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Le petit dessinateur

Le petit dessinateur
oil on panel
7 1/2 x 6 1/2 in. (19 x 16.5 cm.)
Baron Adolphe Carl von Rothschild (1823-1900), Naples, by whom gifted to,
Maurice de Rothschild (1881-1957), Paris, by whom gifted to,
Comte Robert de Montesquieu-Fezensac (1855-1921); (†) his sale, Chateau de Saint-Eusice, Selles-sur-Cher (Loir-sir-Cher), 27-28 May 1928, lot 12.
Acquired by the present owner in 2020.
P. Rosenberg, Chardin 1699-1779, exhibition catalogue, Paris, Cleveland and Boston, 1979, under no. 68, Related Works' (as known only through a photograph).
P. Rosenberg, 'The Rothschild Chardins, Part II’, in Taking Time. Chardin’s ‘Boy building a House of Cards’ and other paintings, J. Carey, ed., exhibition catalogue, Waddesdon Manor, 2012, p. 35, note 22 (known from a photograph).

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John Hawley
John Hawley Specialist

Lot Essay

Chardin’s The Young Draftsman (‘Un jeune écolier qui dessine’) and its original pendant, The Embroiderer (‘L’ouvrière en tapisserie’) seem to be among the artist’s earliest genre scenes, datable to around 1733-35. Only one pair of these compositions remains together, in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. That pair was commissioned from Chardin by Antoine de La Roque and was purchased at his estate sale by the dealer Edmé Gersaint for Count Tessin acting on behalf of the heir to the Swedish throne, Prince Adolphus Frederick (1710-1771). Chardin’s genre paintings have remained in Stockholm since their arrival in the city in August 1745. The Swedish paintings are almost certainly the versions of the composition exhibited by Chardin at the Paris Salon of 1738.

The two compositions were among the most popular the artist ever devised, and he is known to have replicated them often. The present, recently rediscovered, version of The Young Draftsman joins six other nearly identical autograph versions of the subject. At least four versions of The Embroiderer can be accounted for, although several of them are known from photographs only. Surviving examples of The Embroiderer are in Stockholm and in a private collection (fig. 1; sold Christie’s, New York, 30 January 2013, lot 38 for $4,002,500). Extant autograph versions of The Young Draftsman are in Stockholm; the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth and a private collection, to which the present painting can now be added. Chardin later revised the compositions in a larger format (32.5 x 19 cm.) that he exhibited in the Salon of 1759 and that were reproduced in prints by Flipart; those paintings have been untraced since the eighteenth century.

Both subjects represent tightly focused images of absorption, and Chardin crafted them with a degree of intensity and concentration to match his subjects. The embroiderer is a domestic servant who sits on a rough, unpainted chair, her embroidery stretched across her lap. She has just reached into her workbasket to select a ball of blue wool, as her eyes close and she loses herself in her thoughts. The young draftsman, on the other hand, hunches over his portfolio, wielding his porte-crayon to copy in red chalk a male académie that the drawing master has pinned to the wall in front of him. At right, two canvases – the taller seen from behind, its stretcher visible – are placed against the wall; in the foreground to the left is the knife used to sharpen the student’s red crayon. Wearing a tricorne hat and an overcoat with an evident tear at the shoulder, the boy has his back to the viewer, his face turned away; nevertheless, every aspect of his pose indicates his total engagement in the task at hand, one of the fundamental exercises of academic training. Chardin’s pendants contrast ‘male’ and ‘female’ activities, of course, art versus craft, the studio versus the home. They also contrast engaged absorption in one’s actions with distracted absorption – the interruption of work for a deep but momentary immersion in one’s own inner world.

The subject of The Young Draftsman had personal resonance for the artist. As a young man, Chardin had won prizes in the Academy’s quarterly drawing competitions and, years later, he confided his frustration with the demanding apprenticeship required of all students trained at the Academy. In 1765, Denis Diderot recounted hearing Chardin remember the difficult years spent in mastering his art, when 'the chalk holder is placed in our hands at the age of seven or eight years. We begin to draw eyes, mouths, noses, and ears after patterns, then feet and hands. After having crouched over our portfolios for a long time, we’re placed in front of the Hercules or the Torso, and you’ve never seen such tears as those shed over the Satyr, the Gladiator, the Medici Venus and the Antinous.’

