Oil on canvas
33 x 26 cm. (13 x 10 ¼ in.)
• Sale Feb. 25th, 2021 as French School, 18th c. Portrait of the Maréchal de Saxe
• Sale, AGUTTES, Tableaux et Dessins, Paris Drouot, March 25th, 2022, no. 50, attributed to Carle Van Loo, as a sketch assumed to be of the Duke of Penthievre.
• Autour des Van Loo: Peinture, commerce des tissus et espionnage en Europe (1250-1830), ed. Christine Rolland, Publications des Universités de Rouen et du Havre, 2012.
• Les Van Loo, fils d’Abraham, exh. cat. Nice: Museum of Fine Arts, Nov. 2000 - Feb. 2001.
• Christine Rolland, Louis Michel Van Loo (1707-1771): Member of a Dynasty of Painters, Ph.D. Thesis, Santa Barbara, University of California, 1994.
The Van Loo formed a grand dynasty of cosmopolitan painters who criss-crossed Europe from court to court in the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. In the middle of the 18th century, they were at the pinnacle of their success. Jean-Baptiste (Aix-en-Provence, 1684 – 1745), after a career in southern France, Italy, and Paris, made a fortune in England where he also trained a generation of portraitists. Known as a great teacher, Jean-Baptiste also trained his own children and his younger brother, Charles André (‘Carle’) Van Loo (Nice 1705-Paris 1765). Having lost his father when he was eight years old and having been raised by Jean-Baptiste, Carle became a Knight of the Order of St. Michel, Rector and then Director of the Academy, and First Painter to King Louis XV. He was appointed Governor of the School for the King’s Student Prodigies when it was created in 1749. The winners of the Prix de Rome were supposed to live with the Governor as members of his family for three years before leaving for Italy. It being a lifetime appointment, Carle remained there until his death.
Passing their techniques from father to son and country to country, the Van Loo maintained essentially the same palette and comparable techniques for almost two centuries. Thus their works are often confused with each other, and it is no surprise that this beautiful sketch of a Knight of the Holy Spirit has been diversely attributed to Jean-Baptiste and Carle Van Loo. All three, in addition to their status as history painters, produced portraits, however Louis Michel Van Loo made portraiture his specialty. Very early, Jean-Baptiste started having him paint the heads in his large Parisian works, such as the Institution of the Order of the Holy Spirit for Henry III, December 31st, 1578 (Paris, Museum of the Legion of Honor, inv. 6251) presented to Versailles in 1733.
Born in Nice, Louis Michel, son of Jean-Baptiste, and nephew/“brother” two years younger than Carle, grew up under his father’s wing in Aix-en-Provence, Savoy, Rome, and then Paris where he won the Prix de Rome in 1725, with Moses as a Child Trampling Pharoah’s Crown (Aveline Gallery, Paris, 1993; current location unknown.) In 1728, he left for the French Academy in Rome with his brother François Van Loo (Aix-en-Provence, 1708-Turin, 1732), Carle (Prix de Rome, 1724) and François Boucher (Paris 1703-1770, Prix de Rome, 1723) under the protection of the Duke of Antin. Back in Paris in 1730, he returned to Turin in 1734 after his reception in the Academy in 1733 with Apollo and Daphne (Paris, Ecole des Beaux Arts). After returning again to Paris in 1735, Louis Michel was appointed First Painter to the King of Spain, Philip V in 1737, and left for Madrid where he also became the Painter of the King’s Chamber and Founding President of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando. (See Portrait of Philip V, 1739, Madrid: Prado, inv. 2285, The Family of Philippe V, 1743, Prado, inv. 2283, Portrait of Don Philip of Bourbon, Duke of Parma, 1739-1742, Prado, inv. 2292).
