Wednesday 29 January 2020

Some Revolutionaries and their wigs

Wigs in the Early Revolution

The Revolution from the first involved issues of dress. The controversy which surrounded the opening of the Estates-General on 5th May 1789 highlighted the antiquated costumes of the three Estates.  As one anonymous deputy remarked, the dress code underlined the puerility of Court etiquette and degraded occasion into a "mascarade indécente". (Quoted Ribeira, p.46).  The sombre black uniform of the Third Estate served to underscore its inferior status. Some deputies refused to conform and wore ordinary clothes, even coloured coats.   On 15th October 1789 the Constituent Assembly formally voted to abandon all uniform; a few days later the obligation to wear clerical dress was also lifted.  David chose to depict participants in the Tennis Court Oath in English style suits and greatcoats.  Among the deputies, as on the streets, there was sartorial confusion.  The English visitor Mary Berry, wrote of the Assembly in Paris in 1790 that she had never seen "such a set of shabby, ill-dressed, strange-looking people".
Miss Berry's Journal (1865) p.217-8.

Wigs at first remained neutral in meaning.  The powdered wig, like the sword, was a symbol of nobility, but it also formed part of the everyday attire of the lawyers and well-to-do bourgeois of the Third Estate.  Amy Freund (2008)  has studied the series of portraits of deputies engraved by Nicolas-Francois Levachez  from 1789 onwards; many posed in their ordinary street clothes; the famous farmer-deputy Michel Gérard affected rural simplicity with his simple brown coat and bare head.  However, the majority,  still wore wigs or else their own curled and powdered hair.


Aileen Ribeiro, Fashion in the French Revolution (Batsford, 1988)

Amy Freund, "The legislative body:  print portraits of the National Assembly, 1789-1791",  Eighteenth-Century Studies, 2008, Vol. 41(3) p.337-358.

Monday 27 January 2020

More notable wigwearers

Here are a few more anecdotes concerning notable 18th-century wig-wearers. The following is translated / summarised from my latest favourite source of trivia, Sébastien Feuillet de Conches's Causeries d’un curieux.  Feuillet de Conches (1798-1887) was a diplomat, writer and formidable collector of all sorts of "stuff": paintings, books and curiosities of all kinds. 

Voltaire's wig

p.250: Two men, Bachaumont and Voltaire, persisted under Louis XV,  even, in the case of Voltaire, under Louis XVI, in wearing wigs from the bygone era of Louis XIV - the perruque classique à cinq écheveaux or even the cinq lauriers, invented by Nevers (1). Voltaire arrived in Paris to stay with the marquis de Villette on the last day of January 1778 but he only undertook his first full "toilette" at the end of March.
"He had a red coat trimmed with ermine ; a great wig à la Louis XIV, black, without powder, his lean face  so buried in it that one saw only his two eyes sparkling like coals.  His head was surmounted by a red cap in the shape of a crown, which seemed to be merely balanced there." [Bachaumont, Mémoires secrets, 28th March 1778.]

An hour after his arrival two months previously he had gone "jauntily and on foot" , to pay a visit to the comte d'Argental on the quai d'Orsay. He was so oddly dressed -  wrapped in a vast pelisse, his head in a woollen wig surmounted by a red fur-trimmed bonnet - that little children had taken him for a carnival character ("chienlit") and followed him shouting and taunting. [Mémoires secrets, 2nd February 1778].

(1) According to Grimm, the duc de Nevers invented a style of long wig, which was imitated  only by Bachaumont and Voltaire: "of the three wearers, only the last now persists.".
Correspondance litt., Vol. VII, June  1771 

[Voltaire's old-fashioned wigs were much remarked upon by visitors to Ferney:  The Duchess of Northumberland described his "small well-combed dark grizzle tie-wig without powder". Boswell at Christmas 1764 found him in "a slate-blue fine frieze greatcoat nightgown and a three-knotted wig"] 

The wigs of Rousseau and Maupertius

p.250  Rousseau adopted a little perruque à trois marteaux

p.251:  At his reception to the Académie française  Maupertius famously sported a short round wig composed of red hair with powdered yellow curls.  See Collini, Mon séjour aupres de Voltaire (1807) p.36.

