(British Museum, 8 September 2016-29 January 2017)
I’ve been debating whether to write about this exhibition here. In the act of doing so, I’m banishing mystique and bringing the blog and the real world together for the first time; but my desire to write about this show was too strong to resist. It’s my exhibition, you see. I’ve been working on it ever since I joined the British Museum in late 2014 and now, to my mingled delight and terror, it’s on the brink of opening to the public.
In a companion post, going live next Monday, I’ll talk about the experience of putting together the show, which was an entirely new and exciting process for me. In many ways it was the simplest kind of exhibition: a medium-sized show, without special requirements, and without loans from other collections. Hopefully it’ll be interesting for you to see what goes into curating something like this. But today I wanted to focus on the exhibition itself and to share some of my favourite pieces and stories.
In total, the show includes 47 French portrait drawings, dating from the mid-16th to the late 19th century. The earliest is a portrait of a courtly gentleman by Jean Clouet from 1535, when France was still ruled by François I; the last is a dazzlingly free portrait of Marcelle Lender, one of the stars of Paris’s cabaret at the turn of the 20th century, drawn from life by her great admirer Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. These drawings are put in context with the help of complementary displays in free-standing cases, which offer examples of portraits of the same date in other media. Each case is devoted to a different theme: medals and enamels from the Valois and Bourbon courts; the preparatory drawings and portrait prints of Robert Nanteuil; portrait medals from the late 18th and 19th centuries; and portrait lithographs by the evocative printmaker Eugène Carrière.
A curator, like a parent, should probably love all her charges equally and, of course, I do. I chose every drawing, medal and print for a reason: because it was a fine example, or echoed a theme elsewhere in the show, or had an interesting story attached to it. But there are certain objects that I’ve grown especially fond of. The first has to be François Clouet’s Portrait of Catherine de’ Medici, the wife of the French king Henri II. Catherine has traditionally been villified as a scheming Machiavellian, a ruthless intriguer who didn’t scruple to use poison to secure her children on the French throne. Modern historians take a more balanced view of her achievements, but one way that Catherine certainly did try to promote her dynasty was through the use of art. Cultural patronage was in her blood: she was the scion of one of the greatest families of Renaissance patrons; her great-grandfather was Lorenzo de’ Medici; and her father, another Lorenzo, had been painted by Raphael.
When she became queen of France, Catherine initiated a remarkable project: she arranged for her court artist, François Clouet, to make portrait drawings not only of her husband and children, but also of their favoured courtiers. The result was an extensive visual record of the French court in the mid-16th century and, while some drawings are known to have been used as models for later oil paintings, they were clearly valued in their own right. Most of the drawings are now at the Musée Condé in Chantilly, but the British Museum has more than 40 portraits by or attributed to François Clouet and his father Jean. Four are in the show. Among them is the earliest surviving portrait that Clouet made of Catherine herself, dating from shortly after her husband became king in 1547. The three-quarter view offers a more informal portrait than the profile or full-face versions usually chosen by monarchs at this date and it may have been suggested by Catherine herself: certainly, she had quite firm views on the matter. Writing to request a portrait of Elizabeth I, she included some advice to get the best resemblance: it would help, she noted, if Elizabeth were shown turned slightly to the side, which would be more flattering.
One particularly interesting thing about this portrait is the inscription (see full image in the database), which has been amended by a later hand after Henri II’s death, to read ‘mother of the king’. This shows that Clouet’s portraits weren’t just made and put away in an album. They were active documents and were updated as necessary: another Clouet portrait in the exhibition shows that even the clothes worn by a sitter could be altered years later, to bring him up to date with the latest fashions.
The quirkiest piece in the exhibition is a drawing of a hand holding a quill pen. But this isn’t just any hand. It’s the hand of Artemisia Gentileschi, the celebrated Baroque artist, drawn when she was 32 years old. The draughtsman was Pierre Dumonstier II, one of a whole family of French artists who’d adopted the crayon-portrait format developed by the Clouets. He was visiting Rome in 1625 and sought Artemisia out, not because he thought of her as a novelty as a ‘woman painter’ but because she was already a celebrated artist whose fierce, uncompromising work had won her a series of admirers in her native Florence. Indeed, in drawing Artemisia’s hand, Dumonstier seems to subvert not just the idea of portraiture, but also the conventional compliments paid to women. Beautiful hands were features on which women were praised and yet he admired Artemisia’s hands not for their graceful appearance but for their formidable talent. On the back of the drawing, he writes a poetic passage in honour of her skills: ‘The hands of Aurora,’ he writes, ‘are praised and renowned for their rare beauty. But this [hand] is a thousand times more worthy for knowing how to make marvels that send the most judicious eyes into raptures’.
Next up in my list of favourites is a double portrait by Nicolas de Plattemontagne of his friend Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne with his wife, Geneviève. Both Plattemontagne and Champaigne were of Flemish ancestry and had studied together in Paris in the studio of Champaigne’s uncle, Philippe de Champaigne. They’d produced a visual record of their friendship in 1654, in a remarkable double portrait in which each young artist painted the other. Here, more than twenty years later, Plattemontagne once again made a portrait of his friend, showing him with Geneviève in a profile format associated with ancient medals and cameos. It had a rather grand effect, but the motivation seems to have been very personal. In 1677, the date of this portrait, Jean-Baptiste and Geneviève had been married for ten years and – although unfortunately there’s no evidence to prove it – I’d like to think that the portrait was made as a rather splendid anniversary present.
