Jean-Baptiste ISABEY (Nancy, 1767 – Paris, 1855)

Portrait of the Russian Ambassador Baron Peter von Meyndorff (Piotre Kazimirovich Meyendorff)

Diameter: 4.5 cm. (1 ¾ in.)

Miniature on parchment
Signed and dated: Isabey 1842

• Collection de la descendance d’Isabey
• France, collection particulière.

• Edmond Taigny, J.-B. Isabey : sa vie et ses oeuvres, E. Panckoucke, Paris, 1859.
• Cyril Lecosse, Jean-Baptiste Isabey: petits portraits et grands desseins, CTHS: Institut national d’histoire de l’art, Paris, 2018.

"Isabey […] has the taste to keep the best for the end: for drawing and color, he’s got just the touch / which will make a lot of people envious for a long time. / If everyone resembled him, what would I do in this place? / It is among defects that the satyr finds pleasure. /Let’s look at other objects. I need to vilify.[1]”

Jean-Baptiste Isabey was famous in his lifetime for the vivacity with which he brought his “little portraits” alive. Trained in Jacques-Louis David’s studio (1748-1825), “the master’s influence was short and the lessons he received from him only added purity of drawing to the delicacy of his pencil, without altering the elegant character of his talent in any way.” Isabey was an excellent draughtsman who received the highest praise at Salons and became the uncontested master of late 18th century French miniatures. Traditionally reserved for great men, portraiture underwent an unprecedented expansion during this period. In a constantly evolving cultural, social, and political climate between his birth and death, Isabey chose not to limit himself in the choice of his sitters. Thus, midst the many public figures upon whom he founded his reputation, some anonymous sitters were also present, a fact which didn’t cease to astonish and disturb critics.

Our work depicts Baron Piotr Kazimirovich Meyendorff wearing the insignia of the Legion of Honor. A military man who participated in the Russian Army’s foreign campaigns between 1813 and 1814, Mayendorff stood out for his strategic talents, which led him to enter diplomatic service. Rapidly he became one of the major figures in Russian-Austrian liaisons, and was appointed Advisor to the Russian Embassy in Austria, along with a mission as chargé d’affaires to the Netherlands. Between 1839 and 1850, he was known as the Russian Ambassador. Sent to Prussia to participate in the Conference of Olmütz, he was the representative of Austria and Russia opposite Baron Otto Theodor von Manteuffel (1805-1882), the President-Minister of Prussia. On November 29th, 1850, he signed the treaty which brought an end to the tensions that had existed between the three entities since 1848. During his many trips to Austria, Meyendorff met his future spouse, Countess Sofya Rudolfovna Buol von Schauenstein (1800-1868), sister to the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. He probably also met Isabey, who drew a pencil half-length portrait of him seated in an armchair. This drawing and our miniature come from the artist’s descendants. Our work dates to 1842, hypothetically during Isabey’s second trip to Austria.

Produced much more rapidly and less expensively, miniatures were much appreciated both by the artists and the purchasers, and thus were subject to very heavy production between 1780 and 1800. Broadly represented at the Salon, their price varied according to the quality of the execution, technique, and support. Parchment, ivory, pasteboard… Isabey ventured onto different materials contributing to his success.
Among the parchment miniatures, of which our portrait is a terrific example, critics spoke of the great mastery of “the effect of light” and the drawn heads which had “ life and a lot of expression.” As of the 1790s, Isabey preferred very fashionable medallion formats, as well as monochrome backgrounds so as to guide the viewer’s gaze to essentials. Thanks to a very rigorous stippling technique on a support that was no more than five centimeters, our portrait minutely renders the volumes and details of hair and the jacket with its gold-embroidered collar, while conserving a smooth surface which is flattering and leaves visible the many strokes of pencil and watercolor which render the facial flesh tones.

Caught between two centuries, Jean-Baptiste Isabey pursued his rise through all the regimes which he traversed. Considered the most skillful of his contemporaries in the area of miniatures, Isabey himself admitted to having sought to “pass for the founder of a new school,” a separate genre "by which he avoided any dangerous comparison, and could fix attention on his [drawings].” Under the First Empire, having become a regular guest at Malmaison, he did portraits of the Bonaparte clan, including many of Napoleon, as well as of Josephine and her children with whom he became friends.
transl. chr

[1] Critique sur les Tableaux exposés au Salon en l’an IV, Paris, Impr. de Mme Hérissant Le Doux, coll. Deloynes, v. XVIII, no. 476, 1975, pp. 6-7.

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