Although Louis Michel liked featuring intense blues and reds in his early works and during his first years in Spain, his palette started to shift in 1748 when he became President of the Royal Academy of San Fernando, as can be seen in his Reception piece, The Education of Cupid (Madrid, Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando, 1748). Deep blues as well as flamboyant reds and crimson give way to subtle silver and bluish hues against golden ochres. In his portraits, red tends to become burgundy and is more and more often used for framing the subject, support, or visual punctuation, especially after 1753.
Following the death of Philip V, Louis Michel continued in his functions under Ferdinand VI until 1752, when he returned to Paris on account of the chilling of Franco-Spanish diplomatic relations. In Paris, he concentrated on producing portraits of the court and of celebrities. His full-length standing portrait of Madame de Pompadour in 1759 (current location unknown) was the rage of the Salon, and in 1760, his portrait of Louis XV in Coronation Robes became the model for official portraits of the Bourbons until 1830. In 1764, Louis Michel went to England, but the English were no longer interested in foreign painters. He returned to France after only 15 months, just before Carle died. Thus, in turn, Louis Michel was appointed Governor of the School for the King’s Student Prodigies and held it until his death in 1771. His works from the 1760s are marked by a much looser brushstroke and even more subtle coloring, where one finds scintillating changing silks tinted with luminescent lavenders or violets in contrast to silvery blues. Thus his Portrait of Diderot exhibited in the Salon of 1767 (Louvre Museum, RF 1948) is one of his most successful masterpieces and now is the best-known image of the philosopher.
The preparatory Oil Sketch for a Portrait of a Knight of the Holy Spirit has all the panache of Louis Michel’s loose brushstroke with this beautiful red cape swirling around scintillating armor, and the sitter’s lively, open, direct gaze. We see this man in the prime of his life standing in front of a table supporting his bicorn hat, and holding a short thick stick in his right hand in place of a baton of command. Over his armor, he wears the Order of the Holy Spirit sash. Strips of red and blue fabric around his neck can be detected falling in a “V” over it. The Golden Fleece will hang from these ribbons, just as the insignia of the Holy Spirit will be suspended from the blue sash over his left hip. In view of the rareness of known oil sketches by the artist, especially for individual portraits, it is tempting to think that the sitter commissioned this portrait in anticipation of his promotion to these Orders, and that this way, the commission would have been rapidly fulfilled as soon as the precious insignias were in hand. In any case, the sitter would have been a member of the upper nobility.
The composition is based on a type used by Jean-Baptiste Van Loo in 1727 in his Portrait of Louis XV, whose original is lost, but several replicas exist. It was picked up by Carle in his portraits of the same monarch between 1748 and 1750, with the king facing a table on his right, one hand posed on his baton of command, the other on his plumed helmet, his head turned towards the viewer, and the scene embellished with rich draperies, often in front of a pillar, vast landscape or architecture in the background. This type of composition was also applied to high ranking officers and adapted to heads of state in civil attire.
Over the centuries, several portraits of the same type have been assumed to be of the Duke of Penthievre and attributed to various Van Loo. They have appeared in public and private collections, as well as in sales. There is some resemblance between certain of these images and this sketch, especially with the engraving by Le Beau (BNFr). Although one can detect brushstrokes in the red drapery that are comparable to those in the Diderot of 1767, sitters enveloped in such a flamboyant red drapery swirling around their torso appear around 1730. They are particularly present in portraits produced during Louis Michel’s years in Spain, especially in the mid 1740s, when the Duke of Penthievre was only around 20 years old. The sitter in this sketch, however, is already a much older man. The Duke of Penthievre indeed received the Golden Fleece in 1740 and was promoted to the Order of the Holy Spirit in 1742, dates which coincide with the probable creation of this portrait, but we do not know if he went to Spain at this time.
Without more certitude, it would be wiser to seek the identity of the sitter among the Knights of the Order of the Holy Spirit who were in Spain in the 1740s. Not only is this sitter very young, but one can not only go on resemblance alone for identifying the sitters in Louis Michel’s portraits because he developed his own type of masculine physiognomy which means portraits of different people can resemble each other.