Wednesday, 6 January 2021

Images of Danton

In the collective memory of the French Revolution, the larger-than-life figure of Danton is a vivid presence.  It comes as a surprise to realise how few images of Danton there actually are and how little information they yield about what he actually looked like.  Reliable depictions of Danton are small in number and virtually none of them can be deemed portraits "from live". 

 What follows is a preliminary listing (excluding portraits by David, which I am saving for a separate post).

By Constance-Marie Charpentier, Musée Carnavalet [P714]

Oil on canvas, 40cm x 32.5cm

This is the one portrait which is beyond doubt an authentic likeness, painted by a member of Danton's family and commended for its resemblance by his wife Sophie.

Constance Marie Charpentier, née Blondelu, was Danton's sister-in-law, married to his first wife's brother Victor Charpentier. Modern scholarship has restored her reputation as an artist of some prominence:  she studied under David and Gérard,  and exhibited over thirty works in the Paris Salons between 1795 and 1819.

NMWA: "Royalists to Romantics: Spotlight on Constance Marie Charpentier", 30.05.2012.

Gildas Dacre-Wright, Constance Charpentier: peintre (1767 - 1849) [online biography, 2009]

On the portrait of Danton, see  Robinet (1889) p.8-9; Campagnac (1953), p.350.

The painting is documented in a letter in the "Dossier Dubuisson" in the Bibliothèque de Paris, published in full by Edmond Campagnac in his article on "les fils de Danton", (AHRF, 1947).  The letter is addressed to Danton's sons and dated 19th May - the year is probably 1814.   Although unsigned, it is is clearly written by Constance Charpentier.

The two brothers had made the journey to Paris from Arcis-sur-Aube, to collect certain family portraits, including this one, probably entrusted to Victor Charpentier, their guardian, at the time of Danton's execution.  They had failed to meet up with their aunt who subsequently delayed surrendering the paintings which she wished to clean and prepare for framing.

With reference to a portrait of Danton, Constance writes:

I took two sittings to work on the portrait of your father.  I made his coat dark blue which suited him better than the red he had on.  I worked on the head.  I believed I made it a better likeness. Mme Dupin [that is to say Danton's second wife Sophie, who had remarried]  found it very true to life, if a little foreshortened. ("un peu trop en raccourci": not sure what this implies - maybe the face is too flat?) 

In 1889 the portrait was in the possession of Danton biographer Jean-François Robinet, who had bought it from Sophie Danton/Dupin. He bequeathed it to the Carnavalet in 1902. There is no real evidence for the original date.  Robinet speculated that it represented Danton at the height of his powers, in 1789 or 1792.  

Robinet wanted to leave open the possibility that the painting was by David.  Edmond Campagnac (1953) notes that the tradition in the Danton family was that the artist was unknown. However, the general consensus now is that the work is by Constance Charpentier herself; she would surely not have been so free with her brush had she not herself been the original artist.  However, it should be noted that, according to Edmond Campagnac (1953), the tradition in the Danton 

Anonymous portrait, Musée Carnavalet [P712]

Oil on canvas, 78cm x 66.5cm     

This second, even more iconic, portrait from the Carnavalet is officially catalogued as anonymous. It was purchased in 1883 from Mme Jubinal-Saint-Albin, that is to say from Danton's friend Alexandre de Saint-Albin's daughter Hortense (1824-85).  

To judge from the similarities in treatment and costume, it is reasonable to assume that this picture - which is twice the size of the first portrait - is a  reworking by Constance Charpentier. 

 The pose resembles David's famous sketch of 1795 which was also in the possession of the Saint-Albin family.

Cameo by Hipolite

Miniature en camaïeu  (see Robinet,p.6)  by François-Hippolyte Desbuissons (c.1745-1807) [who normally signed himself "Hipolite"]. 

The technique used in this piece involved building up layers of white enamel to create a translucent image.  Desbuissons is thought have sometimes used silhouettes which he reduced with the aid of a pantograph. 

