The commanding artists were now the painters, and the dominance of Boucher reflected again the influence of women on the arts. The Marquise de Pompadour felt that painters had dallied long enough with Roman heroes, Christian martyrs, and Greek gods; let them see the loveliness of living women in the finery of their costume or the rosiness of their flesh; let them catch in line and color the unprecedented elegance of the age in features, manners, dress, and all the accessories of an affluent minority life. Woman, once a sin, proclaimed herself still a sin, but only to be more tempting; she revenged herself on those frightened centuries in which she had been humiliated by the Church as the mother and agent of damnation, and had been admitted to a eunuch-conceived Paradise only through the virginity of the Mother of God. Nothing could more boldly announce the decline of religion in France than the displacement of the Virgin in French art.
The King, the aristocracy, and the financiers replaced the Church in patronage. In Paris the painters’ Académie de St.-Luc served as a rival and prod to the conservative Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts; and in the provinces additional academies sprang up at Lyons, Nancy, Metz, Marseilles, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Clermont-Ferrand, Pau, Dijon, and Reims. Besides the annual Prix de Rome a dozen competitions and prizes kept the art world in movement and ferment; and sometimes the King or another patron would console losers by buying their entries or pensioning them for a stay in Italy.
Artists displayed their paintings in the streets; on some religious festivals they pinned them to the hangings that the pious draped from their windows on processional routes. To discourage what seemed to established artists an unseemly procedure, the Académie des Beaux-Arts, after an interruption of thirty-three years, resumed in 1737, in the Salon Carré of the Louvre, the public exhibition of contemporary paintings and sculpture. This annual—or, after 1751, biennial—“Salon” became, in late August and through September, an exciting event in the artistic and social life of Paris, and in the literary world. The war between conservatives in the Academy and rebels in or out of it made art a battle rivaling sex and war in the gossip of the capital; devotees of chaste line and corrective discipline scorned, and were scorned by, protagonists of color, experiment, innovation, liberty. Art criticism became a flourishing enterprise. The Réflexions sur la peinture (1747) of Comte de Caylus were read to a full concourse of the Académie; Grimm reported the exhibitions to the clients of his letters; and Diderot came out of his war on Christianity to emerge as the most controversial art critic of the time. Engravers like Jacques Le Blon and Laurent Cars spread the flutter by disseminating prints of famous works, by illustrating books, and by producing masterpieces of their own. Engraving in color began with Le Blon in 1720.
Never, except in religious art, had artists won so keen a public, or so wide a patronage. Now the painter addressed himself to the world.
1. In the Antechamber
So many painters rose to prominence in this period that merely to mention them would dam our stream. We shall look more carefully at Boucher, Chardin, and La Tour, but there are others who would be shocked to be ignored.
There was the brilliant but lackadaisical Jean Francois de Troy, too handsome to be great; everybody loved him, and he agreed sufficiently to use his own features as those of Christ in The Agony in the Garden.9 He judged it more pleasant to seduce women than to picture them, and left behind him many broken hearts and blemished works.—François (not to be confused with the sculptor Jean Baptiste) Lemoyne decorated the vault of the Salon d’Hercule at Versailles with 142 vast figures, and transmitted to his pupil Boucher the art of replacing the “brown sauce” of Rembrandt with Pompadour rose.—Charles Antoine Coypel, son and grandson of painters, anticipated Chardin in genre; we have met him as painter to the Regent; in 1747 he was premier peintre to Louis XV. Frederick was glad to have his Lady before a Mirror for the Palace of Sanssouci, and the Louvre still displays his Gobelin tapestry of L’Amour et Psyché , a rich assemblage of flesh and drapery.
