Louis ELLE called Ferdinand the Elder (Paris, 1612 - 1689)

Portrait thought to be of Marguerite Hessein, Lady of La Sablière (1636-1693)

89.3 x 70 cm. (35 3/16 x 27 9/16 in.)
1655 Oil on canvas. Signed and dated on verso of the canvas : "FAIT PAR FERDINAND LAISNE 1655" (Made by Ferdinand Laisne 1655) On verso, label of the Allard du Chollet collection (torn)

• Count Maurice Allard du Chollet (1863-1937) Collection, Paris
• Allard du Chollet Family Collection (by inheritance)
• France, Private Collection

• 1935, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Troisième centenaire de l’Académie Française (by Louis Ferdinand Elle).

On the innermost temple wall would have been her image,
With her features, smiles, and charms,
Her art of pleasing while of it thinking naught,
Her graces to whom all pay homage.

Jean de La Fontaine, prologue to the fable
The Raven, Gazelle, Tortoise, and Rat (Book XII, 15)

It was as Isis, messenger for the gods, that Jean de La Fontaine imagined the famous Salon hostess, Marguerite Hessein, Lady of La Sablière, – “this beautiful Art,” an elegant allusion to the name of his dedicatee – in the verse prologue of one of his fables. Daughter of a rich financier who had given her a brilliant education, in 1655, she had married Antoine Rambouillet, Lord of La Sablière, a very cultivated but fickle man. In 1668, the couple separated, and Marguerite could be free in her movements and encounters. Distinguished by her scientific knowledge, conversation, and manners, she gathered everyone around her whom 17th century Paris considered the most eminent: scholars, the most spiritual ladies, writers, and poets, including La Fontaine whom she had housed since 1673.

The literary portrait of Madame de La Sablière published in the Mercure gallant of July 1678 probably came from the fable writer’s pen:

She had ash blond hair, the most beautiful that can be imagined; soft fine and brilliant blue eyes, though they were not the largest; an oval shaped face; a lively and smooth complexion; skin of a blinding whiteness; the most beautiful hands and throat in the world. Joined to this, a certain air of sweetness and playfulness spread across her whole person. I even noticed that in all she said and did, this easy turn, this character of an unembarrassed spirit, this good and honest humour, and obliging manners were so strong that it would be difficult for others to imitate. In fact, anyone other than I, less filled with the idea of you, upon seeing what I saw, would not have hesitated to say: it is Madame D.L.S.

As for painted representations of one of the most brilliant women of the Grand Century, two very different paintings are known today, both attributed to Pierre Mignard. The first is conserved at the Château of Valençay, while the second, at least since 1854, ornaments that of Bussy-Rabutin which sheltered the exile of Count Roger de Bussy-Rabutin who was chased from court after the publication of his Histoire amoureuse des Gaules (Amourous History of the Gauls). Surprisingly, the gallery of several hundred portraits commissioned by the libertine count do not include any representation of Madame de La Sablière, an intimate friend of his cousin, Madame de Sévigné. The identification thus relies only upon the inscription, “LILLUSTRE M.E DE LA SABLIERE” placed on the lower edge of the canvas and obviously posterior.

As opposed to the Bussy-Rabutin picture, our portrait bears no inscription, but the name of the salon hostess has been associated with it for a long time. In particular, on the verso of the canvas can be found the date of 1655, which is that of Marguerite Hessein’s marriage, as well Louis Elle the Elder’s signature, the most sought after portraitist of the time. The features of the lady depicted here as Diana the Huntress correspond perfectly to the 1678 literary description: her eyes are greyish blue and her hair - as well as her eyebrows - are a luminous ash blond. The blondness of the blouse and its matching fine lace trim, along with the dazzling white of the pearls in the young woman’s hair and around her neck, beautifully echo this very particular tint of her hair.

One last point should be mentioned: Madame de La Sablière was Protestant. She only converted a few months before the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, and in fact, the Elles were extremely tied to the Parisian Protestant milieu.

Louis Elle was the son of the painter Ferdinand Elle (c. 1580-1637), originally from Mechelen, who settled in France en the early 17th century and was mainly known as “Ferdinand”. Called “the Elder” in order to distinguish him better from his brother Pierre, also a painter and engraver, Louis Elle kept the his father’s “brush name” of “Ferdinand”, so as to emphasize the studio’s continuity. A famous portraitist, master in the Saint-Germain corporation, he worked for the grand Parisian families, the most eminent courtisans, and members of the royal family, including the Grand Mademoiselle, Queen Maria-Theresa of Austria, Louis XIV’s brother Philippe, and the sovereign himself.

