Long known through a 1772 engraving made by Pierre-Charles Lévesque (fig. 1), which identifies the sitter as Michel-Jean Sedaine, Secretary to the Royal Academy of Architecture, and the painter as Jacques-Louis David, the present portrait has been lost to historians since it was acquired by John C. Myers of Ashland, Ohio, at auction in New York in 1933. Its reemergence makes an important addition to the small corpus of David’s earliest mature works. The painting also memorializes one of the most important and remarkable relationships in the early life of the David, as Mark Ledbury, Sedaine’s most important recent biographer, has noted.
Michel-Jean Sedaine (1719-1797) is remembered as one of the most important and original playwrights and opera librettists of the Ancien Régime, best known for his domestic comedies and drames bourgeois, the most enduring of which is Le Philosophe sans le savoir (1765). Despite his mature success as a fashionable writer and revered intellectual, his origins were modest and his early life hardscrabble. Sedaine’s father was a Parisian building entrepreneur made bankrupt in the early 1730s who died shortly after his financial fall. Sixteen-year-old Michel-Jean, the eldest child, took work at a stonemason’s yard to support his family. As he rose in the building trade, the young Sedaine came to work for Jacques Buron, a prosperous contractor and old family friend of the Sedaines, who was the maternal grandfather of Jacques-Louis David. When David’s father, Maurice, was killed in a duel in 1757, his mother withdrew to the country, and the boy was entrusted to the care of two maternal uncles, François Buron and Jacques-François Desmaisons (each of whom would be the subjects of early portraits by David). While the practical matters of the boy’s upbringing where arranged by his somewhat distant uncles, responsibility for his artistic and emotional education was largely assumed by his godfather, Sedaine. The playwright’s affection for the boy was much remarked upon: the writer Ducis, who would be close to both men, referred to David as Sedaine’s “second son,” and Diderot’s daughter, Madame de Vandeul, wrote in a 1797 obituary of Sedaine that “he loved David in his youth with a boundless affection, because he himself had brought about the superiority of his art. He had foreseen the talent of the child; he took pride in his success. His devotion to him was such that many people believed David to be his son….” (see T. Crow, Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France, New Haven & London, 1995, p. 5). In acknowledging Sedaine’s support for the young David’s artistic ambitions, Vandeul discreetly sidesteps the resistance that the boy faced from his uncles, who had provided him with the finest classical education and wished him to follow a professional career in the law or architecture and not pursue the less prestigious path of painter.
It was Sedaine who intervened in the boy’s favor. He had long since left life in the building trade for a career in the theater (he had begun publishing short plays while still working as a building site foreman in the 1730s), and a series of successes at the Opéra-Comique and the Théâtre Italien had made him one of the most successful playwrights in France by the 1760s. It was the triumph of Le philosophe sans le savoir in 1765 that enabled him, through a curious twist, to provide crucial early assistance in David’s career as an artist. In 1768, the Marquis de Marigny requested the king to appoint Sedaine as Secretary to the Académie Royale d’Architecture, citing his talents as a man of letters and his background in the building trade as skills that made him uniquely qualified for the post. In truth, Marigny wanted a hand-picked loyalist beholden to his administration in the prestigious job, and Sedaine’s appointment infuriated the membership. However, in addition to a substantial stipend, the post came with grand accommodations consisting of a suite of eighteen rooms (on three floors) in the Louvre. He immediately invited David to lodge with him and his family (David would live with the Sedaines from 1769 until his departure for Rome in 1775), placing the young artist in a privileged position to which only the most experienced academicians were entitled. Sedaine’s apartment was opened weekly for a Monday evening salon through which the playwright introduced David to the most influential figures in the arts, men and women who could further his career, including the painters Doyen and Vien (David’s teacher), the sculptors Houdon and Pajou, the draftsmen Cochin and Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, the writers Melchior Grimm and Denis Diderot, and, very probably, the famous dancer, Marie-Madeleine Guimard. It was Mademoiselle Guimard who would, in 1773, give David one of his earliest commissions, for a full-length portrait of herself in the guise of the spirit of dance, Terpsichore (fig. 2).
