This self-portrait by La Tour, known through an infinite number of copies, has been thought lost since the 18th Century. Certainly the best-known image of the artist, it was exhibited at the Salon of 1737 and then engraved by Georg Friedrich Schmidt in 1742 (the print exhibited at the Salon of 1743, X. Salmon, Le voleur d'âmes, Maurice Quentin de La Tour, exhib. cat., Versailles, Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, 2004, under no. 2, fig. 1).
The amusing pose of the artist has given rise to many interpretations, the most plausible being the one given by the engraver Schmidt: the pastel was drawn on the occasion of a visit to La Tour's studio of the Abbé Jean-Jacques Huber, an amateur and friend of the artist. La Tour, when he saw Huber coming, locked the door and went to the window to laugh at the expression of disappointment on his friend's face. La Tour has drawn himself in casual clothes, wearing an artist's cap, pointing rather amusedly to the right, in the direction of the studio's entrance. In the print engraved after the present composition Schmidt has added studio props in the background, to show that La Tour is looking out from his studio. Schmidt added Hubert's portrait in the background to a print after another La Tour self-portrait, the Autoportrait au chapeau en clabaud (X. Salmon, op. cit., 2004, under no. 3, fig. 1).
Having been agrée at the Académie on 25th May 1737, La Tour exhibited two pastels at his first Salon, which opened just three months later: the present pastel and a portrait of Madame Boucher. The latter pastel has left no trace, but the former was immediately successful. It was quickly engraved by Schmidt, whose print was copied in England, and again engraved by Petit in 1747. The composition was copied numerous times in the 18th Century. Xavier Salmon in the 2004 La Tour exhibition catalogue (p. 49, note 11, figs. 1-3 being non autograph versions) listed numerous copies. The best version, autograph according to Xavier Salmon, is that in the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire in Geneva (C. Debrie and X. Salmon, Maurice-Quentin de La Tour, Prince des pastellistes, Paris, 2000, p. 58. fig. 19). These pastels differ from the present one in details that make the sitter more presentable: the mole on the right cheek and the chapped lips are absent in all copies, including the Geneva version. The mole is however clearly visible in the masque self-portrait in Dijon and in the late self-portrait in the Louvre (C. Debrie and X. Salmon, op. cit., figs. 15 and 22).
This rediscovered pastel was probably retained by La Tour after the Salon of 1737. Nearly thirty years later he gave it to his friend Jacques Neilson (1714-1788), entrepreneur et directeur des teintures de la manufacture royale de tapisseries des Gobelins (see label attached to the backing, fig. 1). Neilson was born in Scotland in 1714 but went to France at an early age, accompanying his uncle, Gilbert Neilson, a surgeon and naturalised Frenchman (A. Curmer, Notice sur Jacques Neilson, entrepreneur et directeur des teintures de la manufacture Royale de tapisseries des Gobelins, Paris, 1878, p. 10). Placed at the Gobelins on 20 April 1728 by the Duc d'Antin, then Surintendant des Bâtiments, he became an apprentice in 1732 and on 1 April 1734, Tapissier du Roi. To work at the Gobelins, Neilson had to convert to Catholicism, which he did on 19 November 1728, but he never became a French subject. In 1738 Neilson married Anne-Geneviève Garand, from a family of painters. Five years later he decided to leave the Gobelins to become a painter. He studied successively with Charles Chastelain, Charles Coypel, Parrocel and finally Maurice-Quentin de La Tour. In 1749, following a replacement, a position opened at the Gobelins in the atelier de basse-lisse. In a memorandum from Monsieur d'Isle to Lenormant de Tournehem dated 10 August 1749 requesting a position for Neilson, he is said to have studied with La Tour: '...M. de La Tour qui lui a appris le pastel où il réussit si bien...' (A. Curmer, op. cit., p. 15). Neilson was appointed to the post the next day and gave up painting. He was very succesful as an entrepreneur at the Gobelin, being in charge of a loom and of the dye studio at the same time. He even invented a new dying method, on which he spent 100,000 livres of his own money. When he died in 1788, the Surintendance des Bâtiments still owed him 240,000 livres. He had five children: one son, Daniel-Marie who worked with his father at the Gobelins, who died in 1779, a daughter Marie-Geneviève-Dorothée who married Monsieur Curmer in 1771 and three more daughters who became nuns. Neilson was probably close to La Tour from the early 1740s until their deaths in 1788, only a few months apart. He is mentioned in La Tour's will of 9 February 1784 among the 57 recipients of their portraits by the pastellist. Neilson left the portrait of La Tour to his daughter Marie-Geneviève-Dorothée, in whose family it has remained until today (see fig. 1).
La Tour was known in his lifetime, and is still known today as the best pastellist in France, surpassing his rival Perroneau. But, during the 18th Century, his reputation rested as much as on his eccentricities as on his art. La Tour's character was abundantly commented on by his comtemporaries, some negatively, others positively, but none indifferently. All described his far too numerous interests, his pretensions and his sense of humour, clearly visible in the present pastel. Mariette wrote that he wanted to be compared to Diogenes, but only succeded in being downright rude. Still according to Mariette, La Tour's wide interests were only designed to impress in society: before going out he would read chapters of Pierre Bayle's dictionary which he would regurgitate immediately without understanding. This is confirmed by Marmontel who wrote that, while he was portraying the encyclopedists, he thought he was able to discuss philosophy and ethics, but would find himself humiliated when someone spoke to him of painting. Diderot was more generous in calling him 'a truthful and frank man' and actually complimented him on exactly the same facts for which Mariette criticized him.
La Tour was never happy with his portraits, often reworking, and in the process destroying, his pastels, even long after they were finished. Mariette recounts that having done a portrait of him, he immediately destroyed it, being unhappy with the way the powder was fixed. Having made a fortune with his portraits, from the mid 1770s La Tour distributed most of it in the forms of prizes at the Académie in Paris or foundations in Saint-Quentin, his native town. By 1785, he had lost his mind, dying insane three years later.