Nattier had been elected to the Académie in 1718 as a history painter – his diploma piece is Perseus Changing Phineas to Stone in Tours – but he soon turned to the practice of portraiture. His particular innovation lay in employing the traditional formula of the allegorical or mythological portrait to portray princesses and noblewomen in poses and costumes hitherto reserved for actresses: offering them the vicarious pleasures of dressing up – or down, as it were – and playing a role.
Little is known of the subject of this ravishing portrait, except that she was born Anne Le Laÿ de Villemaré, married Nicolas Ysoré d’Hervault, Marquis de Pleumartin (who died in 1726), and had a son, Marie Victor Nicolas Ysoré d’Hervault, Marquis de Pleumartin (who died in 1757). Signed and dated 1738, this previously unpublished portrait is certainly one of the most beautiful and well-preserved paintings by Nattier to have reemerged in many years. In Nattier’s elegant likeness, the artist found an ideal sitter: beautiful, fresh-faced and genuinely lovely, with no need for improvement of her considerable charms, and apparently delighted to be sitting for her portrait, which exudes contentment and good humor. The portrait, a harmony of blues, is painted on a warm ground which the artist uses to considerable effect in the lightly scumbled background. The Marquise is portrayed frontally and gazes directly at the viewer; her cheeks and lips are rouged but her chestnut-brown hair is dressed simply and is unpowdered. The simplicity of the pose is countered by a fantastic, Rococo swirl of silk, satin and velvet drapery. The beautifully modelled shoulders are left bare by a low-cut chemise and a bodice of white damask ornamented with a stripped silk bow. The Marquise wears a voluminous cape of crumpled blue-green satin shot with brown reflections, which is caught up around her waist and at the shoulder with a jewel-studded belt and brooch.
A fine copy of the present portrait, possibly executed in Nattier’s workshop, was featured in a Paris sale (Hôtel Drouot, 12 December 1984, lot 36), and is today in a private collection, Paris.
The Portrait of the Marquise de Pleumartin will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the works of Jean Marc Nattier, to be published by the Wildenstein Institute.