The wigs of M. de Sartine

Sartine by  Joseph Boz, 1787
Musée Lambinet
p.253-4: It was hairdresser Le Gros (author of L'Art de la coiffure) who had the honour of working for the lieutenant general of police M. de Sartine, Secretary of State for the Navy at the start of the reign of Louis XVI. As far as fashions in hair were concerned, Sartine was the most coquettish man of the day and prided himself on having the best styled head in France.  He had a wig for the morning, a wig for the council chamber, a wig for the evening.  He even had a wig for good luck (a bonne fortune) with five little floating curls. Three wigmaker "valets de chambre" each had their department under the direction of Le Gros, who  alone enjoyed the privilege of dressing the hair of such a difficult and discerning master.  His hair was curled in the morning; his hair was curled in the evening.  If some accident disarranged the economy of his head during the day, the iron was in the fire (possibly literally?).  It was said that, when he was lieutenant of police, and had a criminal to interrogate, he would don a terrible wig with five serpent's tails which made him look like the three judges of Hell.  They nicknamed this instrument of anticipated torture la Sartine  or l'Inexorable.

[See also, the comments in Métra's Anecdotes secrètes: 
M. de Sartine has an incredible weakness of fine, well-curled and powdered wigs.  His collection of wigs - in-folio, in quarto, in-duodecimo, large and small format, some more square than others - amounts to sixty or eighty of the finest examples and the best makers. (Anecdotes secrètes, 30 October 1779)

Notice for the portrait of Sartine: ]

Diderot on the President de Brosses

p.254: Diderot could not get over the immense wigs which weighed down the magistrates of the Parlement of Paris and the provincial parlements. His correspondant Charles de Brosses made fun of the Doge of Genoa and his senators hidden under their vast perruques quarrées.  However, when he became president of the Parlement of Dijon, he too found himself obliged to don a heavy wig. Diderot found it impossible to take him seriously in this absurd costume: 

 The President de Brosses, who enjoys my respect in his ordinary clothes, makes me die of laughter in his habit de palais.  How can one look at him, without the corners of one's mouth turning up? His jolly little head, with it ironic and satiric expression, is lost in an immense forest of hair which overwhelms him;  and this forest descends left and right to take possession of three-quarters of the rest of his small figure. (Comment in the Salon of 1765).


Félix-Sébastien Feuillet de Conches, Causeries d’un curieux vol.2 (1862), p.250-54.

Saturday 25 January 2020

A satire on wigs

L'enciclopédie perruquiere . Ouvrage curieux a l'usage de toutes sortes de têtes, enrichi de figures en taille-douce. Par M Beaumont, coëffeur dans les Quinze-Vingts

A Amsterdam. Et se trouve a Paris, chez l'auteur. Et chez Hochereau, libraire à la descente du Pont Neuf au Phenix. M. DCC. LVII

The Encyclopédie perruquière was a jeu d'esprit of 1757 by the lawyer and satirist Jean-Henri Marchand. Intended as a parody of the more pedestrian articles in the Encyclopédie, the work featured  illustrations of no less than forty-five (largely spurious) wigs.

 According to Grimm the piece was forgotten in eight days (Correspondance littéraire, January 1766). However, it was described in the Année littéraire  as one of the best "pieces of buffoonery" to appear for a long time and it was well-enough received for Marchand to publish a second edition in 1766. Certainly the joke would not have been lost on Marchand's readers: there was now a wig for every occasion, every profession, and every type of physiognomy.

Tuesday 21 January 2020

Wigs of the Professions

The Church

The wearing of wigs by the clergy was almost universal by the beginning of the 18th century.  Several wigmakers in Paris already specialised in ecclesiastical wigs, notably M de la Roze in the rue Saint-André, who, according to a 1692 almanac, was renowned for his "perruques abbatiales" (Livre commode des adresses de Paris, p.40)

 The perruques d'abbé of the standard catalogue were short, simple affairs which differed from the bonnet laicque of the modest bourgeois  only by the addition of a slightly absurd tonsure. (The author of the Art du perruquier confides that this made them much more challenging to construct.)

