This portrait, by Louis-Michel Van Loo, is from the collection of the late couturier Hubert de Givency which is to be auctioned by Christie's in Paris at the end of the month. If you have €60,000-€ 80,000 to spare, this glossy, this splendid, rather self-satisfied eighteenth-century gentleman could soon adorn your walls....
Louis-Michel Van Loo (1707-1771) and workshop, Portrait of Étienne-Michel Bouret (1710-1777) in front of the Pavillon Bouret
According to Lenotre, Bouret was "le prototype des parvenus". The most famous of three brothers, he rose from modest origins - legend he had it he arrived in Paris with only 20 écus - and amassed fortune through transport of salt for the gabelle and later through speculation in the grain trade. He accumulated even greater wealth through a series of lucrative Royal offices - General Treasurer to the Royal Household in 1738 and Postmaster General in 1752 - and in 1741 joined the exalted ranks of the Farmer-Generals.
In an age of ostentatious luxury, Bouret stood out for his extravagance. Biographers estimate that his fortune at its peak could have been reached as much 42 million livres. Voltaire later maintained that he spent up to 200 livres a day to have fresh seafood relayed by road from Dieppe.(Requête à tous les magistrats du royaume, 1769). It was above all the scale of his building projects which drew scandalised attention. He maintained a splendid hôtel in the rue de la Grange-Batelière (later sold to Laborde), and constructed an magnificent "pavilion" at Gonesse ("What folly!", wrote d'Argenson, who disliked him: "What an insult all this is to the people.").
By the early 1750s Bouret, who closely allied to the Controller-General Machault and to Choiseul, was a prominent figure in Court financial circles. In 1750 he married his brother François to a cousin of Madame de Pompadour; the wedding celebrations were held at Madame de Pompadour's château de Belleville in Meudon, still under construction, with the King in attendance. In the period which followed he secured places for both his brothers in the Farm. According to d'Argenson,"Sieur Bouret, Farmer General, has become a sort of favourite; the King, it is said, speaks only to him at his lever, and wherever he meets him." (Mémoires, 17th November 1750)
In return, Bouret was totally dedicated to the service of his monarch. He longed for royal favour, with a uncritical excess that seemed well beyond considerations of self-interest or social acceptance; indeed, to contemporaries his devotion, and the expense he was prepared to seemed touched with madness.
The "Pavillon du Roi"
The greatest monument to Bouret's mania for building - and to his dedicated royalism - was the edifice he so proudly displays in the portrait, the so-called "pavillon du roi" . In 1742 Bouret had acquired a country property, the Château de Croix-Fontaine, on the banks of the Seine, to the south-east of Paris - strategically situated between the royal residences at Fontainebleau and Choisy. He added to the estate over the years, and in the mid-1750s embarked on an ambitious new project to construct a second château, not far away on the hillside overlooking the river between Seine-Port and Nandy. This was to serve as a lodge for the King who, when resident in Fontainebleau, would often range with his hunt as far afield as the forests of Rougeau and Senart on the edge of Bouret's property. According to the writer Piganiol de la Force, Louis XV himself had been impressed by the view from the site and expressed the desire for a pavilion there. Bachaumont, maliciously, claimed that Bouret had built the château in the hope that the king would buy it once construction was finished (see Mémoires secrets, 22nd July 1773)
The initial design was commissioned from the architect Antoine-Matthieu Le Charpentier in 1755 and the work was completed rapidly, though considerable additions continued to be made, right into the 1770s. The building was entirely demolished in 1822 (confusingly a later "Pavillon Bouret" now stands on the site) but several plans and contemporary descriptions remain. There is also a fine gouache by Louis-Nicolas Van Blarenberghe - auctioned by Christie's in 2021 - which shows Louis XV and his hunt arriving in the forecourt of the pavilion.
Louis-Nicolas Van Blarenberghe, Louis XV in front of the Pavillion of Croix-Fontaine (detail)
Pierre Clément, " Un fermier-général sous Louis XV: Étienne-Michel Bouret" in M. de Silhouette, Bouret et les derniers fermiers-généraux (1873)
[On Google Books]
The pageant for Louis XV at the Royal Pavilion
The 1927 book by the curé and local historian of Seine-Port, the abbé Duchein, has the fullest accessible account of the pageant staged at the pavilion. I am not sure how reliable this is - Louis's comment about pens and ink is surely apocryphal.