Sedaine also nursed David through one of the most traumatic episodes in his life. Having failed to win the Grand Prix de Rome for the second year in a row in 1772 – the result of in-fighting among the judges which led to his narrow loss to Jombert, an inferior competitor – David returned to Sedaine’s apartment in the Louvre, locked himself in his rooms, and undertook a dangerous hunger strike, leaving him weak and seriously ill when he was finally brought to his senses. Sedaine took charge of the young man’s recovery. When David at last won the great prize in 1774, with Antiochus and Stratonice (fig. 3; 1774, Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris), he presented his winning canvas as a gift to Sedaine. It has not gone unnoticed that the subject of David’s painting depicts the ancient tale of the young Antiochus, son of the King of Syria, who lay in bed wasting away for the love of his young stepmother, Stratonice, until he is restored to life through the ministrations of the avuncular doctor, Erasistratus.
It seems likely that David also painted his portrait of Sedaine in the immediate wake of his suicide attempt, in gratitude to the man who saved his life and was as close to him as a father. As we know, it was engraved by Lévesque and published in 1772, probably soon after it was completed. It does not appear in the lists of his paintings compiled by David himself, but a number of his early works, including the portrait of Mlle. Guimard, are absent from the lists, and the print stands as proof positive of its authenticity. The style of the portrait is very much in keeping with David’s manner at the start of his career, and its facility represents an advance from the earliest portraits by the artist of family members, including that of his uncle and guardian François Buron (1769; private collection), his aunt, Marie-Josephe Buron (1769; Art Institute of Chicago), and his cousin, Marie-Françoise Buron (c. 1769; Musée national des Beaux-Arts, Alger), each of which is also absent from David’s lists of his works. In its creamy, broad-brushed handling reminiscent of Fragonard and Boucher, Sedaine is closest to the portrait of Guimard of 1773/4 and to his early history pictures made for submission to the academic competitions: the Antiochus and Stratonice of 1774; The Battle of Minerva and Mars (Louvre, Paris), David’s second-prize winning submission to the Grand Prix of 1771; Diana and Apollo Attacking the Children of Niobe (Dallas Museum of Art), his submission in 1772; and The Death of Seneca (Musée du Petit Palais, Paris), his entry in the 1773 competition. Examining the preceding works, David’s growing confidence and mastery are self-evident. The tender portrait of the middle-aged Sedaine represents him as an intelligent and humane man with kindly eyes and a gentle smile, his casual attire and unpowdered, unkempt hair suggestive of a man of letters too absorbed in the life of the mind to worry about conventional formalities.
When the Portrait of Sedaine appeared in the great David exhibition of 1913, it was exhibited with a pendant portrait of Sedaine’s wife, Suzanne-Charlotte Sedaine (reproduced in A. Schnapper, etc., op. cit. supra, p. 561, fig. 159) that was also lent from the Sortais collection; its present whereabouts are unknown. David executed beautiful roundel drawings of the Sedaine’s daughters as well (Louvre, Paris).
The present portrait is a poignant testament to the closest of friendships, and to a relationship that, for David, was perhaps the most important of his creative life. David continued to seek Sedaine’s advice long after he had returned from Rome and well into his spectacularly successful official career. Furthermore, as Mark Ledbury has persuasively argued, David’s introduction to the most advanced ideas and practitioners of the theatrical arts at Sedaine’s salon, and the direct impact of Sedaine’s own increasingly serious and experimental plays, with their mix of the comic and tragic, their concerns with, in Ledbury’s words, “creating a space in which tableaux, pantomime, gesture and spectacular effects could be integrated with dialogue” seem to have contributed to David’s vision for his own greatest works. In them, the rigorous dramatic tableaux of the contemporary theater were translated into a new kind of history painting which culminated in David’s masterpieces of the 1780s and 1790s, including the Belisarius (1781; Louvre), The Oath of the Horatii (1784; Louvre), and the Brutus (1789: Louvre).
Our thanks to Philippe Bordes, who has studied the painting in person, for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.