There are several portraits by him on the internet: here, for example, is Théroigne de Méricourt:

According to Edmond Campagnac (1953, p.351) the picture was offered to the Carnavalet in 1897 by Danton's great-niece and great-nephew,  Georgette Menuel and Hippolyte Sardin. Here it is, reproduced in the Carnavalet's bicentennial publication in 1789: 

Anon:  'Portrait of Danton', miniature (6.6 cm), M773 
Jean Tulard, The French Revolution in Paris: seem through the collections of the Carnavalet Museum (1789) p.117: ill.148

The Carnavalet also possesses  several copies of a fine engraving by Julien Tinayre, which was chosen by Robinet as a frontispiece for his study, no doubt as corrective to harsh caricatures of his hero.  

The engraving specifies that  Danton is an avocat aux Conseils du Roi, a position he occupied from March 1787. This Danton is a plump, confident young man, dressed in lace and perruque à frimas,  showing all the sheen and casual opulence of the last years of the Ancien régime.  I am not sure whether it is well-proportioned enough to have been based on a physionotrace.

Miniature by Isabey

A snuffbox with a miniature by Isabey on the lid. It was said to have been given by the maréchal Brune to Danton's son (Robinet, p.8). 

See Campagnac (1953) p.352-3: The box, which was exhibited in 1889,  was at this time in the collection of  the artist Albert Sardin.  The portrait was not signed but was inscribed "Year VII" - hence it was painted after Danton's death and may not be an original;  however, it seems quite likely that Isabey did indeed paint or draw Danton : at one time he was said to have been so impoverished that he completed portraits of 228 members of the Legislative for 6 francs each. 

This must be the box in question; in the Musée des beaux-arts in Troyes, where it was shown in an exhibition of Revolutionary portraiture  in 2019: It is described as "ascribed to Isabey", a black enamel box, decorated with gouache on ivory. 
8 cm x 7 cm. Gift of Mme Delarouzéee

By Greuze?

There is  - almost inevitably - a portrait of Danton attributed to Greuze.

The Greuze catalogue raisonné of 1908 offers:
 No.1091. Presumed to be Danton. 
60 cm x 38 cm
Short powdered hair, open neck, velvet coat with gold braid. Formerly in the collection of Ch. Colligny.  Now belonging to M. Turpain in Nancy. 

A photograph of this painting was exhibited by the owner in the Exposition universelle of 1898.  It is also reproduced in Volume 1 of Pierre Gaxotte's Révolution française (1932 ed., p.226 - Google snippet view isn't going to show it to me though!)

I found this image on the genealogical site of Michel Schoetter which I am guessing must be the painting in question: there is no information as to the current location.

Most commentators have been understandably ill-at-ease with this rather ineffectual looking figure as Danton.

The portrait is described by Théophile Gautier as depicting Danton when he was a lawyer or young deputy, with none of his later forcefulness.  He wears a buttoned coat, white cravat and carefully rolled hair in the tradition of Lamoignon or D'Aguesseau.

See also L'Intermédiaire des chercheurs et curieux, February 1932, p. 92:
Portrait of Danton attributed to Greuze.
Can anyone tell me the whereabouts of the portrait reproduced in the first volume of M. Pierre Gaxotte's important work on the French Revolution? This portrait, of an elegant, well-powdered young man, doesn't resemble any representations that we know of the ferocious tribune.  I know that Greuze habitually flattered his models (witness his portrait of Bonaparte) but it is difficult to believe he has idealised to this degree what M. Gaxotte himself describes as the "bull-dog face and forceful jowl" of the "Mirabeau of the canaille".

By Boze

The Carnavalet has an anonymous engraving which shows a portrait credited to Joseph Boze [G39852].  It is highly likely that a Boze in oil or pastel once existed.  A set of "standing deputies" after Boze was auctioned in 2008 which included a Danton (on the right),  clearly with the same pose. The engraving is reproduced by John Grand-Carteret in his article of 1891 but he comments only that the original is lost.

