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Post Lot Text
PORTRAIT OF A MAN IN PROFILE, SIGNED BY JACQUES-LOUIS DAVID
PENCIL, PEN AND BLACK INK, BLACK AND GREY WASH, HEIGHTENED WITH WHITE, PEN AND BROWN INK FRAMING LINES
Reproduced in most works devoted to Jacques-Louis David and exhibited on numerous occasions, this drawing is well renown. Without a doubt, this celebrity status - the term Davidian icon springs to mind! - is due as much to its obvious pictorial qualities as to its traditional identification - the only known self-portrait drawn by the artist (see below) - and its remarkable provenance: this is the only drawing by David to have been included in the Goncourt brothers' collection.
The sheet is one of a series of nine roundel portraits (there may well have been more of them originally) of similar technique, format and dimensions (see P. Rosenberg and L.-A. Prat, op.cit., nos. 147-155). They all depict half-length portraits of men, in profile, against a plain background. The dates present on the mounts of three of them, together with the inscription that can be read on one, The Portrait of Jean-Bon Saint-André (now at the Art Institute of Chicago): 'David faciebat in vinculis anno. R.p. 3 messidoris 20' ('David did this [while] in chains in the year of the Republic 3, Messidoris 20th'. This corresponds to July 8th, 1795 in the revolutionary calendar), establish that they were drawn by David while he was jailed in the Four-Nations prison in Paris (presently the Institut de France), between 30 May and 28 July, 1795.
David, a member of the Committee for Public Safety (Comité de Salut Public) and close to Robespierre, had already been imprisoned once before on the Jacobin leader's fall from grace in 1794, but was released in December of the same year. In May 1795, while extreme poverty and food shortages (the result of very high inflation) raged in Paris, the Jacobins who had escaped the purges of the preceding year, attempted to seize control. The rioters invaded the Convention on 20 May and assassinated the deputy Jean-Bertrand Féraud. They impaled his head on a pike and presented it to the president of the Convention, summoning him to salute it. The insurrection was however quickly put down by the National Guard. Since it emerged from the Revolution in 1789, it was the first time that the army opposed a popular revolt. David, a deputy since 1792, was denounced and arrested on 30 May and transferred to the Four-Nations prison. This, ironically, was the very place where he had long been a student and then a member of the Académie Royale de Peinture. In prison, he rubbed shoulders with other Jacobin deputies (also known as the Montagnards). David undertook to draw the portraits of few of these men, who were awaiting judgement. The quality and significance (both artistic and historical) of this group have been perfectly highlighted in L.-A. Prat's catalogue raisonné of David's drawings:
'These half-length portraits, extraordinarily impressive in their state of fierce tension, form a chain of friendship and resistance in the face of the injustice of the times and the failed politics. What is most striking in all nine characters is their steady gaze, as well as their unbending dignity of bearing. Five are turned to the right, four to the left. Four have their arms crossed, an attitude that can symbolise resistance or self-assertiveness. Three have kept their hats on. All seem determined, and it is their very strong presence that makes these little drawings so precious [...] Limited in resources by his being "in vinculis", David returns here to portraiture, but he seems less obsessed by the desire to turn out a resemblance than by the determination to profess a faith - and salute a failure - experienced in common: the Montagnard dream is finally over. In the words of the painter himself at the time of Brumaire, these portraits of the "virtuous" (who were not virtuous enough to remain republican) bear witness to a lost illusion. These vanquished few, now clapped in irons, some of whom like Barbau du Barran or Bernard de Saintes, had themselves shown pitiless ferociousness during the Reign of Terror, would now in turn know the anguish of the guillotine and the bitter taste of failure. All will survive this time of trial, a sign of the times having changed after 9 Thermidor ...' (P. Rosenberg and L.-A. Prat, op. cit., p. 164).
These drawings were probably offered to the sitters they represented, but perhaps at the outset, David had a more ambitious and more public-spirited project in mind: to produce them as a series of engravings. E. Lajer-Burcharth (op. cit., p. 230) has pointed out that David has used here the format for the official engraved portraits of deputies to depict his companions of misfortune. These drawings are not without allusion to the numerous roundel portraits engraved by Charles-Nicolas Cochin (1715-1790), whose format, plain background and profile representation, they adopt. Another indication of the final purpose for these drawings seems to be the re-tracing (particularly noticeable here) of the profiles, with a heavy pen and black ink, as if David wanted to ensure that the engraver would have sharp and clear contours when working on his plate.
