Friday 23 June 2017

Saint-Just - Angel of Death?

[Post revised March 2024]

The physical appearance of a man of state has rarely assumed such importance as it has in the case of Saint-Just.  History is facinated by the image of Saint-Just as the ruthless angel of the Revolution, by his androgynous beauty.  But was he really so handsome?


               Bust by David d'Angers, 1848            
Even contemporary witnesses do not entirely agree with each another.  Saint-Just's sister Louise, reminiscing to her grandchildren, recalled his "great beauty", whilst his childhood friend from Soisson, Lejeune, spoke only of his "honest appearance".  

Lamartine claimed that he was "tall", "thin" and "spindly"  Lamartine never saw Saint-Just and, in Anne Quennedey's view made him tall only to dramatise his fall.  His colleague Levasseur de la Sarte described him as "physically weak" but Paganel,  a fellow  member of the Convention, described him as "of middle height, with a healthy body and proportions which show strength".  Anne Quennedey thinks he stood a compact five feet two inches


Outside  his immediate family and friends, most recollections are coloured by antagonistic bias. 

Desmoulin, whose intention  was satirical, insisted on his stiff carriage  ("raideur"): "You see from his way of walking and his posture that he considers his head the cornerstone of the Republic, and  he carries it on his shoulders like the object of some holy sacrament".  Barras too described Saint-Just "raising his right arm and letting it the blade of a guillotine" (p.255)

Later literary accounts distorted Saint-Just's appearance for effect, mostly to vilify his memory. Thus Mignet: "He had a regular face, with large features and a strong, melancholy expression;  his eyes were staring  and penetrating, his black hair flat and long". Lamartine described him "immobile at the tribune, cold like an idea...the calm of absolute conviction spread across his almost feminine features".   But it was Michelet above all, who was responsible for the image of Saint-Just as the Angel of death, a pitiless androgynous youth, with steely blue eyes:

Without his fixed, hard eyes, his heavily drawn brows, Saint-Just might have passed for a woman.  Was this the virgin of Tauris?  No, neither the eyes nor the skin, though white and fine-textured, suggested a sentiment of purity.  This very aristocratic skin, with its singular lustre and transparency, seemed too lovely, and led one to suspect its healthiness.  The huge, close-knitted cravat, which he alone wore at that time, made his enemies say, perhaps without reason, that it concealed cold humours.  The neck was virtually suppressed by the cravat and by the high, stiff collar; an effect all the odder in that his long waist did not lead you to expect this foreshortening of the neck.  He had a very low forehead, the top of his head appearing depressed, so that the hair, without being long, almost touched his eyes.  But strangest of all was his gait, of an automatic stiffness which was entirely his own.  Robespierre's stiffness was nothing to this.  Did it derive from a physical oddity, from his excessive pride, from a calculated dignity? - No matter.  It was more intimidating than absurd.  One felt that a being so inflexible in his movements must also be inflexible in his heart.  Thus, when in his speech, taking up the Gironde and abandoning Louis XVI, he turned stiffly, all of a piece, to the right of the Chamber and released along with his words his whole person as well, particularly his hard and murderous stare, there was no one present who did not feel the chill of steel. (Michelet, History of the Revolution  vol. V, ix.5  1851)

It is worth noting that there is no contemporary reference to the famous cravat, which was no more exaggerated than those sported by many fashionable young men of the time.


Christophe Guérin, Saint-Just (?) 
Sanguine, 34cm x 24.2 cm
Musée Carnavalet
Visual representations are almost equally unreliable.  Paradoxically, in the years which followed the Revolution, Saint-Just most often came to be seen as the embodiment of beauty and youth. Portraits of elegant young men, with or without high cravats, were  lent his name, for example the sanguine attributed to Christophe Guérin in the Carnavalet which has no established connection. (Saint-Just is not usually portrayed as wearing an earring!) 

Numerous representations created after his death, such as the medallion and bust by David d'Angers or the engraving by Boselman  fils to illustrate Lamartine's History of the Girondins, show just how quickly the myth of Saint-Just's beauty hardened into received fact.

