Born into an old bourgeois Parisian family, the son of a chemist, Taunay enrolled as a student of Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié at the École des Beaux-Arts and later entered the studio of the history painter Nicolas-Guy Brenet, before training with Francesco Casanova, the landscape and battle painter. He spent his early years travelling around France painting ‘en plein air’ landscapes with Jean Joseph Xavier Bildaud, Lazare Brunadet and his lifelong friend Jean Louis Demarne. In 1784, he was agrée at the Académie Royale but never became a full member and did not compete for the Prix de Rome. However, on the recommendation of the painters Vien and Pierre, Taunay obtained a royal pension which enabled him to study in Italy for three years. Back in Paris in 1787, he enjoyed immediate success and exhibited regularly at the Salon until 1827. During the Revolution he lived quietly at Montmorency, but under Napoleon’s Consulate and Empire received numerous commissions, mostly for large-scale battle scenes, many of which are now at Versailles. In 1795 he was elected a charter member of the Institut de France.
After the fall of the Empire, Taunay was invited to Brazil by the Portuguese ambassador, joining other notable men of arts and letters in establishing an Academy of Fine Arts. He moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1816 with his wife and four of his children and remained for five years. While living in Brazil, he painted works for the Royal Palace and sent paintings home for the Salons. Most of the important works from his Rio sojourn remain in Brazil, in museums and local private collections. Taunay returned to France in 1821.
Taunay’s Brazilian Slave can be identified as one of a pair of portraits of black sitters, male and female, that remained in the artist’s studio upon his death on 20 March 1830. The two paintings are recorded in the artist’s Inventaire après décès [A.N., M.C., CXVI, 704] as “no. 55: Un portrait de nègre et un portrait de nègresse prisés ensemble á la somme de seize francs….” They next appeared in the auction organized by Taunay’s widow, held in Paris on 3 June 1835, as lots 44 & 45: “Un jeune négre et une jeune négresse, peints par Taunay, d’après nature, au Brésil.” The location of the female pendant remains unknown.
The Wrightsman painting is not signed but it bears on the wooden crate on which the young man sits an indistinct inscription and date which appears to read: ‘Léon[ard?] 1821’. The name is very difficult to decipher, even under strong magnification, but may be ‘Léonard’, presumably the name of the sitter, and the date – if indeed it is ‘1821’ – would indicate that the painting was executed in Brazil in the final year that Taunay lived there, confirming the assertion made in the 1835 sale catalogue that the portrait was made “…d’après nature, au Brésil.’
In her comprehensive catalogue raisonné of Taunay’s paintings, Claudine Lebrun Jouve lists fifty-eight paintings executed in Brazil, most of which were either portraits of local aristocrats or topographical landscapes, with the single exception of a major history painting, the Sermon of Saint John the Baptist (Préfecture des Alpes-Maritimes, Nice, LJ P.701) that Taunay painted in 1818 and sent back to Paris for the 1819 Salon.
Several of the topographical landscapes that Taunay made in Brazil – notably Vue du Largo do Machado a Laranjeiras (The Catholic University of America, Oliveira Lima Library, Washington, D.C.; LJ P.685) and Vue de Ponta do Calabouço (Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand; LJ P.685bis) – include small staffage figures of black laborers working the land, quarrying stone or resting at the water’s edge, but the Wrightsman painting and its lost pendant are the only known paintings by Taunay to focus on black locals as their primary subject. The Wrightsman painting depicts ‘Léonard’ with a bright and cheerful smile, engaging playfully with a somewhat agitated parrot; he is entirely naked and wholly unembarrassed by his nudity, and surrounded by a lush, tropical setting which allowed Taunay to demonstrate his much-admired talents as a landscapist. As Asher Miller and Gary Tinterow have suggested (2005), the painting recalls the many images of ‘exotics’ that were popular in European painting from the 16th century onward, and exudes something of the decorative charm found in 18th-century French fantasies of ‘happy blackamoors.’ Yet, ‘Léonard’ – with his casual self-confidence, engaged and lively expression, and proud revelation of his strong and impressively muscled body – displays a striking self-possession and dignity which Taunay evidently admired.
Slavery had been outlawed in France since the Revolution, but remained legal in the French colonies until 1848, and contemporary accounts record the violence and humiliations that black slaves suffered. Although Taunay was a man of the Enlightenment, liberal of mind and socially progressive, an admirer of Voltaire and Rousseau (whose volumes were inventoried in his library), one of his letters to a friend (30 August 1819) details his intention to send paintings back to France to be sold on his behalf to raise needed funds that would enable him to purchase slaves for his household staff.
When Lebrun Jouve published her monograph on Taunay in 2003, she catalogued the two slave portraits (P.699 & P.700) as lost works. In recent correspondence with Asher Miller, Assistant Curator of European Paintings and co-author of the entry on the present painting in the catalogue The Wrightsman Pictures (2005), Lebrun Jouve fully endorsed the attribution of the Wrightsman painting to Taunay, describing it as “one of the most charming portraits painted during his life, this one, of course, during his sojourn to Brazil,” further noting that it was certainly painted from life and before his return to France in 1821 (e-mail correspondence, 28 February 2015).