress: a revealing chemise and blue and white draperies clasped with a jewelled belt.  He hands and those of her daughter hold the two figures together, while their glances draw them apart.  The gilded mirror, ewer, and boxes are expensive objects of high quality and elegant design.  The marble arches in the background suggest a palatial interior, while the abundant velvet drapery tied with gold tassels endow the composition with dignity and gravitas."

Who was Madame Marsollier?

Born Catherine Leleu, Madame was the daughter of an attorney in the Royal Household and apparently felt she had married beneath her. She disliked being reminded of the source of her husband's riches. Here, noting her premature death in 1756, is the duc de Luynes: 

Memoirs of the duc de Luynes:
"A few days ago a Madame Marsollier died in Paris.  She was the daughter of M. de Leu, procurator for the domains and woods of the King; she was very well known for her beauty. Her husband was a wholesale dealer in silks who afterwards bought a position as secretary of the King.  Madame Marsollier is survived only by one daughter, who will be very rich. One of the conditions of Madame Marsollier's marriage was that she would never have to enter her husband's shop; she even avoided the rue Saint-Honoré so she wouldn't have to see the shop;  that didn't prevent people from calling her the duchess of Velvet".

The Marsolliers - a commercial dynasty
Until recently the duc de Luynes's bon mot was just about all the accessible information regarding the Marsollier family and the "Duchess of Velvet".  Now, the careful research of Matthieu Marraud has restored to us something of the world of this close-knit and powerful dynasty of merchants. The ethos which bound them together and committing them to business was at odds with Madame's aspirations and reflects the subtlety of the social relations and tensions of the time.  Madame's husband, René Marsollier (1702-63) was the third of that name to deal in the sale of imported silks from an establishment in the rue de la Lingerie, premises which, though substantial, backed onto the Cimetière des Innocents in the heart of the cramped medieval streets of Paris's commercial district.  It is clear that the shop itself, its name and sign ("le panonceau") were key components in the identity of the business; indeed it was an acknowledged requirement that, however wealthy they might be, members of the family actively engaged in the trade would live on the on the premises.

On the death of René II in 1731, our René had inherited, at the age of 29, what was already an extensive silk trade directed towards aristocratic clientele and the royal household itself. Significantly, one of his first acts was the purchase of the charge of secrétaire du roi - an ennobling office de robe - not for himself but for his younger brother.  This provided his sibling with a secure income whilst avoiding having to partition the family business.  It is to be observed that securing dynastic continuity in this way mudded the social significance of ennoblement:  "This practice brought into the second ordre some people who did not respond to the appeal of elite distinctions.  Their daily deeds did not ratify the hierarchical predominance of one profession above another" (Marraud, 2009, p.217)

René III was not, however, immune from social aspirations - that much is clear from his choice of marriage partner from outside the confines of closely interrelated Parisian merchant dynasties.  At his marriage in 1736 he renounced joint ownership of goods with his new wife not, as the duc de Luynes suggests, to spare her the sight of the shop, but to forestall any future claims on the business by her relatives.  In the same year he entered into a long-running association with a maternal uncle Augustin Nau who moved into the rue des Lingeries with his wife.  It was not until 1745 that René secured his own ennoblement as secrétaire du roi and moved out to a smart hôtel in the rue Coquillière - much grander but still within the same parish of Saint-Eustache. He still owned the majority of the assets and a controlling interest. Now at last presumably his wife could give full expression to her aspirations in suitably luxurious surroundings.

On his death in 1763, René III left an "incroyable patrimoine" in excess of 1500 000 livres, a third of which was tied up in the business.  This marked the end of the family's active involvement;  the Naus were obliged to buy out his daughter who had again married outside the merchant clans, to Lorimier de Chamilly, intendant général des écuries du roi.  They continued to trade from the rue de la Lingerie.  Indeed in 1788 the duc de Montmorency was still buying silk costumes for his son's marriage at an establishment which called itself "Nau et Marsollier" -  representing a continuity in trade of over a century.

A note on the provenance of the painting

The provenance notes in the Metropolitan Museum catalogue show clearly the descent of the painting in the family of the marquise de Chamilly. The identity of the sitters is further corroborated by an annotated drawing of the painting in the Schlossmuseum Weimar.  It is quite a surprise, therefore, to find it reproduced in a 1903 Christie's London sale catalogue, under the name of "Comtesse de Neubourg and her daughter". It is possible the painting could have made its way into a British collection in this period but who is the comtesse de Neubourg The Met. has Neubourg as a title belonging to the Marsollier family but there is no sign of it at all in the documents and genealogies in Matthieu Morraud's researches.  If it is simply a case of mistaken identity, there is no obvious alternative candidate.

Jean-Marc Nattier, Madame Marsollier and her daughter, 1757.
 Black chalk, stump heightened with white chalk on brown paper, 428x324 mm.
Schlossmuseum, Weimar.
Inscribed " j. m. Nattier.px. Madame Marsollier et Mlle Sa fille et delineavit 1757".

Entry in the Metropolitan Museum catalogue:

Catalogue of the sale of Reginald Vaile at Christie's London in 1903: No 46:  "A portrait of the comtesse de Neubourg and her daughter".  Illustrated and without doubt the same painting.

Donald Posner, "The 'Duchesse de Velours' and her daughter: a masterpiece by Nattier and its historical context", Metropolitan Museum Journal (1996), 131-142.

The relevant pages of works by Matthieu Marraud can be viewed as extracts on Google Books: 

_____, De la ville à  l'Etat (2009) p.161-172 

_____, "Nobility as social dialogue: the Parisian example 1650-1750" in Contested spaces of nobility in early modern Europe, ed. Matthew P. Romaniello (2011), p.217.

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