Nicolas VLEUGHELS (Paris, 1668 – Rome, 1737)

Diana Sleeping Verso: Study for the portrait of a man

22.5 x 48.5 cm. (8 7/8 x 19 1/8 in.)

c. 1725
Black chalk, stump, and highlights in white chalk on blue paper
Verso: black and white chalk, pastel highlights

Provenance :
• France, Private Collection.

• Bernard Hercenberg, Nicolas Vleughels: peintre et directeur de l’Académie de France à Rome, 1668-1737, Léonce Laget, Paris, 1975.
• Neil Jeffares, “VLEUGHELS, Nicolas,” Dictionnary of pastellists before 1800, online edition.
• Emmanuelle Brugerolles (dir.), François Boucher et l’art rocaille dans les collections de l’École des beaux-arts, ENSBA, Paris, 2003.

Of Flemish descent, Nicolas Vleughels was nonetheless born in Paris and trained in art practices under his father Philippe Vleughels, a portraitist. We only have a few biographical elements concerning young Vleughels’ beginnings where he grew up midst the Flemish colony near Saint-German-des-Prés and “became attached to Pierre Mignard who directed him in his studies for a while” at the Academy.

Very early, Vleughels demonstrated an interest in Italy. He stayed in Rome in 1707 and returned there many times. He also visited Modena, Parma, and Venice, but it is really Rome where the artist settled once he was appointed by the Duke of Antin to co-direct and then to direct the French Academy there in 1724. Between a family with Flemish origins, a French environment, and a passion for Italy, Nicolas Vleughels’ oeuvre is complex. The various influences are discerned via those he considered his masters: Rubens, Veronese and Watteau. The attribution of his works has thus often been confused with some of those of his contemporaries.

On a sheet of blue paper which was highly valued in the 18th century, our drawing depicts an academy of a reclining young woman holding a bow half-hidden behind her nude body. Vleughels was a history painter, thus when religious figures are not involved, the artist’s female figures are often allegorized. This image could be a study for a larger scale work depicting Diana the huntress at rest, or one of Venus and Cupid. On the verso is a second image with the portrait of a man in black chalk with white chalk and pastel highlights.

During a period marked by quarrels between the Rubenistes and Poussinistes, Vleugles, following his father’s teaching, belonged in the first category. Although the details of his early career are slim, Vleughels demonstrates a refinement and mastery of drawing in which he almost systematically adds color. Endowed with an excellent artistic culture, he studied the Old Masters without becoming a copyist, and went beyond his apprenticeship by being inspired by them, and reinvented by synthesizing their influences. An assiduous colorist, he mixed Rubensian coloring from his Flemish heritage with Venetian warmth and elegance. In Venice, his encounter with Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757) was determinant. She made it possible for him to learn to handle pastels, a technique in which the artist demonstrated great ease.

In Rome, Vleughels’ teaching at the Academy was included the realization of female academies marked by full forms, an instruction which was rigorously imparted to his students, especially François Boucher (1703-1770), Etienne Jeurat (1699-1789) and Pierre Subleyras (1699-1749). An anatomical detail in particular is comparable to Vleughels’ hand who often chose to bring out one shoulder - here it is the left one – and tended to let the other disappear. An instant sense of volume was created which allowed the positioning of the figure in space on a surface which was nonetheless flat. This complexity was the artist’s own which can be found in several works by his hand, such as the Female Study conserved in Paris in the Graphic Arts Department of the Louvre ((inv. 33306, Recto, ill. 1).

True to the artist’s female models, our academy displays Rubens’ influence in the pose, the twisted positon of the body, and the powerful musculature paradoxically rendered fleshy and limp by the roundness of the modeling. The artist brings out his skillfulness through the ingenious use of white chalk to convey the light, while hatching in black chalk exposes this flesh which is so exaggerated in Rubens’ work. A few anatomical details in the almond-shaped eyes and tentacular elongated fingers of the sitter also recall Flemish instruction. Finally, the artist arranges drapery around the recumbent body so that it accentuates forms and adds additional volume to the whole. It is interesting to compare our work with François Boucher’s Sleeping Diana conserved at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris ((inv. EBA 593, ill. 2). A student of Vleughels at the French Academy in Rome, Boucher could work from the same models as his master and use the exact same composition here, although handled in sanguine highlighted with white chalk.
Vleughels was an excellent colorist, and his drawings reflect his work on color. On grey, beige or blue paper, the artist systematically highlighted his drawings with pencil, chalk and pastel which makes them very finished (ill. 3 and 4). The verso of our academy displays this technique. Although only sketched, Vleughels accentuates the sitter’s presence through fine handling of the gaze and strives to bring an additional dimension to his work by coloring the cheeks in sanguine and orangey pastel, as well as the lips with flamboyant red pastel tending towards pink.

Bernard Hercenberg’s extremely precious monograph makes it possible to grasp Nicolas Vleughels’ oeuvre better, an artist who is a bit forgotten on the market and for whom most of his drawings remain to be discovered.
His highly developed relationships with the great names of his time, such as Antoine Watteau with whom the artist lived for a while in Paris, and the financier, collector and patron Pierre Crozat (1661/5-1740), makes it possible to place Nicolas Vleughels as an eminent figure in French painting: a talent rewarded by his appointment as Director of the French Academy in Rome where he remained until his death in 1737.
transl. chr

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