Corneille de la Haye, called Corneille de Lyon (The Hague 1500/1510-1575 Lyon)
Corneille de la Haye, called Corneille de Lyon (The Hague 1500/1510-1575 Lyon)

Portrait of a young man, probably an officer royal, small half-length, wearing a black slashed doublet and black cap

Corneille de la Haye, called Corneille de Lyon (The Hague 1500/1510-1575 Lyon)
Portrait of a young man, probably an officer royal, small half-length, wearing a black slashed doublet and black cap
oil on panel
7 1/8 x 6 in. (18 x 15.1 cm.)
inscribed 'F.D.L.' (on the reverse); in an Italian 16th century fruit-wood, marble, mother-of-pearl and lapis lazuli frame
Flemish private collection, by the 19th century, and by descent until 2013.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, Paris, 27 June 2013, lot 33 (€493,500), when acquired by the present owner.
Sale room notice
The estimate for this lot should be £400,000-600,000 and not as printed in the catalogue.

Brought to you by

Clementine Sinclair
Clementine Sinclair

Lot Essay

This fully autograph portrait by Corneille de Lyon is a rare and remarkable work in his oeuvre, with very few paintings attributed to the artist with certainty. The sober yet virtuoso manner, and the young man’s soft, slightly melancholic expression, ranks it amongst the most beautiful and captivating works by the master.

Corneille began his career in Lyon working for the city’s leading citizens, judges and merchants. He eventually gained commissions from the nobility, and when the Court stayed in Lyon, he was asked to paint members of the royal family, including the Dauphin Henri (later Henri II of France) and his wife Catherine de’ Medici. He received the title of painter to the Dauphin, and subsequently painter and Valet de Chambre to the King and could thus enjoy the privileges of royal office while still living in Lyon.

Dating to the late 1540s, this Portrait of a man presents all of the features that can be firmly inscribed in Corneille's autograph oeuvre. Probably depicting an officer of the Royal House, it can be linked to a number of portraits of anonymous men dating from 1545 to 1550, including that in the Musée du Louvre (inv. RF 357); Musée des Beaux-Arts, Agen; and two works in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (inv. no. 1982.60.41; fig. 1; and inv. no. 1975.1.132). Like the sitters of these portraits, the young man here is shown almost to the waist and seems to lean slightly forward, a format and pose that are frequent in Corneille’s work. Similarly, while his coat is depicted with quick brushstrokes, each braid or slash consisting of a single thick line, the skin tone is smooth and the eye contours are fine, rose-toned and broken, with the lips blurred, the eyebrows and moustache treated as an opaque mass and the hair and beard created by superimposing increasingly fine brushstrokes. Indeed, the technique of the brushwork retains the same virtuosity in the face, clothing and background and does not suffer any rupture of rhythm or style, supporting Corneille’s complete authorship and excluding any intervention from the workshop.

Among the abundant production of Corneille’s workshop, completely autograph portraits such as the present are relatively rare. They can be distinguished by the precision of their form, contours and expressions; brushwork that combines almost impressionistic freedom with the minutiae of a miniaturist; heads slightly disproportionate to the body; dishevelled hair rendered with individual strokes; soft and colourful shadows; sparkling eyes; clothing more broadly treated than the face; and a plain background darkened at the edges, forming at times a cast shadow.

While the attribution of this panel to Corneille is undeniable, identifying the sitter, as is unfortunately the case with many portraits by the master of Lyon, is impossible. The young man, aged in his twenties, with brown eyes and hair, and his beard cut short, is turned three-quarters to his right, towards the light, which contracts his pupils and plunges into shade - very lightly, as always with Corneille - the left side of his face. He gazes into the distance. This presentation, directly inspired by portraits by Jean and François Clouet, was initially applied by the Lyon painter to noble sitters, but extended to the haute bourgeoisie, represented until then facing forward, from the mid-1540s onwards. Similarly, the slight smile given by the young man is, in Corneille's work, the privilege of ladies and some leading citizens, whilst gentlemen, as in the portraits of Clouet, are depicted serious and proud. The sitter wears a doublet with slashed crimson sleeves and a black collet (an outer garment, a kind of jacket) with velvet trimmings and decorated with alternating horizontal and diagonal slashing. This type of collet was fastened by shoulder-knots, however, painting rapidly, Corneille has omitted this detail.

A small, white, upturned collar finely embroidered with black thread, and a black cap placed high on the head, complement the sober and distinctive attire of this young man. The cut of the high collar and cropped sleeves, as well as the cap (toque à foncées), correspond to a fashion launched at the French court shortly before the death of Francis I in 1547 by his sons, Henry (the future Henry II) and Charles d’Orléans, and which lasted a few years after the accession of Henry II. The lack of jewellery and of feathers reserved for nobility, as well as the way in which the cap is worn - straight and not tilted over one ear - do not allow us to see the sitter as a gentleman. However, it would be ill-fitting for a simple bourgeois to dress in red and cover his coat with slashing. This singular mixture, in representation and clothing, of aristocratic and bourgeois codes could indicate a servant of the king, a non-aristocratic officer of his house, a valet or a craftsman. As the splendour of the Court of France notably authorised officers to wear velvet and bright colours, the sitter might be a royal dependent enjoying a number of privileges, like exemption from land taxes or less strict compliance with sumptuary laws. This could also explain the model's young age, as most of Corneille's non-aristocratic clientele was composed of middle-aged men, less anxious for a perfect likeness than to show off their worldly success.

We are grateful to Dr. Alexandra Zvereva, from whose translated report on the picture for the Centre Roland Mousnier (CNRS), Université Paris-Sorbonne this entry has been prepared.

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