"Follower of Boze", standing deputies - Mirabeau, Marat, Danton

By François Bonneville

 Although there are many engraved portraits of Danton, there relatively few variations. One widely reproduced image, ascribed to François Bonneville, shows  a side-ways on view similar to the Boze portrait but with an open shirt and prominent bare throat. An early example, engraved by Victoire Bougy, has been given a date in Danton's lifetime, between 1792 and 1794.  A quasi-identical engraving was produced by Auguste Sandoz for the series Portraits des personnages célèbres de la Révolution in 1796. (This engraving identifies the original artist as Bonneville.)

LEFT: Engraved by Victoire Bougy.  Published between 1792 and 1794. For Basset.  De Vinck, 6268
RIGHT: François Bonneville, 1796. Engraved by Auguste Sandoz. From: Portraits des personnages célèbres de la Révolution. 1796. Collection Michel Hennin.

Another variant on the theme was produced by Levachez, after Duplessis-Berthaulx, for a work of 1798.

Duplessi-Bertaux, Jean; Le Vachez, Charles-François-Gabriel (engraver)
Danton député de Paris a la Convention nationale,... 1798.  BNF Estampes

Engravings such as these were mass produced works.  The 19th-century consensus was that Bonneville (and presumably Boze) derived their image from David, though the line of descent was, even then, by no means clear.

Aulard, writing in 1885-6, notes that Bonneville's engraving resembled a drawing by David, published by Jules David (that is to say, the 1795 sketch). The portrait by Duplessis-Bertaux engraved by Levachez, was also said to recall distantly a portrait by David. (Aulard, Orateurs, vol. 2 p.220).    

 Aulard was appreciative:  
This is the classic Danton, with his energetic head and pose of the orator; his face pockmarked and with a trace of the double accident of his youth.  His chest is uncovered after the fashion of portraitists of the time, revealing his celebrated "bull neck".  His hair is carefully rolled about his ears (Aulard, p.222)
However, John Grand-Carteret, writing in 1891, was more negative:  The various re-impressions of Bonneville's work are monotonous and his  portraits weakly differentiated.  This Danton, with his exaggerated neck, and melodramatic pose, is already a stylised stock image. (Grand-Carteret, p.154).

By Pierre-Alexandre Wille, 1793, showing "Danton on his way to the scaffold".  Musée Carnvalet [D7946]

17.5cm x 22.6 cm 

This beautiful red chalk drawing by Pierre-Alexandre Wille is a  precious eye-witness image of Danton on his way to execution.  It is annotated in Wille's own hand "Dessiné de souvenir.  Le 5 avril 1794",  that is it recalls "from memory" the day of Danton's execution.  As K. E. Maison points out, in addition to witnessing his execution, Wille, as a member of the National Guard,  might well have seen Danton in the Assembly or even had access to him in the Conciergerie.  Since the portrait is unsigned, it is listed only as "attributed to P.A. Wille"; however, Maison comments "it is ...very clearly drawn in the style and technique of the artist's best portrait studies and I fell no doubt in ascribing it to his hand" .  There is no provenance given: it is listed only as having been given by the "Society of Friends of the Carnavalet" in 1938.

K. E. Maison, "Pierre-Alexandre Wille and the French Revolution, Master drawings (1972) Vol.10(1): 34-5' 80-84.[available in JStor]

By Jérôme Langlois 

I came across a reference to sketches of Robespierre and Danton by David's friend Jérôme Langlois in a 2006 French university thesis:  Jean-Claude Ménès La coalition du marquis de La Rouërie (1791-1792), p.300.
The author reports that Madame Froté-Langlois, a descendant of the artist, had made the drawings available to him;  they are reproduced but, sadly, impossible to see in Google Books snippet view.  A catalogue of a 1989 exhibition  at the Fitzwilliam Museum that I possess specifies that Langlois's portrait is "very close"  to a profile sketch by David.

By Vivant Denon

Louvre RF 525602: Vivant Denon, "Danton at the Revolutionary Tribunal, 10 Thermidor Year II", 9.8 cm x 6.9cm

Vivant Denon produced a series of studies of Revolutionary figures either before the Revolutionary Tribunal or on their way to execution, several of them reproduced in 19th-century engravings.  An original version of the Danton was acquired by the Louvre in 2002.  The sketch is of note since it was probably drawn from life, but is hard to recognise Danton in this strange squashed face. 

