Sunday, 9 January 2011

Maurice-Quentin de la Tour, the laughing author

Maurice-Quentin de la Tour (1704-1788), Self-portrait pointing
Private collection
(extracts from an article on pileface)

Who was Maurice-Quentin de la Tour? Louis Fourcaud, in 1908, described him as a "reprimander" (morigéneur); Diderot in his Salons of 1763 and 1767, as "an odd man, but a good man", "an honest and true man." He is said to have dabbled in poetry, politics, metaphysics and theology, and even in astronomy. In a letter of 1753, Miss Prevost called him an ardent champion of Italian music (like Rousseau). He is said to have have learned Latin at age fifty-five (Diderot, Salon of 1769). He described himself, in a letter of 1770, as "always busy with all kinds of achievements, and consequently with the happiness of mankind," ready to "forget himself like an atom in the space of the universe" but convinced that the desire for immortality is "inside ourselves, united with the love of truth, justice and charity", and a believer in divine providence.

The Antoine-Lecuyer Museum in St Quentin:

La Tour by the Goncourt brothers:
"... La Tour painted his portraits in pastel. The irritability of his nerves, the delicacy of his health forced him to abandon the practice of oil painting. By focusing on this kind of painting with coloured pencils, where he found his genius, he followed his times. He conformed to this fashion that seemed to revive and renew in France during the eighteenth century the French taste for pencil drawing in the sixteenth. And who knows whether he was influenced in his vocation by the sojourn in Paris of la Rosalba in 1720 and in 1721? La Tour was able to witness this triumph of pastel, this fortune in pencil by the Venetian, who was visited by the Regent, sought out by the great and the good, snowed under with commissions and money, sollicited, begged for a portrait by Parabère and the de Pries, the greatest ladies of the court, taken with the charm of her art, which gave women an indescribably light vapourous life, a breath of likeness in floral colours. However it was, La Tour soon benefited from the craze for pastels created by la Rosalba. "He took little time with his portraits," said Mariette, "not tiring out his models at all; he made good likenesses, he was cheap. His press was good. He became the commonplace painter."

Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757), Portrait of Antoine Watteau
Museo Civico Luigi Bailo, Treviso
About this time, some portraits he had made for the Boullongne family were noticed by Louis de Boulogne, the principal painter to the King, who discovered in them, behind their casual execution, the innate gift that makes verisimilitude natural to the hand of a portraitist; he wanted to see La Tour; he encouraged him, promising him a future if he wished to work. And was it not the voice of Boulogne, amid the unanimous praise given to a finished portrait of the young painter, who gave him this stern advice: "Draw, young man, keep on drawing"? Grand words that saved La Tour from the trade. Renouncing profit and easy success, he did not paint for two years, withdrew and immersed himself in the study of drawing; and from these two years spent in searching, and the years of effort that followed, advised and guided by the friendship of Largillière and Restout, emerged the great draughtsman, the greatest, strongest and most profound of the entire French school, the draughtsman-physiognomist; he emerged a brand new pastellist, acceding to power, to strength, to all the energy of expression, with his tender and caressing pencils, intended only, it seems, to express the pulp of the fruit, the smoothness of the skin, the "featheriness" of the clothing of his time; he emerged a creator in pastel, who, in this feminine art addressed to women, in the drawings of la Rosalba, in this painting of floating coquetry, half-fixed, volatile, like the powder of grace, draws out and erects a male art, expansive and serious, a painting of such intensity of expression, such contours and such an illusion of life, that his painting manages to threaten, to disturb all the other painting, and for a time the doors of the Academy closed in fear of the art of the Master."

- Jules and Edmond Goncourt, La Tour

La Tour, Study for Portrait of Voltaire
Musée Antoine-Lecuyer, St Quentin
"La Tour had not yet been accepted by the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, and consequently had not even had any works exhibited at the Salon, when he was approached by Voltaire in 1735 to paint his portrait. This particularly prestigious commission, given the renown of the sitter, constituted an extraordinary opportunity to promote his name, and he seized it masterfully. As he reveals in his correspondence, Voltaire first posed for the artist in April of that year. It seems that the pastellist first made at least two preparatory pastels, of which one subsequently belonged to Emile then Jules Strauss, and is now kept in the National Museum in Stockholm, and the other acquired by the Antoine Lecuyer Museum in 1995. In the first, the face of the author of The Henriade and Zaire is drawn facing the viewer, venturing a smile that makes him purse his lips, and fills his eyes with malice. In the second, the philosopher is drawn in three-quarter view, slightly turned to the right. It is this more dynamic pose that was finally chosen.

Now lost, the final work was a half-length portrait to the waist, the torso facing right, holding a book in his left hand, his face challenging his admirer. Even before receiving this portrait, in April 1736 Voltaire asked his friend the Abbé Moussinot to make two fair copies. The first was to be executed with great care in order to serve as a prototype for all those that would be painted subsequently. To this end, Voltaire had hoped it would be retouched by La Tour himself and that it would serve primarily as a model for a miniature to be mounted in a ring. These are now various copies, such as the one painted in pastel kept at the Château de Ferney and the one painted in oil belonging to the Antoine Lecuyer Museum, which, according to tradition, was given by Voltaire to Madame de Champbonin in 1737, or the engravings that were made at the end of 1735, which enable us to know the original composition. When the autograph pastel by La Tour reached Cirey in November 1736, it did not have the desired effect on its commissioner. Indeed, on 17th November Voltaire wrote to the Abbé Moussinot that he would have preferred it "a little denser and with more vivid colours." Covered in white and lightly embellished with pink, the study in the museum in St Quentin had certainly been scrupulously reproduced in the final work, to the point of rather disappointing the artist's first famous patron."

- Xavier Salmon, Le voleur d'âmes, Maurice Quentin La Tour, Artlys, Versailles, 2004.

Portraits by La Tour - Slideshow:

Antoine Lecuyer Museum website
Works by La Tour at the Louvre Museum

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