Then there are two rather dashing young men, both of whom were anonymous when I started work on the exhibition but have now gained identities thanks to the kind help of scholarly colleagues outside the Museum. The first is a brooding, rather Heathcliffian chap with Byronic hair and a top hat set at a jaunty angle. He seems to be resting during a walk, a stick clasped in his hands and his shirt open at the neck. This is a technically superb drawing and it’s by Charles Toussaint Labadye, a rather obscure artist who died at the age of only 28 and has left only a few artistic traces. Initially I didn’t think I was going to have any luck finding out more about the portrait, but while poring over the files on the drawing I noticed a passing reference to an inscription on the back. The conservation team lifted the drawing for me and we found an early 19th-century reference to ‘Auguste Labadye’. Auguste was an architect in later life, but was only 20 at the date of this portrait. Could he be the artist’s brother? I made contact with Isabelle Michalon, the expert on Charles Toussaint Labadye, and she very kindly shared some of her research with me: it’s yet to be published, so I can’t say much, but I can say that her information confirmed that this almost certainly is Auguste Labadye and that he was Charles Toussaint’s younger brother. I’ve always been a little bit in love with this portrait and I was thrilled to have a name for it at last.
Our other young man was drawn in crisp, delicate pencil by Louis Lafitte in around 1827. With his stock and artfully tousled hair, he looks like quite the Regency dandy. He’d been anonymous since he entered the collection, but a few months ago I had a very exciting email from Stephen Bann of Bristol University, who shared a forthcoming article with me. Again, as it’s yet to be published I can’t go into too much detail, but Stephen had found out that our sitter was very probably Lafitte’s nephew, shown at the age of fifteen. In itself, this was great, but the really interesting thing was who Lafitte’s nephew was. He was Augustus Pugin, later the architect who designed the Houses of Parliament. Pugin’s father was French and had a sister who was married to Lafitte. The two families were close and we know that Lafitte had already drawn both Pugin (as an infant) and Pugin’s mother Catherine, on previous family visits that the Pugins had made to the Lafittes in France. Both those portraits are in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Stephen’s arguments are very convincing and I firmly believe that he is right, and that this is a youthful portrait of the man who later created one of the most iconic buildings in the British Isles.
I could talk about many more drawings – I haven’t even touched on Carmontelle, for example, because if I do we’ll be here all day – but instead I wanted to round off by talking about one of the challenges I faced. Putting the show together forced me to think hard about a deceptively simple question: what is a portrait? Sometimes the answer is easy: Clouet’s portrait of Catherine de’ Medici, or Plattemontagne’s profile portraits of Jean-Baptiste and Geneviève de Champaigne are clearly portraits, drawn from life or based upon drawings made from life a short time earlier (historical portraits don’t feature here). They show well-known, identifiable figures in a format intended to preserve their memory. But does a portrait have to show a face? In the case of the superb study of Artemisia’s hand, I decided that it doesn’t have to: a portrait can be a representation of part of a person’s body which acts as a representation of the whole. Usually we see the face, but Dumonstier’s intention is clearly to celebrate and depict Artemisia as an artist, and so I thought this passed the test.
But what about when we see a drawing of an unidentified figure? Sometimes these have the naturalism and directness that we associate with portraits and so I’ve given them the benefit of the doubt, such as Watteau’s Portrait of a young abbé or Pierre Biard’s Portrait of an elderly man. Some of the drawings I’d initially wanted to include in the show didn’t pass the test. For all their quality, Charles de La Fosse’s remarkable head studies of two black pages are just that: head studies. They are posed ready for use in a painting and highly finished, to act as models for the final work. Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s Head of a girl is a beautiful representation of childhood, but again it’s directly preparatory for a painting and I felt it had been made specifically for that purpose, as opposed to being a portrait that was later adapted for use in a different composition. The same went for François Lemoyne’s Head of Hebe, which is a stunner and would have a central place in any display of our general French collection; but, for me, it is not a portrait, and so you won’t see this, the Greuze or the La Fosses in the show.
There are grey areas, of course, and a few drawings in the exhibition inhabit this not-quite-but-maybe region. What about Watteau’s Portrait of a young man, for example? The head was later used for a figure in one of Watteau’s fêtes galantes, but to me this drawing doesn’t look like a pure preparatory study. Instead it has the vigour and spontaneity of something drawn on the spur of the moment to capture the young man’s features – his pointed nose and earnest absorption in something we can’t see. To be fair, you could argue the case either way, but I kept it in. The same goes for Henri Fantin-Latour’s study for L’Anniversaire, his composition honouring the composer Berlioz, which appeared in both printed and painted form. Fantin-Latour appears himself in the composition, as an allegorical representation of Modern Man who presents a wreath to the composer’s monument. The drawing is a study for the painting, so it is a directly preparatory drawing. But at the same time we know that the sitter is Fantin-Latour – and so it is also a portrait, an image of a particular, identifiable person. Like Artemisia’s hand – it shows us the sitter from an unexpected angle, in this case seen from behind. Once again, I decided to include it and I hope you feel that I made the right choice.
If I’ve whetted your appetite, the exhibition will be on public view from 8 September until 29 January 2017. There’s even a dedicated hashtag on Twitter, #FrenchPortraits, if you’d like to help spread the word. It opens at the same time as two other exhibitions: Maggi Hambling – Touch: works on paper, showing a selection of drawings by one of Britain’s foremost contemporary figurative artists, and Shadow puppet theatre from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, drawing on the British Museum’s unique Southeast Asian shadow puppet collection.
The three shows are on in Room 90-91. To get here, you go up the sweeping stairs in the Great Court, over the small bridge by the restaurant, and just go straight through the Mesopotamian and Egyptian galleries, along a short corridor and up a flight of stairs into the Prints & Drawings area. Turn left here, and the three shows will be right in front of you. I hope you have time to come along, and that you enjoy them!