The known facts of Nicolas Fouché's life are few: born in Troyes, the son of a painter, he travelled in Italy before being admitted to the Académie de Saint-Luc in Paris on March 15, 1679. Fouché had been the pupil of Pierre Mignard, to whom he was probably related, and in his Vie de Pierre Mignard (1730), the Abbé de Monville mentions that the older painter 'has trained Nicolas Fouché, who is still living and has made a reputation for himself ...' (op. cit., pp. 188-9). At least two dozen of Fouché's works are known today from reproductive engravings (most of them illustrated in D. Wildenstein, 'Nicolas Fouché, Peintre de l'Académie de Saint-Luc vers 1650-1733', Gazette des Beaux-Arts, November 1964, pp. 311-3), and it is evident that, in addition to being a portraitist, the artist was a painter of genre and history subjects. Only a few extant paintings by Fouché have been identified, but among these are a landscape depicting the banks of the Somme in the Musée de Picardie, Amiens, and a mythology, Pomona, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest; a series of eight paintings on the theme of the Liberal Arts were recorded in the possession of Cardinal Polignac in 1738, but are lost.
Were its authorship not so securely documented, one could be forgiven for attributing the splendid double portrait of Marie and Charlotte de Lorraine to Mignard himself. We know from an inscription on the back of the stretcher that the painting was completed on May 10, 1693, when the elder girl was eighteen and her sister fifteen years of age. The girls were the fourth and fifth daughters of Louis de Lorraine (1641-1718), the Comte d'Armagnac, Grand-écuyer de France and Governor of Anjou, and Catherine de Neufville (1660-1707), dame du palais to the Queen. Marie de Lorraine (born August 12, 1674) was married in 1688, at the age of thirteen, to Antoine I Grimaldi (1661-1731), third Duc de Valentinois, and the eldest son of the Prince of Monaco. With his alliance to the ancient House of Lorraine came the hereditary rank of Foreign Prince, conferred on Antoine by Louis XIV. When Louis I Grimaldi died in 1701 in Rome, where he served as Ambassador-Extraordinary to the Holy See, Antoine succeeded him as Prince of Monaco.
By the time this portrait was painted in 1693, Marie had already deeply disappointed her husband and his family by having given birth to three daughters without producing a male heir. Shortly after their marriage, Antoine commenced a series of barely concealed affairs, and Marie, likewise, proved herself no model of marital fidelity. As Saint-Simon recounted in his Memoirs: 'the Duchesse de Valentinois was a charming young thing... spoilt by her parents' fondness for her and by the attentions of the courtiers who frequented the Lorraine household ... [The beautiful daughters] who were its chief adornment attracted the most glittering young men. Her husband, very sensibly, realized he hadn't the upper hand'. Madame de Lafayette described her as 'more of an elegant flirt than all of the ladies of the kingdom put together'.
While Antoine was away serving in the King's Infantry, Marie was dispatched to Monaco (in 1692), ostensibly for her health. Upon his discharge from the military, Antoine reunited with Marie, who insisted upon returning to France. Saint-Simon remembered that 'she made all kinds of fine promises and was taken back to Paris. I don't know who advised her, but, while her conduct was the same as before, she conspired against having to return to Monaco by starting a vile scandal about her father-in-law'. in which it was suggested that the elderly Prince had made unwanted sexual advances toward her. It was during this return trip to Paris that Marie and her sister sat to Fouché for their portrait.
Despite the ever widening gulf between them, the couple reconciled following the death of one of their daughters. From 1697, and for the next fifteen years - during which time three more daughters, but still no sons, were born to them - Antoine and Marie lived together, if not happily, at least peaceably. They resided in Monaco, with Antoine spending much of his time in the 'Giardinetto' - the cottage he had built for his mistress, Mlle. Montespan - while Marie withdrew to her own pavillion, which she dubbed 'Mon Desert'.
Marie de Lorraine died on October 30, 1724, at the age of fifty-one. With the death of Antoine seven years later, the male line of the Grimaldi of Monaco came to an end, the line passing (through a son-in-law) to the ancient Breton house of Goyon-Matignon.
In matters matrimonial, Charlotte de Lorraine (born May 6, 1678), fared even less well than her sister. Despite being a celebrated beauty which made her the object of keen interest at Court, almost every year from 1695 to 1710 brought her another failed alliance, cancelled engagement or aborted wedding; among her suitors were the Duc de Saint-Simon, the Margrave of Anspach, the Marquis de Villequier, and the Duc de Saint-Pierre. After Louis XIV opposed her marriage to the Comte de Toulouse, she was accorded a pension of 30,000 livres, and withdrew to live out the remainder of her long life in celibacy; she died on January 21, 1757, aged eighty.
An autograph, truncated version of Fouché's portrait, excluding Charlotte and consisting only of the portrait of Marie, is in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Saint-Lô (illustrated in Dossier de l'Art, 37, April 1997.) The Duchesse de Berry, who owned the present portrait in the 19th century, also owned another portrait of the Duchesse de Valentinois by Mignard, which hung in her château at Rosny (the contents of which were sold at Hôtel Drouot, Paris, Feb. 22-March 15, 1836, lot 125; see also lot 339 in this sale for a painting of Château de Rosny by Goyot). The de Berry collection was celebrated chiefly for its 'modern' French pictures, which included numerous works by Révoil and the 'Troubadour' painters, Boilly, Girodet and Prud'hon, but the Duchesse de Berry also amassed a small but very distinguished group of Old Master paintings, including Vermeer's Lady with a Maidservant Holding a Letter, now in the Frick Collection, New York.