                      Engraving by Bosselman fils                                                         Medallion by David d'Angers                              

There are a dozen or so paintings and drawings which purport to represent Saint-Just from life.  Their authenticity is discussed by Anne Quennedey in a paper of 2020 posted on the internet as part of her ongoing research into Saint-Just's oratory.  She refers to a talk given by Albert Saltiel  in 2005 to the Association pour la sauvegarde de la Maison de Saint-Just, and also to her conversations with Bernard Vinot on the occasion of the sale in 2011 of the portrait attributed to David. The current general consensus is that only one  work, the so-called "Le Bas pastel", represents a true contemporary portrait.

The Le Bas pastel 

 The anonymous portrait, now in the Carnavalet,  was acquired by Élisabeth Le Bas in about 1795 and subsequently inherited by her son Philippe Le Bas.

Anonymous pastel, 72.5 cm x 59 cm.  Musée Carnavalet 
Any lingering doubts over its authenticity were laid to rest in an article by Louise Ampilova-Tuil and Catherine Gosselin, which appeared in the Annales historiques de la Révolution française  for 2017 (See References). The authors persuasively identify the artist as Angélique-Louise Verrier, later Mme Louis Maillard (1762-1805), a pupil of Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, who regularly exhibited pastels in the years before the Revolution.  She was the daughter of  Jean-François Verrier, the proprietor of the l'hôtel des États-Unis,  rue Gaillon, where Saint-Just boarded during his time in Paris.  

Provenance of the work: 
  • Lamartine relates that, shortly after Thermidor, Élisabeth Le Bas went in secret to the hôtel des États-Unis to acquire the portrait.  In her annotations to the text, Madame Le Bas affirmed that this was the indeed case. (Histoire des Girondins,vol. V, chpt. xv).  
  • David d'Angers was lent "a portrait in pastels of Saint-Just" by Élisabeth Le Bas as a model for his bust of 1848 (Souvenirs, 1928, p.128) 
  • An engraving by Léopold Flameng was published as the frontispiece for Ernest Hamel's Histoire de Saint-Just, published in 1859.  The plate is labelled "after the pastel belonging to M. Philippe Le Bas, member of the Institut." 
  • The  inventory drawn up after Philippe Le Bas's death in 1860, includes "an oval picture in pastel in its gilded frame representing Saint-Just" . It was sold by Drouot on 13th December 1860 for 205 francs to Ernest Hamel and remained in his collection:  Hippolyte Buffenoir recalled seeing it in his salon on many occasions. In April 1898, after Hamel's death, his son donated it to the Carnavalet.

The artist: 
  •  Lamartine identifies the artist as the daughter of the house, who was herself a professional painter. ( According to Lamartine, she at first asked six louis for her work, but in the end settled for "a trunk of clothes, linen and wedding garments").  
  • Ernest Hamel reports that a certain Madame Desportes de Doullens, widow of an former officer of the gardes du corps, hid a portrait of the Empress Marie-Theresa belonging to her husband behind a "portrait of Saint-Just, painted in pastel by their common hostess". (Histoire de Saint-Just, vol. II, p.82)
  •  According to Charles Vatel, the Girondin deputy Jean-Baptiste Salle, who lodged with Saint-Just in the hôtel des États-Unis., had his portrait painted by the same artist.  

Anne Quennedey comments that Saint-Just in all probability posed for the portrait before June 1793 when he still enjoyed some leisure. He appears very youthful, with a pleasant open expression, the small mouth, which Michelet thought "feminine",  turned up in the beginning of a smile.  The portrait shows clearly his fashionable cravat and his hair worn "en oreilles de chien".

Notes on some other portraits

Attributed to David

This portrait, listed as oil on canvas, 50cm x71cm,  currently belongs to an unknown private collector:  I do not think it has been seen in public since 2011 when it last changed hands at auction. 

Oil on canvas 50 cm x 71 cm. Private collection [Wikimedia]
The portrait is first identified as Saint-Just by David in an  engraving made by Frédéric Hillemacher in 1869.