Any moral reservations about clerical wigs would have disappeared from public view long ago had it not been for Jean-Baptiste Thiers's Histoire de perruques, published in 1692.  The redoubtable Thiers's irresistable mix of erudition and humour ensured that his work was reprinted and  referred to, even over a century later.  

Tuesday 14 January 2020

Wigs from the Art du Perruquier and the Encyclopédie.

Plate from the Art du perruquier
The wigs of the mid-century are illuminated by two major technical publications, the Art du perruquier sponsored by the Académie des sciences, published in 1761 and the article "Perruquier" which appeared in Volume 12 of the Encyclopédie in December 1765. As the 19th-century historian of fashion Quicherat observed, the information for the Encyclopédie article was largely "furnished by the Corporation" (p.575-6). 

These quasi-official trade publications placed less emphasis that did Molé on the passing whims of the petits-maîtres. In the Art du perruquier Antoine Quarré observed that there were currently seven or eight basic types of wig available, some of which had gone out of vogue, though "like all fashions in France" they were likely to return to favour (p.6). The two sources both include engravings which showed the various different styles: these illustrations are very similar, even though the  plates for the Encyclopédie did not appear until 1771.The list of wigs is the same, save only that the Encyclopédie adds an extra, the perruque à cadogan

Non-literary sources confirm that these wigs do indeed represent the kind of choices available to respectable consumers, both in Paris and the provinces.  The Rouen wigmaker Le Tellier, whose mid-century account book has been studied by Michael Kwass, offered an array of shorter and neater wigs at a range of different prices. The cheapest was the perruque en bonnet - the simple round bob wig of the gentleman farmer, bourgeois, doctor or surgeon - at 12-20 livres. This was the wig that Rousseau adopted when he quit Parisian high society for the simple life of the countryside. The perruque à bourse, or bagwig, was also popular and inexpensive, although there were elegant versions as well.  Le Tellier's most expensive wig was a perruque à noeuds (27-35 livres), which featured knotted hair hanging down the back ( Kwass (2006) p.646-7)

Sunday 12 January 2020

Fashions in Wigs - Early 18th-century

Eighteenth-century men  had a strong sense of the growth of consumer choice and fashion in wigs.  

One of the main literary source for this era is the satirical "history of fashions"  by the Parisian barrister Guillaume François Roger Molé, written in 1773. Molé is concerned with the wigs worn by the trend-setters of the capital, the petits-maîtres, rather than those of ordinary men in the provinces.  He sees changing fashion as important, even in the first years of the century. The driving force was the Parisian wigmakers' corporation, whose power had been consolidated by the renewal of its statutes, and the creation of new licences in 1706 and 1714.  Constant revolutions in hairstyle gave it members new scope, since each demanded a different set of curls (p.123). "The number of curled styles was almost infinite.  Each year, each month, each year, each week produced a  new one.... (p.299): "Thanks to the Perruquiers, the heads of French petits-maîtres became little works of art, beautiful jewels". (p.298-9)  The growth of hairdressing was part of the same development; due to the inconvenience of maintaining one's own hair, it  added to rather than diminished the demand for false hair (p.299-300)

Wigs of the early 18th century

After the mid-1690s, the massive wigs of the Grand Siècle were already on the decline. Wigs ceased to extend over the chest and shoulders and were confined in bouchons, boudins, or in curls. The mass of hair on the back gradually decreased in volume.

Louis XIV's regulations of 1706 laid down set prices for wigs, which give a clue as to the styles current among the population at the time:

10 livres and below: common wigs, brown, short and without additions.  
10-30 livres: brown wigs à l'espagnole and à la cavalière [styles of full-length wig] and ecclesiastical wigs (perruques d'abbé).
30 livres and above:  wigs à l'espagnole and à la cavalière in other colours and generally perruques quarrées of all colour and length.
  [The perruque quarrée - "square wig" -represented a new style, still full length but flat on top. Also of note is the premium commanded by wigs "other than brown"]

To  observers like Molé, the collective sense of relief at the end of Louis XIV's long reign, was expressed by a general sloughing off of heavy periwigs:

Men of the court, Merchants, and Financiers judged that it was time to abdicate great heads of hair.  Louis XIV, who loved them so much, no longer existed: a young prince ascended the throne and in-folio wigs were disgraced.  New editions were made, which were more convenient, more portable....
(Molé: p.297-8).