It was on 28th October 1758 that the insolent parvenu believed his dreams were realised.
BOURET was a millionaire in the time of Louis XV.
History records not by what means his fortune had been made, simply that it was achieved, and that the king desired to borrow on behalf of his empty coffers.
When applied to, Bouret was difficile and audacious, and objected to make the loan to oblige the court, though he expressed himself willing enough to furnish the money on one condition -he must be presented to the king.
Now it was contrary to etiquette that his Majesty's name should be made use of in transactions of this nature; the wish, however, of the ambitious lender was communicated to the governor of the palace, and by him to the prime minister, much mockery and laughter being the result.
But money was an absolute necessity, so the prime minister, taking the king in a moment of good humour, attempted to solve the difficulty.
Louis XV at first flatly refused the conditions, on the grounds that it would be establishing a bad precedent, but at length yielded his consent with certain reservations: Bouret must not be announced, nor his name entered in the livre des réceptions; only, some day, while walking in the grounds of Marly, the king would permit the money-lender to accost and offer him homage.
The coveted millions were not long in being quietly transmitted to the king, and the latter had now to perform his part of the contract. It would be amusing to imagine the feelings of Bouret when he was conducted to Marly and stationed in the particular walk along which the king would pass.
It is recorded that when he saw Louis XV. slowly approaching, leaning on his gold-headed cane, Bouret lost alike his enthusiasm and his ingenious projects for sustaining the much-longed-for conversation. His limbs trembled; the effect on his mind was such a medley of respect and terror that had it not been too late he would have turned and fled.
The king was within twenty steps of him. Bouret pulled himself together at random, and, hat in hand, bowed profoundly.
The king, in matters of courtesy no unworthy successor to Louis XIV., pausing in front of Bouret, raised his hat, and in his soft voice said pleasantly : “ Monsieur Bouret, je me promets le plaisir d'aller manger une pêche à votre campagne, puisque vous m'avez rendu visite à Marly ."
The royal speaker was far enough off before Bouret, intoxicated with pride and happiness, could find a suitable reply. The King of France and Navarre had promised to eat a peach at Bouret's campagne! What could be more gracious on the part of a monarch? This simple millionaire was not conscious that Mme. de Sévigné had expressed similar sentiments when Louis XIV. had danced with her.
On returning to Paris, which scarcely seemed large enough to hold him, Bouret told every one of his happiness. Then it occurred to him for the first time that he had no campagne. He would purchase an estate at once; there should be a château on it , and both must be worthy of the royal guest.
He sought the country for miles round Paris, but there was not a château to buy or rent.
One day, wearied with his search, he rested near the small village of Nandy. Behind him extended the forest of Rougeaux ; at his feet flowed the Seine ; the surrounding scenery was superb.
"Puisque personne ne veut me vendre un château ," he cried ; " j'en élèverai un ici , dont je rendrai tous les autres jaloux." A few days later Bouret purchased the estate of Croix Fontaine, and immediately began to erect his "Château en Espagne.” It was built in the form of a pavilion. Besides the salons usual to all castles, the Château Bouret contained apartments of incredible originality. That called du Japon alone cost several millions to decorate. It was literally of porcelain. The tables, couches, chimney-piece, cornices, all came from China. The staircase leading to this apartment was also of porcelain, tinted gold and azure, and curved like a sea-shell, of which it had the roseate transparency. The description of the whole reads like an extract from the “ Arabian Nights.”
The architects, masons, painters, gardeners, at length retired ; the château and grounds were completed, and the peaches were not forgotten. Bouret's most ardent wish now was to recall to his sovereign the promise made a year before; and during that year the debt, instead of being repaid, had considerably increased.
