Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Portrait of Robespierre by Boilly (?)

BOILLY Louis Léopold, Portrait (presumed) of Robespierre
oil on canvas, 41cm x 32 cm
Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille

A very elegantly dressed man, wearing a redingote of light blue taffeta, with reflective weave, a shirt made of lawn, with an ample and high cravat foldered into a ruffle, lace sleeves, a fawn doublebreasted waistcoat,  white nankeen breeches, with five silver buttons, white stockings and shoes with silver buckles." (Beaucamp, p.22)

This portrait by in the Palais des Beaux Arts in Lille has become one of the standard and most widespread images of Robespierre on the internet, yet very little is really known about it.  It was first identified as Robespierre only in 1928, in an article by Fernand Beaucamp.  It is recorded as having been purchased by the musée des Beaux-Arts in Lille in 1863, but all the relevant documentation was destroyed in a fire at the Hôtel de Ville in 1916. 

The picture can be securely recognised on stylistic grounds as the work of Boilly; it is the identity of the sitter which is more speculative.  The first catalogue of Boilly's work, published by Henry Harrisse in 1908, listed the painting as an anonymous "Man seated before a bureau".

The young Robespierre.  Detail of the portrait after Danloux

Fernand Beaucamp's case rests only on the simple, though reasonable, grounds that the person depicted looks like Robespierre and suggests his dress. The accessories imply a man of letters, but do not really personalise the sitter.  As Beaucamp himself admitted the bare interior does not correspond to Robespierre's lodgings at the Duplays;  in particular the roll-top desk is quite different from the square table in the watercolour drawing published by Buffenoir.  (The curious suitcase behind the chair could perhaps be construed as Robespierre's "malle du départ d'Arras", though it isn't really a "trunk".).  

Most likely the sparse items of furniture are studio props; other Boilly pictures have very similar chairs and desks (see below).   Equally Boilly often populated his pictures with lapdogs.

Even if the identify of the sitter is accepted, there are no real clues as to date.  Most modern commentators have followed Beaucamp in assuming c.1791 when Robespierre was at the height of his popularity and reputation.  On the other hand, nothing implies a Revolutionary setting, so the picture may well be pre-1789 - especially since Boilly was a pupil of Dominique Doncre in Arras from 1778-1785.  It is very tempting to identify the picture with the documented (but unlocated) portrait of 1783 by Boilly, said to have been given by Robespierre to his relatives in Meurchin.  This seems to be Peter McPhee's general conclusion:

Peter McPhee reproduces the picture in both his book on Robespierre and his new study of the Revolution:

Robespierre (2012)  Plate 4. "The young Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845) painted this portrait while studying under Dominique Doncre in Arras after 1778.  The young barrister may be flushed with recent success in the case of the lightning conductor.  Maximilien always enjoyed the companionship offered by dogs"

Liberty or death: the French Revolution (2016)  Colour plate 3. "The young Louis-Léopold Boilly(b. 1761) painted this portrait of the barrister Maximilien Robespierre in 1783 while studying in Arras.  Robespierre, aged twenty-five, seems to be flushed with his first major court success.  He always enjoyed the companionship offered by dogs."

This scenario fits in well with  McPhee's emphasis on Robespierre as an up-and-coming young lawyer, but I still worry about the plushness of the clothing, given Robespierre's modest circumstances and the well-attested meagreness of his youthful wardrobe.


Fernand Beaucamp, "Un portrait inconnu de Robespierre au musée de Lille", Revue du Nord (Feb 1928) p.21-34.

Jérémie Benoît   "Robespierre", Histoire par image, February 2005

Details of costume - Robespierre's shoe-buckles! : 
"La boucle de soulier dans l’œuvre de Louis Léopold Boilly (1761-1845)", La boucle de chaussure [blog], post of 18 July 2016 

Note 27/08/2018

I have just come across this early portrait of an unknown man by Boilly reproduced as fig.18 in Susan Siegfried's book The Art of Louis-Léopold Boilly (1995).  The similarity of the Robespierre  to this composition is obvious, and provides support for the latter's pre-Revolutionary date.  According to Susan Siegfried Boilly's portraits from this time differ from his Revolutionary portraits, which  generally included explicit indications of the sitter's political and civic engagement: 
Boilly's own earlier portraits of lawyers...represented them conventionally seated before writing desks, in private interiors that are neither intimately domestic nor strictly occupational.  The file boxes and portable chests by their sides serve as indicators of profession, yet the documents on their desks are not important enough to be made legible.  The emphasis is on the genteel comportment of the men, who assume the relaxe, crossed-legged pose of the gentleman and pause, from reading a letter or taking snuff and playing with a dog, to cooperate with the painter in the main business of getting a good likeness. (p.38-39)

1 comment:

  1. One or 2 thoughts on this:
    1. Definitely pre-Revolution. The low collar on the coat suggests 1780s: by 1791, higher collars were fashionable, as can be seen in Deseine's bust of Robespierre from that year, and the physionotrace of 1792.
    2. The coat of gorge-de-pigeon silk could also be a studio prop.
    3. The sitter's nose seems slightly aquiline and he looks to me lankier than Maximilien, who was of medium height.

    The fact the identity wasn't proposed until *after* all the provenance documentation was lost in WW1 rings some warning bells.


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