Jean Marc Nattier was the vogue in portraiture, for he knew how to redeem with pose, color, and the play of light the defects with which birth or life had flawed his sitters; all but one of the ladies he painted were pleased to find themselves, on his canvases, as alluring as they had always believed themselves to be. His Madame de Pompadour hangs in Versailles-lovely tinted hair, and gentle eyes hardly revealing her will to power. Royalty competed for Nattier: he showed Marie Leszczyńska as a modest bourgeoise setting out for a rural holiday,10 and did full justice to the beauty of the Queen’s daughter Adélaïde.11 When Peter the Great came to Paris, Nattier made portraits of him and his Czarina; Peter invited him to move to Russia; Nattier refused; Peter carried off the portraits without bothering to pay.—Jacques André Aved, born in Flanders, brought to Paris some Flemish realism, picturing people as they were; the elder Mirabeau must have been alarmed to see himself as Aved saw him,12 but it is one of the great portraits of the century.
To all these gentlemen of the antechamber—even to Boucher and Char-din—Grimm and Diderot preferred Carle Vanloo. He came of a long line of pictorial Vanloos, of whom we know nine by name. Born at Nice in 1705, he was taken by his painter brother Jean Baptiste to Rome, where he studied with both the chisel and the brush. At Paris he won the Prix de Rome (1724); he spent another session in Italy, and returned to France. He pleased the Academy, and angered Boucher, by following all the academic rules. As he had never spared time from his art to learn reading or writing, good manners or polite discourse, Pompadour shunned him with a pretty shiver as a “bête à faire peur”—a “frightful beast”;13 nevertheless she commissioned him to paint A Spanish Conversation. For a while he accepted the mood of the time, and pictured women dressed in ideal contours; but he soon sobered down to an exemplary family life, proud of his accomplished wife and fond of his daughter Caroline. In 1753 he shared with Boucher in decorating the gorgeous Salle du Conseil in the Palace of Fontainebleau. He climbed to such affectionate fame that when he appeared in his seat at the Comédie-Française after an almost mortal illness, the entire audience rose and applauded, revealing the close relation of art and letters in that tensely cultural age.
Jean Baptiste Oudry recorded the royal hunts in engravings, paintings, and tapestries. The Queen chose him as her teacher, and marveled to watch him work. Some of his engravings provided excellent guides for tapestry weavers; soon Oudry was appointed director of the royal factory at Beauvais. He found there nothing but chaos and decadence; he reorganized the operations with a firm hand, infected the workers with his enthusiasm, and designed for them a series of tapestries illustrating with delectable animals the fables of La Fontaine. There too he made the cartoon for the dazzling assemblage of women and beasts that hangs in the Louvre as the Diana Portiere. The weavers at Les Gobelins become jealous of these Beauvais successes; they persuaded the King to transfer Oudry to the older factory; and there Oudry wore himself out in a long struggle to have the weavers accept the colors that he prescribed. Meanwhile he contributed, both in Beauvais and in Paris, to train the varied talents of the most distinctive, brilliant, and berated artist of mid-century France.
2. Boucher: 1703–70
Listen to Diderot contemplating Boucher’s nudes:
What colors! what variety! what wealth of objects and ideas! This man has all but truth.… The degradation of taste, of color, of composition, of character, of expression, has followed step by step the debasement of morals.… What should this man paint save what he conceives in his imagination? And what can he conceive who spends his life in the company of women of the town? … This man takes the brush only to show me buttocks and breasts. He knows not what grace is.… Delicacy, honesty, innocence, and simplicity have become strangers to him. He has never seen nature for an instant; at least not the nature which interests my soul, yours, that of any wellborn child, that of any woman who has feeling. He is without taste.… And it is at that moment, forsooth, that he is made first painter to the King .14
Boucher presumably never saw this critique, since it was directed to Grimm’s foreign clientele. Let us look at him without malice aforethought.
