The son of an obscure portraitist and the younger brother of a history painter, Nattier was elected to the Academie in 1718 as a history painter, but soon turned to the more lucrative practice of portraiture. He quickly became the most sought-after portrait painter in Paris in the middle decades of the eighteenth century, admired in particular for his beautiful ‘portraits historiques’ of women. In these ‘mythologizing’ likenesses, the pretty sitters swathed in yards of luminous silk draperies and holding divine attributes are depicted in the guise of Venus, Diana or Hebé. The artist proved himself equally adept at painting men, where his rendering of lifelike features and blunt character is as direct and naturalistic as anything in the portraits of Aved, Quentin de La Tour or his own son-in-law Louis Tocqué.
The present portrait of an unknown sitter is a remarkable image of virile dignity and modest self-confidence, an imposing figure, yet fully human and little idealized. The unsentimental observation of this strong and striking portrait may seem removed from the sometimes bland facility of Nattier’s ‘mythological’ portraits of women, but there are certain parallels: his splendid red uniform, adorned with the star and sash of the Ordre du Saint-Esprit, is itself a kind of costume; his exquisitely executed hand, gallantly turned, and hint of a smile, are rendered with aristocratic élan. The energetic modeling, loose brushstrokes, and intense gaze of the sitter make the present painting comparable to the most beautiful male portraits by Nattier, such as that of Louis Tocqué, dated 1739 (Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon), or the splendid portrait of Fernando de Silva y Alvarez of Toledo, 12th Duke of Alba and Duke of Huescar from 1749 (Private collection), sold in these Rooms on 31 October 2017 (lot 34).