Louis Michel Van Loo was the most talented son of the painter Jean-Baptiste Van Loo. He trained in the studio of his father alongside his uncle Carle Van Loo, as did his younger brother Charles-Amédée. Accepted at the Académie as a history painter in 1733, Louis Michel was four years later named peintre de chambre of the Spanish King Philip V, succeeding Jean Ranc who had died in 1735. He settled in Madrid for fifteen years producing mainly portraits of the Spanish royal family and cartoons for tapestry designs. In 1745, Philip V named him his premier peintre and in 1752 he was appointed Director of the newly created Academy of San Fernando. On his return to Paris, Van Loo exhibited frequently at the Salon and also received commissions from a range of patrons, including Diderot and the French royal family. He succeeded his uncle Carle as Director of the École Royale des Élèves protégés in 1765. As such he was responsible for training the most promising students to become the history painters of the next generation. Van Loo was also a great art collector: the sale of his estate on 14 December 1772 included several works by artists such as Van Dyck, Velazquez, Titian, Veronese and Rubens along with paintings from his contemporaries such as Claude-Joseph Vernet and Chardin.
The absence of preparatory drawings by the artist for his portraits seems to indicate that he drew directly onto the canvas, probably executing first the face of the sitter in one or two séances de pose before later finishing the painting in the studio with the help of a costumed mannequin. Indeed the inventory of the artist's estate lists two mannequins with full wardrobes and a number of accessories, which Van Loo used in differing combinations for his sitters. In the present painting, for example, Van Loo has used the same rust-red velvet jacket that can be seen in the 1767 Portrait of Jacques Germain Soufflot in the Musée du Louvre, while the inkstand also appears in the Portrait of the Baron de Breteuil of 1766, sold at Sotheby's, Monaco, 3-4 July 1993, lot 95. The artist's remarkable sense for fabrics came from his activities as an international textile merchant. In 1745, Louis Michel and other members of his family bought into Rey-Magneval and Co., a textile manufacturing company in Lyon.
The present portrait was painted at a time when the artist was at the peak of his career. In 1769, the year of its execution, Van Loo also exhibited at the Salon, the Portrait of the Marquis de Marigny and his wife now in the Musée du Louvre. The sitter has been traditionally identified as Jean-Nicolas de Boulogne, Conseiller d'Etat and Intendant des Finances, who was born in Paris in 1726. He was the grandson of the painter Louis de Boulogne and the son of Jean de Boulogne, whose portrait was executed by Hyacinthe Rigaud and engraved by Georg Wille. One of the wealthiest men in Paris, he was membre honoraire associé libre of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis also executed his portrait, which was exhibited it in the Salon of 1773, no. 172 (present location unknown, formerly in the collection of M. Huillier), and later described by Jules Belleudy as 'figure grave, visage plein et gras, double menton, corps replet' (J.-S. Duplessis peintre du roi, Paris, 1913, p. 44).
In her 1994 thesis on the artist, Dr. Christine Rolland points out that in the 1760s, the decade from which the present portrait dates, Van Loo tended to simplify the settings of his portraits in order to focus on the sitter's psychological state, in accordance with the classical tradition of portraiture as taught at the Académie. Thus in this work the sitter is set before a neutral grey boiserie, and the palette is reduced to three primary colors with grey and white touches. The green curtain on the right recalls the work of Van Dyck, to whom Van Loo was often compared by his contemporaries, while the pose of the sitter is reminiscent of the Grand Tour portraits of Pompeo Batoni and of contemporary English portraiture.
We are grateful to Dr. Christine Rolland for her assistance in cataloguing this lot.