64.5 x 53.5 cm. (2 ft. 1 3⁄8 in. x 1 ft. 9 1⁄16 in.) and 66 x 54.5 cm. ( (2 ft. 2 in. x 1 ft. 9 7⁄16in.)
Two oil paintings on their original canvas, forming pendants
Signed middle left: Rob. Lefèvre
Gilt wood frames with palmetto decor, Empire period
• France, Private Collection.
• Gaston Lavalley, Le Peintre Robert Lefèvre, sa vie et son œuvre, Louis Jouan, Caen, 1914.
The name of Robert Lefèvre is internationally known now because the artist was lauded in his day by the critics. The few rare notices about the artist inform us that the young man from Bayeux who was intended for a legal career finally turned towards an artistic one which began between Bayeux and Caen as an autodidact. At 18 years old, the young artist went to Paris and finished his training in Jean-Baptiste Regnault’s studio (1754-1829) one of the largest of the time. Regnault was considered the main rival of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), and known for his historical compositions and genre pictures. Lefèvre’s precocious talent which was rapidly detected by his peers, made it possible for him to build a solid reputation by exhibiting in the Salons from 1791 to 1827.
The dawn of the 19th century signaled the rise of his career: his clientele extended beyond the borders of France. It mainly consisted of members of rich elegant society under the Empire which he followed assiduously and for which he became, with the backing of Dominique Vivant Denon (1747-1825) and by multiplying images of the Emperor, the official iconographer of power. His success continued into the Restoration when he was appointed First Painter to Louis XVIII.
Robert Lefèvre also received private commissions, an indication of the importance of depictions of the self. It was customary to obtain one’s portrait or have some members of the same family painted by this famous artist who was held in such high esteem by society. Our two portraits form a marvelous example of this growing demand.
On two rectangular canvases which appear as ovals on account of the two sumptuous palmetto frames into which they are set, the artist seems to have depicted a couple with each adult holding one of their children in their arms. In this intimate image of a united loving family, the man wears a black civil suit with an elegantly tied white collar characteristic of the period from the late Directory until the Empire, while the mother wears a finely embroidered white dress with a low neckline, which is found during the Consulate through to the Empire. In addition to the magnificent red cashmere shawl around her shoulders, she is adorned with pearls in her hair and a four-strand gold chain around her neck, a symbol of their comfortable social position.
The children are also dressed in the fashion of the time. Warmly wrapped in her mother’s arms, the young boy, the older child, wears a jacket similar to his father’s, in which his broad open collar reveals his white cotton shirt. The younger child, whom the man holds effortlessly, is clothed in a white cotton dress gathered under the chest such as was worn by both very young girls and boys. It echoes the style of the mother’s dress.
The attire worn by the figures, as well as the sitters themselves, brings up the question of their date. It is likely that Lefevre is depicting the Cornudet couple here, for whom we know a portrait dated 1803 of a woman holding her daughter, both of whom are physically close to our sitters. The child seems slightly older in that version than in ours, so our portraits were probably realized in about 1800, at the beginning of the Consulate. The woman would be Jeanne Cellier du Montel (1768-1846), depicted here at 32 years old, daughter of a captain of the Royal Navy Regiment, who married Joseph Cornudet des Chamettes (1755-1834) in 1787. Presumably 45 years old here, he was a Jurist, politician, and a partisan of the Constitutional Monarchy under the Revolution who participated in the coup d’état of 18 brumaire. In our portrait, Joseph Curnudet does not wear any decorations, but he would receive many honors under the Empire.
The artist seems to have regularly used the same format as in our two works. These are easel paintings whose size, neither too large nor too small, allowed the artist to meet the many commissions which came from the Emperor or from private individuals whose identity remains uncertain to this day.
“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.”
Judging by these words, it seems Jean-Baptiste Regnault naturally detected that the young artist, only a year younger than himself, already knew the art of painting. Gaston Lavalley’s work published in 1914 mentions that before joining Regnault’s studio in 1784, Robert Lefevre learned to paint by himself by sketching models from life and instantly correcting his drawings.
Whether they were citizens in powerful circles, close to the artist himself, or simple individuals asking for social recognition, Lefevre rendered each detail in the depiction of his sitters with great care. His virtuosity was expressed through minute brushstrokes, going from the handling of finely drawn hair to embroidery on the dress or light reflections in the white pearls worn by the mother.
An indefatigable worker, an artist, with an excellent sense of commerce who enjoyed international fame, Robert Lefevre was a well-known portraitist of an elegant world that lasted from the end of the monarchy through the Empire and the Restoration and which offered him all the honors for which a painter could aspire.
In systematically seeking to perfect himself, Robert Lefevre didn’t content himself with the honors he received from the public who considered him among the best painters of his time. He also sought honorific distinctions by signing onto the list of candidates at the Philotechnical Society, so as to frequent scholars, men of letters and politicians as well.
“You have charged me, citizen colleagues, to give you a report on Citizen Robert Lefevre, painter, signed up on the list of candidates claiming the honor of occupying a place among you one day. If his commendable talents, all the qualities of character and heart give this right, then Citizen Robert Lefevre incontestably possesses them. Here is the list of his works, about which I will not enter into any detail, because they are generally known to you. ”