The Regent, lover of pleasure, sumptuous celebrations and luxury in dress, soon banished the sad, lugubrious costumes of the old Court.  He was the first to rid himself of the old embarrassing and ridiculous perruque;  the style he substituted, whitened by powder and impregnated with beautiful odours, soon opened a new career of activity, interest and profit for the 850 wigmakers of Paris.  Some adopted point de Milan lace, some invented even more convenient fabrics;  all dedicated themselves to bringing elegance to a form of headwear that, until then had scarcely been more than a shapeless mass of horsehair.
("Perruque" in Dictionaire des sciences médicales  ed. Panckoucke,1820)

In fact full wigs persisted for formal attire until at least the mid-century although the trend was towards shorter variants. As the German writer Fredrich Nicolai later pointed out, the Regent himself is usually depicted in the relatively full perruque à l'espagnole, as were  members of his Court.(Nicolai, p.141) Senior soldiers and magistrates (those who "wanted to be taken seriously") also favoured long wigs. These more formal styles  were often associated with particular professions and had splendid names (perruque à la cavalière, à la financière, quarrée(carrée), nouée, à la naturelle).

Wig powder
Powdered white wigs were not completely unknown in the 17th century but it was in the Regency period that they became widespread.  According to Molé, although women had used hair powder, men had mostly contented themselves with washing and perfuming.   The petits-maîtres now began to appear with both their natural hair and wigs powered.  Moreover,  it became the practice not merely to mix powder into the hair but  to spread it profusely all over the head.  Soon this became the general fashion: "Men, women, infants, old people; all began to use powder; every head became white". Apart from a short phase in the 1750s, when blond and grey wigs briefly gained favour, heavily powdered white hair  remained the norm throughout the century.

Fashionable styles of the era:  

Knotted wigs - Perruques nouées
At the beginning of the century, writes Molé, the petits maîtres began to notice the inconvenience of large heavy wigs, even though wigmakers put much effort into making them light and comfortable.  The first departure was to divide the hair at the back and knot the two parts together in summer.  Gradually the knots became part of the wig and les perruques nouée were born.(Molé  p.296-7):

 Saint-Simon reports that, on the death of the prince de Condé in 1709, reluctant mourners showed their lack of respect by turning  up in "perruques nouées, poudrées de blanc".  Knotted wigs at this stage were clearly considered indecently informal.

Watteau's Enseigne de Gersaint, painted in 1720-21, captures a splendid fashion moment: the man on his knees to the right of the scene wears a gleaming white knotted wig,  complete with the central corkscrew or boudin, straight out of the plates of the Encyclopédie:

New styles demanded technical innovation in design. According to the Art du perruquier (1761),  flat wigs -  perruques quarrées and perruques nouées required a  "toupet", an single expanse of flat hair which extended from the middle to the back of the head, usually made or stiffened with horsehair. (p.44).   Toupets were again at first considered informal but gained rapidly in respectability; the full  perruque quarrée was the preferred wig of judges throughout the 18th century.

Bagwigs - Perruques en bourse 

The greatest  innovation of the early 18th century was the adoption by the fashionable of military-style wigs tied into pigtails or "quenes",  above all "bagwigs" in which the hair was confined in a taffeta bag or bourse (sometimes also called a crapaud ie. a "toad".) These  perruques en bourse became so much a symbol of the age that they were commonly known as perruques à la régence.