He was a child of Paris, of its code and ways. His father was a designer who kept an art shop near the Louvre, and taught François the rudiments of painting and sculpture. As the boy showed a facile talent, he was apprenticed to the engraver Laurent Cars, then to the painter François Lemoyne. Being engaged to paint scenery for the Opéra, he fell in with a succession of actresses and chorus girls; he imitated, so far as his means allowed, all the dissipations of the Regency.15 Once, he tells us, he experienced an idyllic love for a pretty fruitière, Rosette; she seemed to him simplicity and purity incarnate; he took her as model for a Madonna into which he poured all that remained of his boyhood piety. But while this work was still unfinished he relapsed into promiscuity. When he tried to finish it his inspiration had vanished, and Rosette too. He never recaptured that moment of tender imagination.16
His skill developed rapidly under the tutelage of Lemoyne. In that atelier he learned something of Correggio’s flair for feminine figures of classic features and supple grace. At the Luxembourg Palace he studied the resplendent canvases in which Rubens had turned the life of Marie de Médicis into an epic of color and noblesses de robes. In 1723, aged twenty, he won the Prix de Rome, entitling him to three years’ board and lodging in Paris, a pension of three hundred livres, and four years in Rome. We get a picture of student life in the Paris of the Regency when we are told that his companions carried the victor on their shoulders around the Place du Louvre.
In 1727 he accompanied Carle Vanloo to Italy. The director of the Académie Royale de France in Rome reported that he had found for “a young man named Boucher … a little hole of a room, and I have packed him in there. I am afraid it is really no more than a hole, but at least he will be under cover.”17 The “modest youth,” as the director described him, did not always have to sleep there, for he found many beds open to him in Rome. It is significant of changing taste that he showed no liking for the work of Raphael or Michelangelo, but struck up a friendship with Tiepolo.
Returning to Paris (1731), he continued to burn the candle at both ends. He was seldom content with any but a firsthand knowledge of his models. Nevertheless he found time to paint some outstanding pictures—e.g., L’Enlèvement d’Europe (The Rape of Europa), one of his countless expositions of the female form. In 1733 he thought he had discovered Venus herself in his model Jeanne Buseaux, and, though he felt that “marriage is scarcely in my line,”18 he took her as his wife. He was briefly faithful to her, and she repaid him in kind. Probably she posed for his painting Renaud et Armide,19 which won him full membership in the Académie des Beaux-Arts (1734). Louis XV now commissioned him to paint cheerful scenes in the bedroom of the still loved Queen. With the reopening of the Salon in 1737 his work found wider fame and patronage; thereafter he knew no poverty, and soon no rival.
His specialty was nudes. Until his marriage he had seldom lingered long enough with one woman to discover much more of her than her skin; but he had found that surface endlessly interesting, and seemed resolved to portray it in every nook and cranny, every form and pose, from hair of blond silk to feet that never knew a shoe. Boucher was rococo in the flesh.
But he was more than that. Though later critics condemned his art as technically defective, he was actually a master craftsman in composition, color, and line; however he sometimes scrimped his art in hurry for a fee. Many contemporaries acclaimed the fresh plein-air spirit of his pictures, the fertility of his imagination, the easy grace of his line; and the hostile Diderot thought that “no one understands as Boucher does the art of light and shade.”20 Hardly any branch of painting eluded his skill. Those of us who know only some of his paintings and tapestries are surprised to learn that “the popularity of Boucher was due as much to his drawings as to his paintings.”21 His drawings became precious items in his lifetime; illustrious collectors competed for them; they were bought like easel pictures, and were hung on bedroom or boudoir walls. They were marvels of economy—a dimple made with a dot, a smile dashed off with a line, and all the sheen and rustle of silken skirts emerging miraculously from a bit of chalk.