By February 1648, the artist belonged to the Academy of Painting and Sculpture, who elected him professor in 1659. The hardening of royal politics in respect to Protestants led, nonetheless, to his exclusion on March 10th, 1681, and made him lose part of his clientele and official commissions. Louis Elle renounced Protestantism two and half months after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes on October 18th, 1685, which made it possible for him to be immediately reintegrated into the Academy and for his return to grace, as can be seen by the Portrait of the Marquise de Maintenon accompanied by her Niece, commissioned by the Royal House of Saint Cyr (Versailles, inv. MV 2196.)

Louis Elle painted Madame de La Sablière as Diana the Huntress, reusing the gesture of the antique Diana in Fontainebleau who, with her right hand, draws the arrow out of the quiver on her back. Yet while the sculpture catches the light-footed goddess in full flight, the young woman’s pose is so static that she seems to be seated and her gesture caught in mid air is graceful and refined. Similarly, the marble Diana’s fine short tunic has been replaced here by very finely worked “antique” attire which plays on the delicacy of the lace, finesse of the silks, the ample royal blue draperies, and the brilliant jewels.

This picture is a court portrait, a genre in which Louis Elle excelled and to which he brought a touch of worldliness which was very different from the attentive objectivity of Champaigne’s or the Le Nain brothers’ portraits. With the Beaubrun brothers and Jean Nocret, Elle was at the origin of these representations codified in the manner of a gallant sonnet and became a master in the mythological personifications which were in tune with the lavish ballets at the Sun King’s court. Trained by his father, the artist conserved a Flemish nuance which, in his portraits of the 1650 to 1660, which could be seen in the attention given to fabrics, to a concern for atmospheric presence, a finesse in the handling of light and highlights which bring out textural grains, while the discreet idealization of faces and poses comes out of French tradition. He liked to make their eyes shine by illuminating them sideways and from out of the darkness of the iris. His models thus acquired a sparkling and malicious air which is the painter’s true mark.

Thus, in this portrait assumed to be of Marguerite de La Sablière, there is as much charm and poetry as in La Fontaine’s verses. For the painter, as for the writer, whether the subject was Isis or Diana, it is this spirited woman’s art of pleasing while of it thinking naught that they sought and succeeded in depicting.

1) Au fond du temple eût été son image,
Avec ses traits, son souris, ses appas,
Son art de plaire et de n’y penser pas,
Ses agréments à qui tout rend hommage.

2) Elle avait des cheveux d’un blond cendré, les plus beaux qu’on se puisse imaginer, les yeux bleus, doux, fins et brillants, quoiqu’ils ne fussent pas des plus grands, le tour du visage ovale, le teint vif et uni, la peau d’une blancheur à éblouir ; les plus belles mains et la plus belle gorge du monde. Joignez à cela un certain air de douceur et d’enjouement, répandu sur toute sa personne. Je remarquai même, dans ce qu’elle dit et dans tout ce qu’elle fit, ce tour aisé, ce caractère d’esprit sans embarras, cette humeur bonne et honnête et ces manières obligeantes qui sont si forts de vous qu’il serait difficile aux autres de les imiter. Enfin, tout autre que moi, moins rempli de votre idée, en voyant ce que je vis, n’eut pas laissé de dire : c’est madame D.L.S.

Bibliography of the Oeuvre

Troisième centenaire de l’Académie Française, exh. cat. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, 1935 (by Louis Ferdinand Elle).

Noël Richard, La Fontaine et les « Fables » du deuxième recueil, Paris, 1972, ill. p. 208.

Les Grands Salons littéraires (XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles). Conférences du Musée Carnavalet, Paris, Payot, 1927, ill. p. 48. (English translation, The Great Literary Salons (XVII and XVIII Centuries). Lectures of the Musée Carnavalet, Bulloz, 1930, ill. opposite p. 66).

General Bibliography

Elodie VAYSSE, Les Elle « Ferdinand », la peinture en héritage. Un atelier parisien au Grand Siècle (1601-1717), École des chartes Thesis, 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, Museum of the Augustins, Paris, Somogy, 1997.

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