Everyone (even the German wig historian Nicolai) concurred that the bagwig was a quintessentially French invention.  Frederick William of Prussia imposed the queue on his troops (and wore it himself); in France the Regent imposed the bourse on his cavalry.  This, thought Nicolai, was the first step towards diminishing the size of wigs (Nicolai, p. 141).  The consensus was that "bags" had originally been used for horse's tails half a century earlier.  By the 1710s they become common for the wigs of young officers, and soon entered general civilian attire (Quicherat, p.563).  According to Molé, such wigs were at first reserved for travel or for undress, or for wear during inclement weather, but soon became eminently respectable (Molé, p.119-20)  Walther's Manuel de toilette of 1776 confirms that  they were appreciated because of their convenient and rapidly adopted as part of fashionable dress (quoted Kwass, p.15) .  Nicolai remarks on the irony that a style invented for the army was universally adopted by the Courts of Europe (p.141).

 Bourses were typically of black gummed taffeta, with a rosette or bow of the same colour for decoration. Earlier example were square, medium sized and appeared to be full of hair - they were often stuffed with horsehair to achieve this effect.  Later bourses became narrower at the top and flatter (Quicherat, p. 563). A smart perruque à la régence classically featured ribbons which ended in a second bow tied under the chin.  Here is a young gent in just such a wig.....

Engraving after Nicolas Cochin showing dress of about 1725

The new short wigs were characteristically divided into three sections; two side pieces (sometimes known as "cadenettes") and a central portion, the queue proper, sweep back from the forehead to be tied at the nape of the neck.  The variants were endless;  the queue could be worn as a pony tail or plaited into a long thin "bout-de-rat". At one point in the 1720s men of fashion wore false hair intermingled with their own to produce long, thick queues. The sides could be curled or trimmed and shaped into flaps commonly known as "ears" (Quicherat, p.562-3).
English wigs with ridiculous "ears", from Bernard Lens, The Exact Dress of the Head (1725-6)

The Art du perruquier explains that different types of mounts had to be employed,  depending on whether the wearer's ears were to be left showing: these were called montures pleines, montures à oreille and montures à demi-oreille. The monture à oreille was invented for the bag wig. Since it sat less firmly on the head, extra straps were required to keep the wig in place. (Art du perruquier (1761), p.22)

From the Mercure of 1730, we learn that, at this date, long wigs were no longer much worn by the fashionable.  It was already important for wigs to imitate nature: hair would be allowed to grow at the front and be combed into the wig to disguise the seam.  At this time dandies affected exaggerated "ears" called "oreilles de chien barbet" after the lop-eared barbet dogs.

Long "Perruques quarrées" are hardly in fashion at all, even among Magistrates, who now wear their wigs much shorter.  Crimped wigs no longer exist.  Wigmakers have lately become much more skilled in the art of imitating natural hair...indeed it is impossible not to be fooled, even close up...especially if one is prepared to wear one's own hair at the front combed up and mixed with the hair of the wig.  The so-called "mustard-seed" powder, which is used to excess, serves to hide the artifice still further.

Natural wigs, "en bourse" or "en queue", are generally in fashion, principally among the young.  They imitate nature well and cost very little;  but it has to be said that the type that let your ears show, known "ears of the Barbet Dog", are really ridiculous.

The Perruques à l'Espagnole [a sort of heavy periwig] are again not much in fashion;  such wigs are worn less long and are called Bonnets.  In Summer everyone wears them, some longer, others shorter.

Knotted wigs "à la cavalière" hold their own among serious people with no pretensions to youth.  There are also hunting wigs called "bichons";  these are a little longer than the "perruques d'abbé", tied behind with a ribbon and ending in a curl.

Then there are broken Wigs ("perruques brizées) or "three-piece wigs", that people who have their own hair wear when it is really cold.  These are most usually worn indoors to hide paper curlers.

Bourses for wigs are now being worn very wide and high, almost at the roots of the hair, so that some of the neck is uncovered.  Over the bourse is a large knot of gummed ribbon; a ribbon goes round the neck and ends under the chin....
Mercure, October 1730, p.2319-20.

When the perruque en bourse became accepted formal wear,  new  casual styles were popularised.  In the 1740s the queue, with a ribbon  twisted and pulled tight around it, was  worn as long as possible. (Thus "ruban de queue" entered the French language to mean a distance that never seemed to end.  See Quicherat p.563) By about 1755 the horizontal curls at the side had been reduced to two layers and the ears could just be seen. 