It was less difficult for the money lender to obtain the second audience. This time he was permitted to show himself at Versailles, in a royal salon , in the midst of the Condés, the Malignons, and the Villerois. “ Sire, ” said Bouret humbly, “ the peach is ripe, my château awaits the visit promised—if your Majesty will deign to remember -in your park of Marly. ”
Without remembering the necessity for the word " peach ” in the phrase of Bouret, Louis understood that the financier wished to recall to his mind that he had proposed such a visit.
“Très bien, Monsieur Bouret," said he ; " nous irons bientôt chasser dans votre parc." And his Majesty passed on. Bouret was overwhelmed. This was a greater honour still! And already in imagination he saw himself on horse-back beside the king, and heard the blowing of horns and baying of hounds. It would be a matter of history, this visit of the King of France to the Château Bouret, and immediately he spent 100,000 écus in providing stags, boars, and all the equipments for the chase. Also, he had a colossal statue of the king erected in the courtyard, for which he asked Voltaire to compose the inscription .
The philosopher of Ferney hated the king, whom he also feared, and he wrote a long and satirical letter in reply, containing several rhymed and prose inscriptions, but concluded thus : " Le résultat de tout ceci, monsieur, est que vous n'aurez point de vers de moi pour votre statue. ”
Louis XV. was already old when he so rashly undertook to eat peaches in the gardens of the financier, and he was five years older when, for the third time, Bouret presented himself - on this occasion at the Tuileries—and respectfully reminded him of the flattering hope his Majesty had given that he would hunt in his park.
Louis remembered this promise perfectly.
With infinite tact and his usual courteous manner he remarked to Bourei that he was rather old for la chasse. He assured him, however, that he was ready to ratify his words in spite of age and need of repose, if pressed to do so.
Overcome by such condescension, Bouret fell on his knees and protested that if anything could console him for not having the honour of seeing the king follow the stag on his domain , it was of a surety the words he had just heard.
“Rise, Monsieur Bouret," said the monarch, " and assure Mme. Bouret that, as soon as this serious attack of gout leaves me, I will come and have midnight supper (médianoche) at your château, since hunting is forbidden me.” Then Bouret rose and attended the king to the door of his private apartments.
As Bouret quitted the Tuileries, it seemed to him that there was nothing more on earth to wish for. Suddenly, however, a new idea occurred to him . The king had said, “ Assure Mme. Bouret " —this suggested a wiſe!
His Majesty — whose word was to him a command - should not be disappointed. Before that hunt- supper took place the château should have a mistress ; and he married a cousin of Mme. de Pompadour.
But after the gout, Louis XV.had an attack of rheumatism and his health was completely shattered . Each time Bouret spoke to the minister about the projected hunting party, the minister replied: “ His Majesty at present cannot leave Versailles. As soon as he is better he shall be reminded of your fête. "
Meanwhile, like the life of the king, was the fortune of the financier on the decline. But before the day of ruin came he learned that the king had died of small-pox at Versailles.
“Il était écrit ,” said he, weeping, “ que le roi ne mettrait pas le pied à mon château . Ni déjeuner, ni chasse, ni médianoche ! Et je me suis marié, ” he added bitterly.
His own death -it was a violent one-occurred four years after that of his royal debtor and idol.
But how ? He blew out his brains.
He was forgotten by his friends, and had become so poor that he was unable to borrow fifty louis!
The Château Bouret was demolished at the Revolution , its cellars alone resisting destruction.
The country people believed the cellars to extend far beneath the forest of Rougeaux, and that they were paved with gold pieces, and ingots, and diamonds, but guarded by powerful genii so that no person dared venture into the subterranean passages.
A popular legend relates that a trumpeter returned from the wars was told the story, but laughing at the fears of the peasants protested that he would go down and bring forth the treasures.
A crowd accompanied him to the entrance of the cellars ; he descended and was lost in the darkness. The flourish of his trumpet was heard at intervals, between which he was supposed to be filling his pockets with gold and diamonds. All night the music seemed to fly about fitfully beneath the ground, but at dawn was silent. The rash trumpeter had no doubt perished , a victim to his temerity.
Three times a year the peasants affirm these sounds are heard beneath the forest. It is the spirit of the lost trumpeter, who never succeeded in finding his way back to earth.