Surely not for the pelf involved, but because of the genius and imagination swelling in him, lighting his eyes, driving his hands, Boucher worked ten hours a day in his studio, leaving his mark on almost everything that he touched. Besides a thousand pictures, he painted fans, ostrich eggs, pottery, medallions, screens, furniture, carriages, stage scenery, the walls and ceiling of a theater; all alert Paris came to see the décor he provided as background for Noverre’s ballet Les Fêtes chinoises (1754). He had only a minor interest in landscapes, being Aphrodite’s ambassador to the Louvre; yet he enshrined his human forms in woods and fields, by sparkling waters or shady ruins, under white clouds in a blue sky, and a warm sun abetting and approving the heat of the blood. One would have thought genre pictures quite uncongenial to him; nevertheless he painted A Family Scene, and—as if to free himself from the thralldom of beauty—he represented farmyards, barns, dovecotes, wheelbarrows, back-yard debris, donkeys ambling under a load of clattering pans. To round out his repertoire he became the greatest tapestry designer of the century.
In 1736 Oudry invited him to Beauvais to design for the weavers there. He began with fourteen drawings of Italian village scenes;22 they proved so successful that they were woven at least a dozen times before his death. He proceeded to a more typical theme,The Story of Psyche—five hangings modeled by Mme. Boucher; these tapestries are among the choice masterpieces of eighteenth-century art. He crowned his work with six tapestries called The Noble Pastoral;23 one of these, The Bird Catchers (La Pipée aux Oiseaux)shows as charming a pair of lovers as ever evolved from silk or wool. Critics have complained that with Oudry and Boucher tapestry became too much like painting, and lost its distinguishing virtues. Louis XV hardly minded, for when Oudry died (1755) he promoted Boucher to head Les Gobelins.
Meanwhile the triumphant artist had won the ardent patronage of Pompadour. For her he decorated the palace of Bellevue, and designed its furniture. For the theater with which she strove to entertain the King he painted the scenery and devised the costumes. He made several portraits of her, so appealing in beauty and grace that all judgment hesitates before them. The charge that Boucher never got beyond the flesh is silenced here; he has made us see not so much the physical charms of the mistress as the qualities of intelligence and tenderness that endeared her to the King, the cultural interest that made her the goddess of the philosophes, and the feminine artistry of dress that daily clothed with new allure the body’s fading charms. Through these portraits, and La Tour’s, she could quietly remind the King of the beauty that was gone and the subtler bewitchments that remained. Perhaps, too, she used Boucher’s sensual pictures to please the royal lust. No wonder she made Boucher her favorite, secured him an apartment in the Louvre, took lessons from him in engraving, discussed with him her plans for decorating her palaces and promoting the arts. For her he painted (1753) two of his greatest pictures, Le Lever du Soleil (Sunrise) and Le Coucher du Soleil (Sunset)24—in both of which, of course, the sun is outshone by human forms.
He survived Pompadour, survived the disastrous war with England and Frederick, and continued prosperous to the end of his sixty-seven years. Commissions flowed in; he became wealthy, but worked as zealously as ever, and he redeemed his wealth with generosity. He was now a benevolent satyr, untiringly sensual, but ever gay and kind, “obliging and disinterested, … incapable of base jealousies, … immune from any low appetite for money gains.”25 He worked too fast to reach the highest excellence; he indulged his imagination so freely that he lost touch with reality. He told Reynolds that he needed no models, and preferred to paint from memory, but his memory idealized. Uncorrected by reality, he became careless in his drawing and exaggerated in color; he almost invited the harsh criticisms that came upon him in his later years. Grimm, Diderot, and others accused him of mistaking prettiness for beauty, of reducing art from dignity to specious and superficial decoration, and of lowering the moral tone of the time by idealizing physical charms. Diderot denounced his “simperings, affectations, … beauty spots, rouge, gewgaws, … frivolous women, libidinous satyrs, bastard infants of Bacchus and Silenus.”26 Dying at work in his studio, Boucher left unfinished on his easelThe Toilette of Venus—as if to defy Diderot. And Diderot, hearing that the artist was dead, had a twitch of remorse. “I have spoken too much evil of Boucher,” he said; “I retract.”27 Let us leave the matter there.