Novelty wigs

Certain materials were prohibited by the statutes of the Corporation:  artificially bleached hair, hair of prohibited animals (most wigs included some horsehair), wool and cotton.  or fil-de-fer wigs. Most confrontations over banned products took place in the 1750s.  Perversely there was a fashion for wool wigs in Paris in the early 1750s.  At the same time fil-de-fer wigs made from silver or brass thread began to appear. According to Molé: 
Upon their appearance, alarm spread among the wigmakers. One must admit these hairstyles, actually hairpieces, took on a frightful exterior: they gained the imposing name of economical wigs and promised to cause neither pain nor embarrassment to those who adopted them. Rain, wind, hail, &c, they were able to defy them all: a single fil-de-fer wig sufficed for the most robust of men & would accompany him all the way to the grave.  (p.304-5)

In December 1750, in a landmark ruling,  the Lieutenant General ruled in favour of the guild officers' confiscation of a fil-de-fer wig.

Wigs made of glass and foliage were "pure  curiosities" (p.303)
One might suppose they didn't exist, but the Rochefort historian Pauline Bord, has found one for sale in a Paris antique shop.
Pauline Bord, "La coiffure masculine", Rochefort en histoire [blog] post of 10.06.2015.


Guillaume François Roger Molé, Histoire des modes françaises (1773),  p.251-310: "Histoire des perruques",
Entry for Molé in the Dictionnaire des journalistes:

Christoph Friedrich Nicolai , Recherches historiques sur l'emploi des faux cheveux et des perruques dans les temps ancien et modernes (1801, French translation 1809).

Jules Étienne Joseph Quicherat, Histoire du costume en France (1877)

Friday 10 January 2020

Royal engravings by Marie Louise Adélaïde Boizot

Researching the portrait busts of Louis XVI, I fell in love with the gorgeous engravings of the royal family by Marie-Louise-Adélaïde Boizot (1744-1800).  These portraits are described as after drawings by her brother Louis-Simon Boizot;  they compare readily with his designs for Sèvres porcelain medallions: see particularly, the original drawing below from the Musée National de la Coopération Franco-Américaine in Blérancourt.   There is little majestic about these images, but a great deal of comfortable opulence; notice the luxuriance not only of the women's hairstyles, but also of the men's casually beribboned ponytails. They seem a Sèvres dream made flesh.

Simon-Louis Boizot, Medallion of Louis XVI, c.1774
The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

Simon-Louis Boizot, Design for a portrait medallion of Louis XVI.
 Black crayon and white chalk on chamois paper,  32cm x 30.5 cm
Blérancourt, Musée National de la Coopération Franco-Américaine. Formerly in the Rothschild collection

Female engravers were unusual, but by no means unknown in 18th-century France.  Marie-Louise-Adélaïde was from an artistic dynasty, the second of seven children born to the painter Antoine Boizot (1702-1782) and his second wife Jeanne Flottes (His first wife Marie, who died in 1739, had been the daughter of the painter Jean-Baptiste Oudry).  Marie-Louise-Adélaïde was taught drawing by her father and engraving by Jean-Jacques Flipart, who sold her prints from his premises in the rue de  l'Enfer She produced engravings after a number of artists in addition to her brother, including a few other portraits and several  fine, but mawkish, images of children taken from paintings by Greuze and Drouais. Only one - seemingly random - print, a portrait of the curé of Saint-Benoît, Jean Joseph Guillaume Bruté (d.1762), is attributed to her as the author of the original drawing as well as the engraver.

Wednesday 8 January 2020

Louis XVI - portrait busts

Here are a few notes on the known portrait busts of Louis XVI.  The list (as given in H. H.Arnason's study of Houdon) is as follows:
Pajou - first portrait in 1775
Boizot - 1777 and 1785
Houdon - c.1787
Deseine - 1790.

Louis by Pajou

Augustin Pajou (1730-1809) was sculptor of the official portrait bust of Louis XVI, commissioned shortly after his coronation, in December 1774.