Provenance can be traced back to the 1840s when it was in the collection of Rousselin de Saint-Albin (1773–1847).  It then passed by inheritance to his granddaughter, the wife of Georges Duruy.  According to Michelet and others,  Saint-Albin gave pride of place among his  much admired Revolutionary portraits to  a "full portrait of Saint-Just by David". This is clearly the picture in question: as well as the engraving of 1869, it is reproduced in an article on the Saint-Albin/Duruy collection which appeared in Les Arts in 1905.

The portrait has subsequently changed hands at least twice  - in 1970 (anonymous sale) and again in 2011. In 2011 it was sold by Gros & Delettrez as part of the collection of the industrialist and philanthropist Paul-Louis Weiller (1893-1993).

According to the Site Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just, the artist was at one point identified as David's pupil, Jean-Louis Laneuville.  Laneuville was responsible for several, very accomplished portraits of deputies and other revolutionary figures: see the beautiful images on the blog "Gods and Foolish Grandeur":

However, as  far as I know, there is nothing to tie Laneuville to the present picture (or for that matter to this strange "Saint-Just" posted on Tumblr in April 2022:

Another attribution, put forward on the occasion of the 2011 sale, is to the prolific but relatively little-known, female portraitist Adèle Romany (1769-1846).  This identification, which was greeted with some surprise, is presumably based on connoisseurship rather than documentation. However, the idea is quite tempting: here, for example, is Adèle Romany's portrait of the dancer Augustus Vetris, painted in 1793. 

Adèle Romany,  Auguste Vestris, 1793. [Wikimedia]

Without ready access to the  painting, it remains difficult  to take the inquiry further.  However, the jury is out as to the artist, - and presumably also as to the subject?

Attributed to Prud'hon

A second portrait in oils,  in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon, shows a man with very similar features - oval face, small mouth, dark eyes and long nose.  A dedication  on the corner of the canvas reads "A Saint-Just.  P.-P. Prudhon 1793".  

Attributed to Pierre-Paul Prud'hon, oil on canvas, 1793 
Musée des Beaux-arts de Lyon [Wikimedia]
Modern experts no longer accept the portrait as Prud'hon's work. (see Sylvain Laveissière, Pierre-Paul Prud'hon, p.91).  

The dedication has long been considered suspect.  In article published in 1923 Gustave Laurent reports that the art critic Raymond Bouyer had cast doubt on it after comparison with Prud'hon's  signature on several works of similar date, including the portrait of Mme Anthony and her children, now also in Lyon.
Recent writers also dispute the likelihood of any personal contact between Prud'hon and Saint-Just. Although Prud'hon was broadly sympathetic towards the Revolution, and participated actively in the reformed artistic institutions of the capital, he was never closely associated with David and his circle.  The idea he was an ardent Jacobin rests solely on an anecdote that during the Legislative Assembly he and his friends admired Robespierre and would frequent the Clubs to hear him speak (See Sylvain Laveissière, p.157-9) 

In terms of provenance, Gustave Laurent reproduces a letter from a Doctor Victor Nodet, resident of Bourg-en-Bresse, to the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, in which he states that the portrait had been in his wife's family "for a long time",  at the very least from 1863 when it was engraved by Laurent Hotelin.  In 1878 it was included in an exhibition of Portraits nationaux and in 1888 an official copy was commissioned from Mlle Perrot d'Auteroche for the  museum in Versailles. (The latter is now on deposit at the Musée national de la coopération franco-américaine in Blérancourt. See Joconde:Ref. 000PE012349

The painting was purchased for the Lyon collection in 1955. 

The pose so similar to the Le Bas pastel, might it perhaps be a copy?

It is of some interest to note that Doctor Nodet's father-in-law,  presumably the owner of the painting, was the well-known sculptor Emilien Cabuchet (1819-1902) - remembered today chiefly for his iconic statue of the Curé d'Ars.  As a younger contemporary and a working sculptor, Cabuchet would almost certainly have known David d'Angers and perhaps had access to his studio. 

