65,4 x 53,8 cm. (25 ¾ x 21 3/16 in.)
Oil on canvas
Signed and dated, lower right: Riesener 1809
• France, Private Collection.
• Une dynastie d’artistes : Les Trois Riesener, exh. cat. Galerie des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1954.
Caught between two centuries, Henri-François Riesener was born in 1767 into an artistic milieu and received his first initiation into his father’s art, Jean-Henri Riesener, Louis XV’s and then Louis XVI’s famous cabinet-maker. The young artist next studied under Antoine Vestier (1740-1824) who re-oriented his career towards portraiture. The annals of the Academy’s schools mention that for a while, he was a student of François-André Vincent (1746-1816à and then of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1824), before his career was brutally interrupted by military service and then the Revolution. Riesener participated thus in the Salon for the first time in 1793 and the second time in 1799, before exhibiting regularly until 1814, when he received the grand gold medal with Napoleon’s effigy. The Salon brochures list a large production of male and female portraits whose meager descriptions do not make it possible to identify them nor to determine their exact dates.
The Bourbons’ return to power slowed the number of commissions for the artist who chose to leave for Russia from 1816 to 1823. Passing through Warsaw, he met the Grand Duke Constantin who subsequently presented him to the Empress and to Emperor Alexander. During these seven years, Riesener encounter real success. He would be charged with painting, among others, the celebrities among the Russian aristocracy and high trade.
As he was a terrific portraitist, his works were praised in his lifetime and concerned many commissions, to the point that sometimes he produced numerous replicas.
Although the identity of our sitter remains uncertain, our picture, dated 1809, is a beautiful example of French commissions under the Empire which he received before leaving for Russia. In the simple elegance of his presentation, the artist depicts the bust portrait of a man turned slightly three-quarters to the side. Eliminating superfluous details, Riesener gives his sitter an elegant simplicity: he wears a purplish velvet suit with large lapels and a brilliant white high elegantly tied collar typical of Empire fashions.
At this time, collars and cravats required several meters of extremely expensive cotton. Sometimes they were so wide that they came all the way up to the ears, as is shown in our portrait and one required assistance in order to tie them appropriately.
The silvery disheveled hair is skillfully organized. The sitter’s hair is in the latest fashion which was called “à la Titus” and put an end to Old Regime wigs by establishing an affiliation with the Republican principles of Rome and ancient Greece.
Like his eminent contemporary Jacques-Louis David, Riesener presents most of his sitters against a neutral copper-toned ground which is often brushed in. Other portraits by the artist against such a ground include one of his father (ill. 1) which was inspired by David’s work. This ground lets the light play from the face to the textures, and concentrates attention on the facial expression. In our painting, the state of mind thus captured on the face reveals the benevolence of this man posing serenely before the painter on whom he fixes his blue eyes void of any wariness. The virtuosity of the artist’s brushwork participates in rendering the picture moving and almost transcends the picture. The direct and almost familiar aspect of our portrait could, for that matter, lead one to think that the painter knew the sitter personally.
After his return from Russian, Henri-François Riesener found his wife and son, as well as his success, once again. This epopee enabled him to be established as an independent painter whose portraits delighted the eyes of his most eminent contemporaries. He was an excellent colorist recognized by his elders for the verity emanating from his portraits which allowed him to live “above all need.”
This work will be included in a catalogue raisonné being prepared on the artist by Mr. Alexis Bordes and Mr. Philippe Nusbaumer.