Louis XVI by Pajou, marble, signed and dated 1779.  In King's Private Apartments, Palace of Versailles.,_appartements_du_Dauphin_et

According to James David Draper in the Metropolitan's 1997 Pajou exhibition catalogue, "although he was well paid for them, his busts of royalty form the weakest aspect of Pajou's portraiture".  His "big Salon for royal busts" was in 1767 when he exhibited busts of the late Dauphin (d.1765) together with his three sons, the future Louis XVI, the comte de Provence and the comte d'Artois.  Bachaumont reported that crowds rushed to see them, but Diderot dismissed the works as "duller, more ignoble, more foolish than I know how to tell you." In 1776 additional busts of the Dauphin were ordered; today only three unsigned "lackluster marbles" survive in the Versailles collections (Draper & Scherf, p.223).  There is no known example of the bust of the young Louis.

Saturday 4 January 2020

A Hundred portraits, one mysterious collector

From 6th November last until 1st March, the Musée Lambinet is host to a small, but well-presented exhibition, "A Hundred Portraits for a Century: from the Court to the Town in the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI".  The curator is Xavier Salmon, Director of Graphic Arts at the Louvre. The portraits on show are from a private collection. The emphasis is on images of royalty, courtiers and celebrities and there are copies of familiar paintings; but less well-known sitters and  artists are also represented. The exhibition is attractively set out over eight  rooms of the museum, with design and signage by Jérôme Dumoux of MyArtDesign. There is also a beautifully illustrated published catalogue. The critical response has been generally positive.

The question remains, however: where exactly do these pictures come from?

The Press Release tells us that they belong to  organisation called the "Conservatoire du Portrait du Dix-Huitième Siècle" (CPDHS):

The mission of the Conservatoire du Portrait du Dix-Huitième Siècle (CPDHS), (which was founded twenty years ago) is to document as comprehensibly as possible the European society of the Enlightenment, its portraits and portrait artists.....Extensive dossiers have been created, indexed by both artist and subject....At the heart of each dossier are reproductions of portraits which have been sold at auction in the last twenty-five years...Sitters rather than artists are the primary focus:  the main mission is to identify faces; on numerous occasions the patient collation of information has allowed anonymous models to be identified.  Rarely a private initiative of this sort been able to call upon so many images and references for a given era...

Its continuing mission has informed the Conservatoire's collecting policy  since 1983.   The portraits reflect the diversity of 18th century society.  Although priority has been given to the royal family, members of the Court and Parisian high society the bourgeois of both the capital and the provinces  are also represented.  Certain works have also been acquired because they are by interesting lesser artists, eg. Josef Johann Melchior Wyrsch (1732-1798) who worked in Franchecomte and  Simon Pinson (f. 1758-1787), collaborator of Alexandre Roslin.

Space given over to a private collection in a French public museums is not in itself novel.  Xavier Salmon cites several recent precedents including the upcoming Masterpieces from the Prat Collection at the Petit-Palais. The exhibition is also in line with the rebranding of the Lambinet under Emilie Maisonneuve as a "maison de collectionneurs".  The problem is mainly that the collector in question has chosen to remain entirely anonymous.

Given the scope of the research, it seems really surprising that nothing at all has ever been published about the Conservatoire and its documentary resources.  Elsewhere we learn that there are as many as four hundred portraits in the total collection. 

In November 2017 members of the "Connaissances de Versailles" forum, alerted by  a portrait in Visiteurs à Versailles exhibition, uncovered a few more details. Conservatoire du Portrait du Dix-Huitième Siècle was registered as a trade name in Paris in 2001 by a certain Jean-Jacques Petit; though there seemed to be no commercial entity associated with it. Petit himself is obviously keen to remain anonymous and has almost no internet presence. He is occasionally mentioned in catalogues and auction notes, so we know he  is a real person, but it is too common a  name to trace easily (Personally my money is on the J-J.P. who is president of the Edmond Petit design company)

["Lors de l'exposition Visiteurs à Versailles, est apparu le nom d'une entité qui m'est inconnue et absente d’internet : Le CONSERVATOIRE DU PORTRAIT DIX-HUITIEME SIECLE (sigle : C.P.D.H.S.) localisé à Paris.  Marque commerciale déposée en 2001 par un dénommé Jean Jacques Petit."]