3. Chardin: 1699–1779
How different from Boucher’s was the world of Chardin—what a contrast in conceptions of beauty, in character and wit! Here was almost a class war, a revolt of the middle-middle class against the wasteful epicureanism of the financiers, the aristocracy, and the court. Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin was born bourgeois, remained contentedly bourgeois, and painted bourgeois life affectionately to the end. His father was a master cabinetmaker, high in his guild, owner of a home in the Rue de Seine on the Left Bank. Because he supposed that Jean would succeed him in his trade, he gave him little schooling, much manual training. Chardin later regretted this scantiness of education, but it kept him from treading again the old tracks in art, and turned his face and brush to the objects around him in the workshop and the home. He liked to draw, and soon itched to paint. The father let him enroll in the studio of Pierre Jacques Cazes, then a painter for the court.
The youth was unhappy there; the classical models he was told to copy seemed absurdly remote from the life he knew. When a surgeon friend of his father asked him to paint a sign proclaiming the barber-surgeon’s trade and displaying its instruments, Jean, perhaps remembering Watteau’s emblem for Gersaint, painted a vast signboard showing a man wounded in a duel, attended by a surgeon and assistant; but for good measure Chardin added a water carrier, a constable, some night watchmen, a carriage, a woman gazing from its window, a crowd of onlookers peering over heads—and all in an éclat of bustle and gestures and excitement. The surgeon was displeased, and proposed to discard the sign, but it won so much attention and approval from passers-by that he let it remain over his door. We hear no more of Chardin till in 1728 his paintings of a fish (La Raie) and a sideboard with silver and fruit (Le Buffet) drew special praise in an open-air exhibition in the Place Dauphine. Some members of the Academy invited him to apply for membership; he arranged to have a few of his paintings displayed there anonymously; they were acclaimed as masterpieces, ascribed to Flemings; he confessed his authorship; he was reproved for the ruse, but was admitted (1728).
In 1731 he became the fiancé of Marguerite Sainctar, whose parents promised a good dowry. During the engagement these parents suffered heavy losses and died, leaving Marguerite penniless; Chardin married her nevertheless. Chardin père gave them rooms on the third floor of a house that he had recently bought at the corner of the Rue du Four and the Rue Princesse. There the artist pitched his studio, which was also his kitchen; for he had now definitely chosen to paint still life and genre. The vegetables, fruit, fish, bread, and meat that littered the room became in turn the models for his brush and the menu of his meals.
Chardin was charmed by the changing shapes and colors of ordinary things. He saw in them qualities of texture and light rarely noticed by incurious eyes. The cheeks of an apple were to him as romantic as a maiden’s blush, and the gleam of a knife on the green of a tablecloth challenged him to catch it in its flight and fix it in his art. He rendered these lowly objects with such fidelity and insight, such mastery of color and contour, light and shade, as few painters have displayed. We look at these natures mortes and perceive that they are alive, that we never saw them properly before, never realized the complexity and uniqueness of their forms, nor the nuances of their tints. Chardin found poetry not only in a vase of flowers or a cluster of grapes, but in an old worn caldron, a nut, an orange rind, a crumbling crust of bread. There had always been poetry in them, as the Flemish and the Dutch had known; but who in the France of Boucher and Pompadour had ever suspected it? The beauty of these objects, of course, was in the eye of the beholder, or rather in his soul; it was Chardin’s intense feeling, as well as his intent vision—and his poverty—that made a lyric of the larder, an epic of a menu.
Everyone knows the story—or legend?—of how he was prodded into painting human forms. One day he heard his friend Aved refuse a commission of four hundred livres to paint a portrait; Chardin, accustomed to small fees, marveled at the refusal; Aved answered, “You think a portrait is as easy to paint as a sausage?”28 It was a cruel jibe, but useful; Chardin had confined his subjects too narrowly, and would soon have satiated his clients with dishes and food. He resolved to paint figures, and discovered in himself a genius of sympathetic portrayal that he had allowed to sleep. Meeting the challenge head on, he painted a portrait of Aved himself as Le Souffleur (The Blower).29 He bettered this with Le Château de Cartes (The House of Cards); but here too the excellence was in the clothing rather than the face. In L’Enfant au Toton (The Child with a Top) Chardin struck his second stride: the hands a bit awkward, but the face revealing a sympathetic understanding. This tender empathy found outlets in his pictures of girls, as in the two masterpieces in the Rothschild Collection: a girl playing badminton, another “amusing herself with her luncheon.”