Attributed to Greuze

By Jean-Baptiste Greuze, oil on canvas, 1,44 m x 1,20 m
Musée de Saint-Omer

This portrait, in the Musée de Saint-Omer, shows yet another similar looking young man. It was accepted by Bernard Vinot in his biography of 1985 as Saint-Just; the deputy poses as Représentant en mission,  with his ceremonial sabre close by.  However, Marianne Gilchrist (aka"Silverwhistle")  pointed out to me that Aileen Ribeiro, in her book Fashion in the French Revolution very plausibly identifies Greuze's sitter as Talleyrand's nephew, Auguste-Louis de Talleyrand. The statuette depicted is a copy of the Belvedere Mercury, which was only brought to the Louvre  in 1797. 

It would seem that  both Anne Quennedey and Bernard Vinot now doubt that this is Saint-Just.

An engraving by  François Bonneville

This engraving by  François Bonneville,  published in 1796 in Volume II of Quenard's Portraits des personnages célèbres de la Révolution, is of some interest as it represents a very early posthumous portrait.  Bonneville made over two hundred engravings between 1796 and 1802 from his own drawings and those of others; in this case the annotation "F. Bonneville del. Sculp." indicates that he himself was responsible for the preliminary study. This does not preclude his use of an existing model; the similarity of pose suggests he may well have copied the Le Bas pastel. 

Bernard Vinot comments that Bonneville's image is unflattering but  at least contradicts Michelet's assertion that Saint-Just's habitual cravat concealed a blemish to his throat. The subject is portrayed with an open collar, hard features, and the long nose of his father.  He resembles the man depicted by David, but appears older or more fatigued.  

For Anne Quenneday Bonneville's Saint-Just does not have the same gentleness of expression as in the Le Bas portrait; his knitted brow and wrinkled eyes remove all grace from his smile.  It is probable that the engraving, which appeared at the height of the Thermidorean reaction, is intends to be depreciative - the biographical notice by Quenard which accompanies it is very hostile.  According to the research of Hugues Plaideux, Bonneville himself was unlikely to be favourably disposed towards Saint-Just since, like his relative the journalist Nicolas de Bonneville, he had been imprisoned during the Terror.  Nonetheless, his work may reflect an authentic memory of the Conventionnel. 

In his biography, Bernard Vinot  concludes that in reality Saint-Just was not particularly feminine, or even all that good looking.  He  inherited the unappealing features of his two parents: a long face, long nose and long neck.  These were were softened by his youth and camouflaged by his sure dress sense, but no doubt the passage of time would have accentuated them. Had he lived to middle age he would have come to resemble his father - strong, masculine and serious to be sure, but without beauty.  (I think Bernard Vinot is being  kind here;  what he really wants to say is that Saint-Just would have been ugly, just like his dad.)  This aging process, aggravated by stressful days and nights without sleep was probably perceptible even in 1793.


Bernard Vinot, Saint-Just, Fayard, 1985.

Anne Quennedey, "Saint-Just à la tribune de la Convention nationale : éléments iconographiques",, 2020, 25 pages. 
Anne Quennedey's book, L’Éloquence de Saint-Just à la Convention nationale (2020) is reviewed by Mitchell Abidor in H-France Review Vol. 22 (January 2022), No. 20.

Collections of images:
Iconography and portrait sections on the "Site Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just"
The Association pour la sauvegarde de la Maison de Saint-Just has several interesting portraits and engravings among its acquisitions:

On the Le Bas pastel:
Louise Ampilova-Tuil, Catherine Gosselin, "A note on the iconography of Saint-Just: l’histoire du pastel Le Bas",  Annales historiques de la Révolution française (2017), Vol. 390(4): p.203-14.
Neil Jeffares, Dictionary of pastellists before 1800 [online]. Entry for Angélique-Louise VERRIER.

On Prud'hon:
Gustave Laurent,  “Un « Portrait de Saint-Just » Par Prud’hon.” Revue Historique de la Révolution française, 1923 15(42): p.176–77

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