There has been no comment at all from the art world about the circumstances of the present exhibition until mid-December when an article appeared in the Gazette Drouot. The author, Vincent Noce was sharply critical of quality of the portraits and went so far as to accuse Xavier Salmon, of deliberately crediting dubious works: "We prefer to allow the reader to judge the aesthetic quality of this collection of second or third-hand copies, sold at low prices as anonymous, and now graced with the privilege of attribution..."

Salmon, it would appear, had manifestly failed to consult the expert literature. A particularly damning example concerned Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun's portrait of her brother which appears on the exhibition poster;  in the catalogue of the 2015 EVB retrospective, which Salmon himself curated with Joseph Baillio, this work had been relegated to a copy" whose autograph character is at least doubtful".

Noce insinuated that Salmon had distorted his scholarship to oblige Petit, a private collector whom he knew personally:

Salmon cites the precedent of Guy Cogeval at the Musée d'Orsay, to argue that museums should open their doors to private collectors: Whether they are ultimately resold or donated to public galleries, private collections "live their lives".  However, the collection on view at Versailles is curiously anonymous.  It belongs in fact to certain Jean-Jacques Petit, with whom Xavier Salmon "has shared thirty years of acquaintance and friendship" He admits that he himself sollicited permission for the exhibition from his hierarchy. 

The article ends by reiterating the need for professional caution from curatorial staff dealing with private collections, especially  "in an era when high prices and rarity of artworks encourages  over-optimistic assessments" 

Unsurprisingly Salmon was quick to reply.  He pointed out the historical interest of the collection and defended his scholarly conclusions: 

As explained in the catalogue, the pictures in the current exhibition have been amassed over three decades by an amateur who wishes to illustrate French society in the 18th century in all its diversity.  His intention has not been to acquire works by grand masters, but to exemplify the practice of portraiture...  Although Louis-Michel Van Loo, Liotard, Duplessis ou Vigée Le Brun are represented, there are also numerous lesser artists: Adélaïde Hubert, Anne-Baptiste Nivelon, Chevalier Delorge, Frey, Schmidt, Wyrsch, Millot, Lassave, Vallière, Borgnis.  The catalogue offers an opportunity to present newly gathered information about these painters' careers and clientele. The exhibition shows that there was a demand from sitters for portraits at different prices supporting a wide spectrum of artistic talent.

As to attribution: the paintings on display include twenty-five signed works and forty-nine where the identity of the artist is confirmed by documentary evidence, style or comparison with autographed examples.  Fourteen are tentative attributions, eight studio works and four entirely anonymous.  All the available evidence is set out in the catalogue; in the case of the portrait of EVB's brother,  the quality of the face and the presence of repentirs count against it being a simple copy.

Salmon does not think he can be reproached for knowing the collector personally.  During thirty years of working with portraits, he has benefited from his expertise.  Several private collectors -  Prat, Motais de Narbonne, Milgrom, Jeffrey Horvitz - have recently been showcased  in public museums.  Besides, the current collector is seeking a long term repository and might even be considering  a bequest.

Vincent Noce, "Et donc..." [Article and Xavier Salmon's reply]  Gazette Drouot, 12.12.2019

On the whole, I think, Salmon gets the better of the argument.  Without this initiative, no-one would get to see this collection at all.  The Lambinet seems a suitable venue.  Besides, who can complain about an expo which is included with the museum admission price - a very modest 6 euros.

References for the Exhibition

Exhibition press dossier and List of works

Scenography by

Corinne Martin-Rozès« Cent portraits pour un siècle » au Musée Lambinet, Versailles in my pocket, 6.11.2019.

Alain.R.Truong > Art du XVIIIème siècle / 18th century art > 'Cent portraits pour un siècle' au Musée Lambinet, 6.11.2019

 Cent portraits pour un siècle. Exposition au Musée Lambinet (Versailles) on Marie-Antoinette-Forum.

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