•Edmond Taigny, J.-B. Isabey: sa vie et ses œuvres, Paris: E. Panckoucke, 1859
•Cyril Lecosse, Jean-Baptiste Isabey: petits portraits et grands desseins, Paris, CTHS: Institut national d’histoire de l’art, 2018
•François Pupil, Jean-Baptiste Isabey portraitiste de l’Europe, exh. cat. RMN, 2005
Isabey […] c’est pour la bonne bouche, de dessin et de couleur il en tient une touche. / Qui lui fera longtemps un nombre d’envieux. / Si tous lui ressemblaient ; que ferais-je en ces lieux ? / C’est parmi les défauts que se plaît le satyre. / Cherchons d’autres objets. J’ai besoin de médire. 1
Isabey […] for a good impression, drawing, and color, determinedly defends his style*
Which will make many jealous.
If everyone resembled him; what would I be doing here?
Among these defects the satyr enjoys himself.
Let us seek other objects. I need to vilify.
Jean-Baptiste Isabey was famous in his day for the vividness with which he made his lively “little portraits” seem alive and vivacious. Trained in the studio of Jacques-Louis David (Paris, 1748-Brussels, 1825), Isabey, an excellent draughtsman, received the highest praise at Salons and became the incontestable master of French miniatures at the end of the 18th century. Traditionally reserved for great men, the portrait underwent an unprecedented expansion at this time. In a cultural, social, and political context which was constantly evolving, Isabey did not to limit himself in the choice of his models. Thus, among the many public figures on whom he founded his reputation, also figured anonymous people who did not cease to astound and disturb critics
Among these public portraits appeared the profile of General Jean-Charles Pichegru (1761-1804), a soldier who became to Lieutenant-Colonel, was promoted to General-in-Chief of the Army of the Rhine, and even became one of the most recognized commanders in the Republic’s Army. He was best known for the treason of which he was accused: his participation in trying to overturn the Directorate. When Louis XVII, son of the recently guillotined king, died, the Count of Provence, future Louis XVIII anticipated taking power. Pichegru had himself elected to the Counsel of Five Hundred and headed the royalist opposition. Discovered, he was arrested and deported, then escaped and returned to France in 1798. He attempted another coup in order to restore the Bourbons when Napoleon Bonaparte declared himself First Consul. This time Pichegru was imprisoned in the Temple Prison and died mysteriously in his cell a few days later.
Quicker and less expensive to produce, miniatures were highly appreciated by artists and collectors, and thus between 1780 and 1800, appeared in very large quantities. Broadly represented in the Salon, their prices varied according to the quality of execution, technique, and support. Parchment, ivory, pasteboard, Isabey tried many different materials, but it was with the portrait on paper that he really found recognition.
Our portrait is a terrific example of his works on paper. Critics spoke of his great mastery of light effects and drawn heads which had “life and a lot of expression.”2 Starting in the 1790s, he preferred medallion formats which were very much in fashion, as well as the monochrome grounds which let the gaze focus on the essentials. Thanks to very rigorous stippled drawing technique, our portrait renders the volumes, hair, and vest in minute detail, even while conserving a smooth appearance flattering to the whole and leaving the multiple pencil strokes barely perceptible.
Considered one of the most skillful of his contemporaries in the domain of miniatures, Isabey himself admitted having sought to “pass for the founder of a new school,”3 a separate genre “by means of which he would distance himself from any dangerous comparisons and could fix his attention on his [drawings.]4
1 Critique sur les Tableaux exposés au Salon en l’an IV, Paris, Impr. de Madame Hérissant Le Doux, coll. Deloynes, vol. XVIII, n°476, 1795, pp. 6-7.
*Translator’s note: “bonne bouche” and “ tient une touché” are idiomatic puns. The first is an expression meaning a good impression, but literally translated would be “the good mouth,” thus referring to Isabey’s qualities as a portraitist. In the second, “touché” refers both to his brushstroke and style. “Tenir une touche ,” rhymes with “tenir une couche” means to be a bit crazy, whereas “tenir à ….” means to defend or uphold something. So, literally holding his brush or his brushstroke, a bit crazily, determinedly.
2 “Exposition au Salon du Palais national des ouvrages de peinture, sculpture et gravure,” Petites affiches de Paris, coll. Deloynes, vol. XVII, n°449, 1791, p.550.
3Abrégé de ma biographie par Jean-Baptiste Isabey, Paris, BNF, 1843.
4 Etienne-Jean Delécluze, Souvenirs de soixante années, Paris, Michel Lévy Frères, Libraires-Editeurs, 1862, p. 113.