Like all of Chardin’s autograph versions of the subject, the present Young Draftsman is executed with the idiosyncratic, chalky and rough paint handling that characterizes his finest works and envelopes his subjects in a mood both atmospheric and poetic. It was a style that dazzled his contemporaries, one of whom observed in 1738 that Chardin’s 'manner of painting is all his own. It is not a case of finished outlines, nor of a fluid touch; on the contrary, it is brutal and rugged…. His figures are of a striking realism, and the singularity of his manner only makes them more natural and spirited.'

As with so many paintings by Chardin, the present lot belonged to successive generations of the Rothschild family. From the mid-nineteenth century to the present day, members of the celebrated banking dynasty have been among the most avid collectors of the artist’s works. Henri de Rothschild (1872-1947) alone owned three versions of The Young Draftsman and two of The Embroiderer, all of which were destroyed in 1942 in the flood that followed the German bombing of his house in Bath, England; ironically, he had evacuated the pictures from France to England six years earlier for their safekeeping. (For a thorough account of the family’s remarkable collection of Chardin’s paintings, see the essay 'The Rothschild Chardins' by Pauline Prévost-Marcilhacy and Pierre Rosenberg in the 2012 catalogue Taking Time (op. cit.)).

The present painting seems to have entered the Rothschild collections through Baron Adolphe Carl de Rothschild (1823-1900), at an unknown date. General Consul of the Duchy of Parma in Naples, Adolphe was to head the family bank in the city, CM von Rothschild & figli Naples, but was bought out of the partnership in 1865, two years after the closure of the Naples House. Together with his wife, Julie von Rothschild (married 1850), Adolphe commissioned the building of a spectacular château at Pregny, on the shores of Lake Geneva, and dedicated himself to collecting the art he would house there. Childless at his death in Paris in 1900, his vast fortune and properties – including the present painting – went to his wife and, upon her death at Pregny seven years later, to Baron Maurice de Rothschild (1881-1957), Julie’s nephew and the second child of Edmond James de Rothschild and Adelheid von Rothschild. Maurice, an elected politician who led the Swiss branch of the family’s firm, seems to have kept Chardin’s painting for only a short time: at an unknown date he made it a gift to the Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fézensac, who had been a close friend of Adolphe de Rothschild and Julie and frequent visitor to their Paris residence. The gift was accompanied with a note from Maurice: 'My dear friend, I am sending you, in addition to these lines, this small painting by Chardin which you know so well and which shows the painter himself in his studio. This souvenir will also remind you of the hosts who were dear to you in this house in rue de Monçeau which you will, I hope always regard as your own. Affectionately yours, Maurice de R.' (see P. Rosenberg, op. cit., 2012, p. 35, note 22.)

Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fézensac (1855-1921) kept the painting for the remainder of his life and it appeared as lot 12 in his estate sale. A legendary aesthete, Symbolist poet, art collector and dandy, the homosexual Montesquiou was the inspiration for three of the greatest (and most notorious) characters of Fin-de-Siècle literature: Jean des Esseintes in J-K Huysmans’ À Rebours (1884); Lord Henry Wotton in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890-91); and, most famously, the Baron de Charlus in Marcel Proust’s À la recherché du temps perdu (1913-1927). He sat for glamorous portraits by James Whistler (‘Arrangement in Black and Gold: Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fézansac,’ 1891-92; The Frick Collection, New York), and Giovanni Boldini (1897; Musée d’Orsay, Paris), was friends with Edmond de Goncourt, Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse, and competed in the 1900 Summer Olympics (finishing third in the Hacks and Hunters Combined Event). Born into fabulous wealth, Montesquiou died almost penniless at the age of 66; he is buried beside his Argentine lover, Gabriel Yturri (died 1905) in the cemetery at Versailles. Montesquiou’s last secretary and companion, Henri Pinard, inherited the remains of his estate and arranged its sale in 1928.

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