In women Chardin saw not the rosy lures that had aroused Boucher but the wifely and maternal virtues that made the family the prop and savior of the state. With Chardin the middle-class woman entered French art, and had her due. He knew her and loved her in all her engaging services: bringing food from the market, drawing water, peeling turnips, winding wool, caring for the sick, warning the schoolboy against truancy, or (in the most famous of Chardin’s pictures, Le Bénédicité30) holding up the meal until the youngest daughter, with little hands joined, has murmured grace. He saw woman always in her house dress, without frills, never idle, serving her husband or her children from dawn and the morning prayers till they are all safely tucked in bed. Through Chardin we see a Paris saner than the court, still clinging to the old morality, and to the religious faith that gave it a mystical support. It is the most wholesome art in all of art’s history.
These now universally acclaimed pictures found a very limited market, and brought Chardin just enough francs to maintain him in contented simplicity. He could not haggle with customers; he let his pictures go for almost any offered fee; and as he worked slowly and laboriously, he wore himself out in relative poverty, while Boucher used himself up in affluence. When his first wife died, after only four years of marriage, he let his rooms and affairs fall into a baccalaureate disorder. His friends prevailed upon him to remarry, if only to have a woman’s deft and patient hand restore some order to his ménage. He hesitated for nine years, then took to wife the widow Marguerite Pouget, in literally a marriage of convenience. She brought him a moderate dowry, including a house that she owned at 13 Rue Princesse. He moved into it, and his poverty ended. She was a good woman and a solicitous wife. He learned to love her gratefully.
To further finance him the King gave him (1752) a pension of five hundred livres, and the Academy (1754) appointed him its treasurer. Soon afterward it engaged him to place the pictures submitted to its Salons; he was thoroughly unsuited to this task, but his wife helped him. In 1756 a friendly engraver, Charles Nicolas Cochin II, persuaded Marigny to give Chardin a comfortable apartment in the Louvre. It was this same Cochin who, anxious to draw Chardin away from culinary repetitions, secured for him a commission to paint three dessus-de-porte pictures—to be placed “over the door”—for some rooms in Marigny’s château. Chardin laboriously produced (1765) Attributs des Arts, Attributs des Sciences, and Attributs de la Musique.31 A further commission resulted in two similar tableaux for Pompadour’s palace of Bellevue. Unfortunately the five thousand livres pledged for these five pictures were not paid till 1771.
Meanwhile the aging artist was losing his skill. In 1767 Diderot, who in 1759 had hailed his work as the soul of “nature and truth,” said sadly, “Chardin is an excellent genre painter, but he is passing.”32 La Tour’s pastels were capturing the fancy of Paris. In a burst of rivalry Chardin himself took chalk and paper, and astonished La Tour by turning out two pastel portraits of himself which are among the most arresting and most finished products in the Louvre. One showed him with an old double-knotted coif on his head, spectacles crowning the end of his nose, cravat wound warmly about his neck; the other revealed the same garb, the same face full of wonder and character, plus a visor to shade his ailing eyes. Still more remarkable was the pastel portrait that he made of his second wife, now sixty-eight years old, a lovely and kindly face, drawn with skill and love. This is the picture that we would choose as the chef-d’oeuvre of Chardin.
