73.2 x 59.4 cm. (28 13/16 x 23 3/8 in.)
Oil on its original canvas
Signed and dated lower right : Robert Lefèvre ft 1810
Êmpire period gilt wood frame decorated with palmettes
• France, Private Collection.
• Gaston Lavalley, Le Peintre Robert Lefèvre, sa vie et son œuvre, Louis Jouan, Caen, 1914.
• Mémoires de la Reine Hortense, [Hortense (Queen of Holland)]; published by Prince Napoleon; with notes by Jean Hanoteau, Paris: Plon, 1927, Vol. I.
Robert Lefèvre’s name enjoys an international reputation today because the artist was lauded in his lifetime by the critics. We learn from a few rare biographical notices that the young artist from Bayeux, who was originally destined for a judicial career, ended up turning to the arts and began as an autodidact between Bayeux and Caen. At the age of 18, the artist traveled to Paris and upon returning to Calvados, developed a local reputation for his painting. In 1784, he returned to Paris where he entered one of the most considerable studios of the time, that of Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1754-1829), who was a leading rival of Jacques-Louis David (1754-1829) known for his history compositions and genre pictures. His talent rapidly recognized by his peers allowed him to build a solid reputation by exhibiting in the Salons from 1791 until 1827. The dawn of the 19th century marked the apogee of his career and from then on, his clientele extended beyond the French borders. It mainly consisted of wealthy elegant member of the First Empire whom he followed assiduously and for whom he became, thanks to the Dominique Vivant Denon’s support (1747-1826), the official iconographer of its power by multiplying the images of the Emperor. His success continued until the Restoration when he was appointed First Painter to Louis XVIII.
The half-length portrait of a woman is presented against a brushed copper-green background. The sitter is depicted serenely seated on what appears to be a gilt wooden armchair with Empire red velvet upholstery and resting her hands delicately on a cushion of the same hue with gilt braid. She wears a high-waist short-sleeved low-cut V-neck blue dress edged with silver thread embroidery and belted with a sash. In addition to the magnificent ivory-colored embroidered shawl which has slipped off her right shoulder, her hair is held by an elegant little comb whose gold mount is decorated with pearls accompanied by a matching set of ear pendants, symbols of a comfortable social condition. Our sitter’s hairstyle follows the fashion launched by the Beauharnais in which hair is pulled back into a bun from which escape thick curls falling over the forehead.
Here Lefèvre seems to have depicted Aglaé Auguié, of whom we know a miniature portrait in gouache dated 1808 by the Swiss artist Pierre Bouvier (ill. 1). Depicted two years before our painting, the latter is characterized by the same sensitivity transcribed through the finesse of her features. Her almond-shaped eyes plunging into the painter’s communicate tenderness, timidity and even more, a certain candor evoked by her delicate pinched mouth and cheeks heightened with rouge that Bouvier made a point of rendering in his miniature.
After the unexpected death of his wife, ex-Lady of the Chamber to Queen Marie-Antoinette, Pierre-César Auguié and his three daughters settled into the Château de Grignon. The property was purchased with a fortune accumulated under the Ancien Régime: Auguié had been general bailiff of the kingdom’s provisions before being appointed general finance (tax) collector for the Duchy of Bar and Lorraine. His sister-in-law, Madame Campan, who had been First Lady of the Queen’s Chamber, devoted herself to the education of her nieces Antoinette-Louise (1780-1833), Adelaide-Henriette, called Adele, (1772-1810) (ill. 2), and Aglaé, called Eglé, the youngest (1782-1854) (ill. 3). She placed them in the National Institution of Saint-Germain which she founded in 1794, as a boarding school aiming to educate girls from the upper bourgeoisie. There the three young women met Pauline and Caroline Bonaparte, as well as Hortense de Beauharnais.
“My close connection with Madame Campan’s nieces made the separation from my family less painful and sometimes I went to Grignon, Mr. Auguié’s beautiful property.”
Aglaé and Hortense developed a deep flawless friendship which encouraged Josephine, First Lady of the Consulate, to have her daughter and daughter’s friend marry the same year. In 1802, Hortense married Louis Bonaparte and Aglaé, the “brave of the brave” military (officers), Michel Ney who proudly became one of the first to be promoted Marshal of the Empire two years later.
“Eglé, Adele’s second sister, was full of kindness, sensitivity and charm. We had her married to General Ney and I remained constantly in touch with her.”
The National Museum of the Malmaison and Bois-Préau Chateaux conserve a drawing executed by Adele Aguié which depictsAglaé and her friend Hortense seized by profound melancholy in the year of their weddings (ill. 4). Through her union, Aglaé became wife of Field Marshal Ney, and thus Duchess of Elchingen and Princess of the Moskva, and was present at Napoleon’s coronation as one of the ladies in the Empress’ court.
“I will teach you to draw, but not to paint; because your coloring is that of Nature, of whom you appear to be the student.”
With these words, Jean-Baptiste Regnault had naturally realized that Lefèvre, who was only one year younger than he was, already knew the art of painting. Gaston Lavalley’s work published in 1914 mentioned that before entering Regnault’s studio in 1784, Robert Lefèvre had taught himself painting by studying his sitters sketched from life and then corrected on the spot.
Whether depicting citizens close to the seat of power, the artist himself, or simple individuals looking for social recognition, Lefèvre rendered each detail of his sitters with great care. In our portrait, his virtuosity is expressed through scrupulous minute brushstrokes ranging from the handling of finely drawn hair to the silver embroidery on the dress or the light reflections on the white pearls of the ear rings.
A tireless worker, artist, and excellent businessman who enjoyed international fame, Robert Lefèvre was a portraitist of the elegant society and known from the end of the monarchy to the Restoration, and including the Empire which offered him all the honors for which a painter could hope. In systematically seeking to perfect himself, the artist was not content simply with the praise he received from the public which classed him among the best painters of his time, but also sought honorific distinctions by signing up for the list of candidates to the Philotechnical Society in order to frequent scholars, scientists, literary figures and politicians.
“You have entrusted me, citizen colleagues, to give you a report on Citizen Robert Lefèvre, painter, inscribed on the list of candidates who seek the honor of occupying a place among you one day. If talents are recommendable, if all the qualities of character and heart give these rights, then Citizen Robert Lefèvre incontestably possesses them. Here is the list of his works into which I will not enter into detail, because in general, they are known to you.”