· France, private collection
Considered one of the best French portraitists in the pre-Versailles period of LouisXIV’s reign, Claude Lefebvre is still waiting for serious study and the reconstitution of his oeuvre, despite the work by Daniel Wildenstein and Jacques Wilhelm. He was a transitional artist between the generation of founders of the Academy including Juste van Egmont and Louis Elle, with his very Flemish detailed descriptions, on the one hand, and that of François de Troy – his student – and Nicolas de Largillière, with his alert suave brushwork, on the other. At the same time, more than any other portraitist of his time, Lefebvre knew how to adapt his manner to the circumstances and showed that he was capable of remarkable precision as well as of blended modeling.
Descended from a large family of painters who worked for Louis XIII, Claude Lefebvre was trained through contact with the royal collections of Fontainebleau, his native town, and under his father’s guidance. He then entered Eustache Le Sueur’s studio, followed by Charles Le Brun’s studio. The latter, detecting his talent, oriented him towards portraiture. Painter to the King, before even being received into the Academy in 1666, Lefebvre enjoyed great celebrity and had the honor of painting the King and the Queen, as well as the grandest figures in the kingdom, from Colbert to the Grande Mademoiselle. The portraitist’s brilliant career was interrupted by his premature death at only forty-three years old.
The 1674 post-mortem inventory of the artist’s wife, Jeanne du Tilloy, and that which was done just after Claude Lefebvre’s death on April 20th, 1675, lists several dozen pictures, including unfinished ones. Although they inevitably contain gaps, the two documents, along with the list of portraits engraved after Lefebvre, give a very precise idea of his clientele. Important court personalities can be found there, such as the Duke of Orleans, or Madame de Sévigné’s daughter, prelates such as the Archbishop of Paris, as well as actors such as François Juvenon, called La Fleur, musicians such as Charles Couperin, literary figures such as Valentin Conrart and men from the arts, such as the painters Samuel-Jacques Bernard and Ephrem Le Comte, the engraver François Chauveau, and the sculptor François Girardon.
Although the artist’s beginnings were marked by a distinctly northern taste, Lefebvre rapidly adopted more natural poses without losing any elegance or solemnity. He seems, for that matter, to have been one of the first to inscribe his works within an oval, such as in the portrait said to be of the jurist and playwright, Thomas Corneille, painted in about 1670 or the Artist’s Self-Portrait (private collection). The latter, although more worked, seems fairly close to our picture which also depicts an artist, as is indicated by the drawing portfolio and the portemine similar to the one Antoine Coypel holds in the portrait of him by Allou Gilles (Versailles, inv. MV 3682).
The sitter’s identity remains to be discovered, even if a certain family resemblance with Jean Jouvenet, also a student of Le Brun, could lead one to believe it could be his father, Laurent Jouvenet, called the Younger (1606-1681), painter from Rouen. Whoever it is, in view of the sitter’s age, it is certainly an artist of the same generation which appears to have been the first to be able to indulge in both the official portrait commissioned by the Academy or reproduced in engraving, as well as the intimate portrait destined for the family circle. Evidence of affinity, friendship, or respect between colleagues, these depictions are surprising in their immediacy and psychological acuity. Here, the pose is relaxed, and the gestures natural, while the open, slightly ironic gaze, along with a slight smile, seem to express the sitter’s personality better than the best documented biography can.
The choice of twill with a regular herringbone pattern – much more current in France at this time than in Italy or Flanders, and which, with age, tends to stand out from the pictorial layers – can be felt in the modeling, thicker in the lit areas and more scumbled in darker zones such as the scalp and the clothing. The quick brushstroke and sure hand are those of a great master capable of capturing in a few strokes the essentials of a face or the delicate embellishment of a lace jabot.
General Bibliography (Unpublished Work)
Théodore Lhuillier, "Le peintre Claude Lefèbvre, de Fontainebleau," Réunion des sociétés savantes des départements à la Sorbonne. Section des beaux-arts, 16th session, 1892, pp. 487-510.
Eugène Thoison, "Claude Lefèbvre," Réunion des sociétés savantes des départements à la Sorbonne. Section des beaux-arts, 29th session, 1905, pp. 358-383.
Daniel Wildenstein, "Claude Lefebvre restitué par l’estampe," Gazette des Beaux-Arts, LXII, 1963, pp. 305-313.
Jacques Wilhelm, "Quelques portraits peints par Claude Lefebvre (1632-1674)," Revue du Louvre, no 2, 1994, pp. 18-36.
Dominique Brême, Emmanuel Coquery et al., Visages du Grand Siècle. Le portrait français sous le règne de Louis XIV, 1660-1715, exh. cat. Nantes and Toulouse, 1997.