By Philippe-August Jeanron, c. 1834 

Robinet (p.6) refers to a caricature by Philippe Auguste Jeanron (1808-1877) which, although clearly not contemporary, is of some interest since it resembled David's sketch (now lost?)  of Danton on his way to the scaffold. This illustration from 1834 must be the portrait in question:

Plate from Jean-Barthélemy Hauréau, La Montagne (1834), illustrated by Jeannon 

Aulard describes what must be the same image, which he considered to be a fine depiction of Danton:

Of all these portraits the most important for our subject is an anonymous ink drawing, of which I have an engraving before me. The tribune is at the tribunal, three-quarter length, head in profile and thrown back, the left arm hanging inert, the right arm stretched out in front in a gesture at once imperious and questioning. The face is full of lively expression;  I discern Danton's features, with a nuance of cynical energy.  It is the only portrait of Danton where his ugliness does not make him appear old;  he truly has the air of a young strong man.  His oratorical action agrees perfectly with what we know of the Cordelier's eloquence.  It seems to me a true vision. (Aulard, p.222)

By L. L. Schilly (fl.1770-1793). Versailles [Louvre MV 6767]

Oil on canvas. 74 cm x 63.7 cm    
Acquired for the collection Louis-Philippe in July 1847. 
The portrait is dated 1793.

There seems to be virtually nothing known about this artist, other than that he was a pupil of Greuze.  Versailles has a second portrait by him, which depicts the duc d'Enghien as a child.  It is hard to know what to make of this picture - it is a handsome and convincing  portrait, but quite unlike the Danton described by contemporaries.

Drawing in the Musée des beaux-arts, Troyes.  ?Late 18th century

 Black pencil, with ink wash and red chalk.  On oval paper, 18.5 cm x 15.5 cm.  

The museum in Troyes possesses several important portraits bequeathed by the Danton family, but this portrait of Danton himself was not among them. It was purchased by the museum only in 1937, at the auction of an anonymous collection.

See: J.-C. Niel, "Quelques notes iconographiques à propos d'un portrait de Danton", Mémoires de la Société d'argriculture, sciences et arts du département de l'Aube, 1937-8, vol.98: p.115-121; p.116-7.

Niel reports that the expert at the sale thought it a good likeness, but this was "a simple affirmation which is now impossible to test".  The ornate frame, with its inscription, was judged (quite reasonably) to be more recent than the picture itself. 

Antoine Vestier, Portrait of a gentleman, presumed to be Danton

Oil on canvas, 67.4 cm x 56 cm

This little portrait "by the circle of Antoine Vestier" was sold at auction on 28th April 2006 (according to Artnet).  I don't suppose for one moment that this is a real likeness of Danton. But I've included it anyway because I was struck by the image, which captures so perfectly Danton's huge and powerful remembered presence.


Jean-François Robinet,  Les portraits de Danton: essai d'iconographie (1889)

François-Alphonse Aulard,  Les orateurs de la Législative et de la Convention, vol. 2(1886) p.220-223.

John Grand-Carteret, "Danton, ses portraits et l'imagerie révolutionnaire", Revue bleue, 1891, p.152-156

Edmond Campagnac, "Les fils de Danton", Annales historiques de la Révolution française,  1947, No.105, p.37-63 [Available on JStor]
______, "Les portraits de la famille Danton", Annales historiques de la Révolution française, 1953, No.113, p.348-353. [Available on JStor]

Annie Duprat et Pascal Dupuy,  "Danton l’Insaisissable. Images et mémoires"in Michel Biard, Hervé Leuwers (ed)  Danton: Le mythe et l'histoire (2016),  p. 199-211.

1 comment:

  1. The Troyes portrait looks as if it may have a relationship with the Boze-type portrait. Greuze and Schilly – noses are wrong Schilly sitter also looks older. Again, like Max, he has a very distinctive nose.


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