It was a triumphant close to a unique and honorable life. We need not picture Chardin as a man immune to human faults; indeed, he too, pierced by the nettles of life and jealousy, could react with touching choler and prickly speech. But when he died (1779) not a soul in the envious, slanderous world of Parisian art and wit could find a hostile word to say of him. Even that decaying regime seemed to realize that Chardin had revealed, with a technique that none surpassed in his time, the France that was the real and still healthy France, that hidden world of simple labor and family loyalty that would survive—and would enable France to survive—a century of chaos and revolution. He was, said Diderot, “the greatest magician that we have had.”33
4. La Tour: 1704–88
The veering vanes of taste today award the palm for eighteenth-century French painting not to Boucher, nor to Chardin, but to Maurice Quentin de La Tour. As a “character” he is the most interesting of the three, for he mingled his vices and virtues with impish insouciance, drove the whole cowering world into a corner, and, like Diogenes, told a king to get out of his way. He was a moneygrubber of consummate rapacity, bumptious, impudent, arrogant; a bitter enemy and incalculable friend, as vain as an old man concealing or boasting his years. He was an honest, straightforward curmudgeon, a lavish philanthropist, a genial boor, a fire-eating patriot, a scorner of titles, refusing a royal offer of nobility. But all this is irrelevant; he was the greatest draftsman of his time, and the greatest pastel painter in the history of France.
Louis XV, sitting to La Tour for a portrait, was piqued by his frequent praise of foreigners. “I thought you were a Frenchman,” said the King. “No, Sire,” answered the artist, “I am a Picard, from Saint-Quentin.”34 He was born there to a prosperous musician, who proposed to make him an engineer. The boy preferred to draw pictures; the father reproved him; Maurice, aged fifteen, fled to Paris, then to Reims, then to Cambrai, painting portraits here and there. At Cambrai an English diplomat invited him to London as his guest. Maurice went, made money and merry, returned to Paris, and posed as an English painter. Rosalba Carriera was in Paris in 1721; her pastel portraits were sought for by every notable from the Regent to the newest nouveau riche. La Tour found that such drawing with colored crayons suited his hectic temperament better than the patient elaboration of oil. Through years of trial and error he learned to achieve with chalk such shades and subtleties of color and expression as no other portraitist of the time could match.
When he exhibited some of his portrayals in the Salon of 1737 the oil painters began to fear this crayon competition. His three pastels were the talk of the Salon of 1740; his portrait of Président de Rieux, in the black robe and red gown of a magistrate, was the triumph of the Salon of 1741; his portrait of the Turkish ambassador was besieged with admiring spectators in 1742. Soon all the fashionable world demanded transfiguration into chalk. La Tour’s encounter with the King became historic. The artist began by objecting to the room chosen, which admitted light from every side. “What do you expect me to do in this lantern?” grumbled La Tour. “I particularly chose this sequestered room,” replied the King, “so that we should not be interrupted.” “I did not know, Sire,” said La Tour, “that you were not the master in your own house.” On another occasion he expressed regret that France had no adequate fleet; the King slyly countered, “And what about Vernet?”—who was painting seascapes crowded with ships.35 When La Tour found the Dauphin misinformed on some affair, La Tour told him blandly, “You see how easily people of your kind allow yourselves to be taken in by swindlers.”36
Despite his distressing candor, the Academy in 1746 admitted him to full membership—which was a certificate of mastery. But in 1749, prodded by the oil painters, it resolved to accept no more works in pastel. In 1753 a painter complained that “M. de La Tour has so developed the art of pastel that he may provoke a distaste for oil painting.”37 La Tour fought back with invectives and chef-d’oeuvres.
He had a rival in pastel; Jean Baptiste Perronneau was preferred by Lemoyne, Oudry, and other Academicians. La Tour asked him to paint a portrait of La Tour; Perronneau complied and produced a masterpiece. La Tour paid him handsomely, but then painted himself in one of the most revealing self-portraits known. He arranged with Chardin to have the two portraits exhibited side by side in the Salon of 1751. Everyone agreed that the autoritratto excelled Perronneau’s portrait. La Tour’s La Tour still smiles in victory in the Louvre.