But who is the deputy represented in this drawing? David inscribed some of the mounts of these portraits so that they could be easily identified (the portraits of Jean-Bon Saint-André at the Art Institute of Chicago, of Bernard de Saintes at the J. Paul Getty Museum of Los Angeles, of Barbau du Barran in a private New York collection, of Thirius de Pautriziel in the National Gallery, Washington; P. Rosenberg and L.-A. Prat, op. cit., nos. 148, 150-152). Unfortunately, no inscription graces this particular drawing, nor the other four (in the Louvre, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and two in a private collection, op. cit., nos. 147, 149, 153, 154).
Although the Goncourt brothers do not appear to have acquired it as a self-portrait of David (see E. Launay, op. cit.), Edmond describes it as such in his well-known work, La Maison d'un Artiste (1881, op. cit.): 'Portrait of David. He has shown himself in half-length, in profile, turned to the left, arms crossed. He wears a large white tie around his neck, and is wearing one of those frock-coats with wide lapels and a high collar, a coat from the Revolution'. It is under this identification that the work was shown at the major exhibition, the Dessins de maîtres anciens, organised at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1879. In his very full account of the event, Philippe de Chennevières cites it as follows: 'In their collection, the Goncourts traced the terrible Mane Thecel Fares through the only portrait of he who "once was part the Academy" and who, living in Rome with a pension from Louis XVI, voted unhesitatingly to have his benefactor put to death. The drawing is signed. Yet nowhere do I see the wen that David had already depicted in his self-portrait as a young man in the Louvre, but I do recognise the rigidity of the character.'. This text which, once again, shows that a century later, not all the scars left by the Revolution have healed over, refers to David's 'wen'. This is a deformation of his left cheek probably due to a cyst in his parotid gland. A comparison with known portraits of David - be they the two self-portraits of the Uffizi (1791; fig. 1) and of the Louvre (1794) where the artist does not, incidentally, dwell much on his facial disfigurement - or representations by other painters and engravers (Isabey, Gros, etc.), is hardly conclusive. Here, the nose appears more aquiline and the hair more carefully dressed. Moreover, as J. Wilhelm (op. cit.) has pointed out, to be able to draw his portrait in profile in this way David would have had to have a complex system of three mirrors, a luxury that it is hard to imagine would be available inside a prison during the Revolution.
In 1989, during a seminar on David, P. Rosenberg disclosed the existence of a black chalk and stump shading drawing attributed to Hippolyte Picot, of identical dimensions and similar to this work, bearing a pen-and-ink inscription at the bottom: 'Saint Esteve, father, based on Louis David' (fig. 2; the sheet was then for sale at the Hôtel Drouot in Paris on 22 April 1994, lot 58). Unfortunately, no prisoner of this name is recorded at the Four-Nations in 1795 and one could ask oneself if the mysterious Saint-Estève is not the author of the copy, rather than Picot... L.-A. Prat, who does not definitely rule out the possibility of it being a self-portrait, remarks in the concluding lines of his note in the catalogue raisonné of David's drawings that 'ambiguity remains'...
Knowing the low esteem in which the Goncourt brothers held David, whom they qualified as the 'valet of Marat and Napoleon' or even as a 'painter of republican virtues, austerities and severities' who had 'taken the smile off art', it is surprising that they had one of his works (and what's more, a presumed self-portrait!) in their carefully chosen collection which they had assembled together as a true manifesto of their taste (one is tempted to say, as a profession of their faith). Their so well-beloved 18th Century, the century of graces, movement and wit, is definitely not the century of David, one who, in their eyes, was principally to blame for the end of this golden age of French art. The artist, moreover, is not included in their monumental Art du Dix-huitième siècle. And yet, they had set aside the best place in their home for this drawing: on one of the walls in the small drawing-room of their house in Auteuil (fig. 3), below a landscape by Hubert Robert and between two portraits by Moreau the Younger, one of which is supposed to represent (is this mere coincidence?) the mother of Charles-Nicolas Cochin, whose hallmark, as we have already seen, is to be found in the formula adopted for this roundel portrait.
In La Maison d'un Artiste, Edmond de Goncourt explained or, rather, justified the selection of this drawing: 'Sometimes, but not often, he -David- distances from his usual method of creating a simplistic, stylised, sketchy outline of a human body. Yet, however in a portrait -portraiture being his original great talent- David casts a face full of life and intensity onto a sheet of paper, savagely marked out in deep black China ink and outlined by a sharp line'.
More than a century later, the work in the Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé collection still fascinates because of the extraordinary presence of the sitter, his sculptural strength and the determination and assuredness of his gaze ... Rarely has an effigy drawn by David been so close to his finest portrait paintings, whose backgrounds reflect those vibrant touches that are the portraitist's trademark and which, like a brush wash, are echoed in this work.