• France, Sologne, private collection since at least 1850.
The Father of a Dynasty
The Elles, nicknamed “Ferdinand” or “Elle Ferdinand,” constituted a family of painters originally from Flanders who were active between 1601 and 1717. The first one, Ferdinand Elle (c. 1580-1637), probably from Malines, came to France at the beginning of the 17th century. A Protestant, he worked first at Fontainebleau before settling in the Parisian quarter of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, whose management, in contrast to the Parisian guild, took advantage of the franchises conceded by the abbey to welcome foreign painters readily. As his name lacked originality, he became known by his first name, Ferdinand, which was subsequently adopted by his descendants in order to indicate the studio’s continuity: these included his two sons, Louis Elle the Elder or the Father, and the engraver Pierre Elle (1617-1665), and then Louis’ son, Louis Elle the Younger (1649-1717).
Founding the Academy
In 1648, Louis Elle the Elder, master in the guild of Saint-Germain, figured among the founding members of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, although he doesn’t seem to have participated in the deliberations which led to the creation of this institution. Already before that date, he was one of the most prominent portraitists in the capital and counted the grandest names from the court among his clients.
Exclusion and Return to Grace
A Professor since 1659, Elle Ferdinand was excluded from the Academy on October 10th, 1681, along with the other Protestant artists, including his son Louis the Younger who had been received as an academician two months earlier. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes, on October 18th, 1685, obliged the artist to choose between conversion and exile. Pragmatic, Louis the Father renounced Protestantism on December 30th, a fact which permitted his immediate reintegration into the Academy and return to a state of grace, as can be seen by the Portrait of the Marquise de Maintenon accompanied by her niece, commissioned in 1688 for the Royal House of Saint-Cyr (Versailles, inv. MV 2196).
Our picture is a society portrait, although less solemn and codified than most of Louis Elle’s works. With its neutral dark background which isolates the sitter and brings her closer to the viewer, it is among the most “Flemish” of the artist’s paintings. He transcribes the ladies’ features more faithfully than usual, and thus forgoes the idealization usually found in court effigies.
The young woman, whose identity is not possible to determine currently, is depicted seated in a leather covered chair whose red hues are echoed in the bow on her sleeves and her ruby lips. The artist specially employs a melting virtually Van Dyckian brushstroke for the delicate luminous pinkish flesh tones and vaporous curls, and lingers over the sitter’s deep blue gaze. Everything else be it the dress in silver cloth embellished with fine braid trim, the lace ruffles on the sleeves, or the lap dog’s silky fur, is handled with an alert and scrupulous brush in shades of cool grays and warm tans. The painting thus acquires a sober elegance in keeping with the lady’s attire which is both costly and exquisite with its low neckline modestly covered by a fine muslin tucker.
General Bibliography (Unpublished Work)
Elodie VAYSSE, Les Elle « Ferdinand », la peinture en héritage. Un atelier parisien au Grand Siècle (1601-1717), Thesis for the École des chartes, dir. Alain Mérot, 2015.
Jean AUBERT, Emmanuel COQUERY, Alain DAGUERRE DE HUREAUX (dir.), Visages du Grand Siècle. Le portrait français sous le règne de Louis XIV. 1660-1715, exh. cat. Nantes, Museum of Fine Arts. Toulouse, Augustin Museum. Paris, Somogy, 1997.