There, too, is the portrait with which he challenged Boucher—the one pastel that he exhibited in 1755. He almost lost the opportunity. When an invitation came to paint the most famous woman of the reign, he replied, “Kindly inform Madame de Pompadour that I do not go out to paint.” It was his way of luring fortune by retreat. His friends begged him to yield; he sent word that he would come, but on condition that no one should interrupt the sitting. Arriving, he removed his gaiters, unbuckled his shoes, discarded his wig and his collar, covered his head with a taffeta cap, and began to paint. Suddenly the door opened; the King entered. La Tour protested, “You gave me your promise, madame, that your door would remain closed.” The King laughed, and begged him to resume work. La Tour refused. “It is impossible for me to obey your Majesty. I shall return when Madame is alone.… I do not like to be interrupted.” The King withdrew, and La Tour completed the sitting.
Of the two most famous portraits of Pompadour, La Tour’s is pro-founder than Boucher’s; less brilliant in color, less exquisite in finish and detail, but more mature in expression and interpretation. La Tour pictured the Marquise, doubtless at her own suggestion, as the patroness of art, music, letters, and philosophy. On a nearby sofa a guitar; in her hand some sheets of music; on the table a globe, a portfolio of her own engravings, Voltaire’s Henriade, Montesquieu’s Esprit des lois, and Volume IV of Diderot’sEncyclopedic.
When La Tour had finished the portrait he asked for a fee of 48,000 livres. Madame, extravagant though she was, thought this a bit de trop; she sent him 24,000 livres in gold. La Tour proposed to send the money back. Chardin asked him whether he knew the cost of the paintings in Notre-Dame, which included masterpieces by Le Brun and Le Sueur. “No,” La Tour admitted. Chardin calculated their total cost at 12,600 livres. La Tour, readjusting his perspective, accepted the 24,000 livres. In general he charged for his portraits according to the wealth of the sitters; if they objected he sent them away unportrayed. Probably he made exceptions for Voltaire, Rousseau, and d’Alembert, for he warmly admired the philosophes, and frankly avowed his own loss of religious belief.
Perhaps because of his high fees he was in universal demand. Through him we know the leading personalities of the age; he became a pantheon in pastel. He drew lovely portraits of the Queen, of the young Dauphin and the demure Dauphine,38 and of La Camargo, prima ballerina; he managed to make Rousseau look amiable and sane;39 in one of his finest works he pictured Maurice de Saxe, the handsome victor over armies and women;40 he caught the full fire of life in the eyes of his friend the painter Jean Res-tout;41 and he dressed himself in silk and lace and wig for the self-portrait that now hangs in Amiens. Despite his rough manners, his lawless caprices, and his unpredictable moods he was welcomed in aristocratic homes, in M. de La Popelinière’s circle at Passy, in Mme. Geoffrin’s salon. He was on terms of friendship with the leading writers of his time, even with the painters and sculptors who envied his success—Vanloo, Chardin, Greuze, Pigalle, Pajou. The King gave him a superfluous pension, and a lodging in the Louvre. The man must have been lovable after all.
He never married, but he did not scatter his seed as widely as Boucher. He had a mistress, Mlle. Fel, whose singing helped to make the success of Rousseau’s opera Le Devin du village; Grimm sickened with unrequited love for her, but she gave herself wholeheartedly to La Tour. He remembered her accommodations so gratefully that in his eightieth year he still drank to her memory. Her devotion was one of his consolations when age stiffened his fingers and dulled his eyes. He paid for the hybris of his zenith with the long humiliation of his decline; he outlived his genius, and had to hear critics speak of it as dead.
Nearing eighty, he left his apartment in the Louvre to live in the fresher air of Auteuil; and finally he returned to the city of his birth. St.-Quentin received the prodigal son with salvos of gunfire, ringing of bells, and popular acclaim. In that quiet town he lived four years more, his proud reason fading into a mild and harmless insanity, mumbling a pantheistic philosophy, praying to God and the sun, and dreaming hopefully of revolution. He died a year before its coming, kissing the hands of his servants in his final agony.