Franz Bernhard FREY (Guebwiller, 1716 – Paris, 1806)

Portrait of a Young Woman in a Ball Gown Holding a Mask

Pastel on paper mounted on canvas
Carved and gilded wooden frame with interlacing, shells, and acanthus leaf decoration from the Regency period
97 x 75.5 cm

• France, private collection

• François-Bernardin Frey, "Guebwillerois and Painter of the Court" in L’Alsace, April 26, 1981
• Neil Jeffares, Dictionary of Pastellists before 1800, London, 2006

Born in 1716 in the heart of Alsace in Guebwiller, Franz Bernhard Frey died there in 1806. Although little is known about his training, it seems that he devoted himself to the study of pastel, mastering it brilliantly throughout his career. The few known works by his hand notably illustrate a particular attention to the rendering of flesh tones and modeling. Emmanuel Bénézit also mentions that he may have been the first to discover a technique for fixing pastel.

Between Strasbourg and Mannheim, his early works already include pastel portraits that demonstrate a certain fluidity in handling this medium. His father, Philippe-Bernard or Bernardin, was a magistrate and member of the council of Guebwiller, which probably brought him into contact with members of this community and enabled him to obtain commissions such as the portrait of Jean-Baptiste-François Durey de Bourneville-Mesnières (1705-1785), a prominent figure in the Parisian nobility and president of the second chamber of the Enquêtes at the Parliament of Paris (ill. 1).

Coming to Paris to find a new clientele, François-Bernardin Frey settled in Rue de Surenne in the faubourg Saint-Honoré between 1754 and 1775. His success was evident; he joined the painters of the King’s Buildings: a document dated June 27, 1768, attests to the activity of "S. Frey, Pastel Painter" concerning "various portraits" for "Madame" amounting to 4584 livres, transmitted to the King’s Buildings for payment. Close to the crown, some portraits of Louis XV’s daughters – now lost – were attributed to him.

Among the elegant female figures that he placed at the forefront of his work, our portrait stands out as the known masterpiece of the artist to date. Presumably commissioned, the pastel depicts a young woman half-length in a frame delimited by a vase on a pedestal decorated with garlands and an entablature on which she is leaning, holding a masquerade mask in her right hand and delicately lifting her gown with her left hand. In the 1750s, the flying gown known until then gave way to the French gown worn here by the model: with a bodice now tied in front and on the sides, a spectacular coat open on a pièce d’estomac accompanied by a matching skirt whose folds "à la Watteau" are amplified by the presence of baskets placed on either side of her waist. The silk gown is adorned with lace, bows, and flowers also found in her long powdered and braided hair, tied with small flowers, a signature element appearing in some other portraits including the one held at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow (ill. 2). The so-called "pagoda" sleeves are flat and open like funnels, to which engageantes of cotton muslin are attached. The work can be dated around the year 1750 thanks to the ribbon made of embroidered silk muslin tied around the neck of the young woman, characteristic of the fashion of that decade.

With this spectacular format, Frey rivals oil painting. This majestic work reveals the artist’s talents in the practice of pastel, allowing for precise rendering of textures. Here, the blending brings volume to the silk and muslin fabrics. As an excellent draftsman, he unveils his ingenuity and virtuosity in the treatment of light that bathes his subjects. Here, it renders both the grace and softness of the facial modeling and illustrates the luxurious quality of the silk gown. Specialists recognize in Frey a particular quality in the realistic rendering of the psychology of his models conveyed through special attention paid to the gaze: the pupils are generally very small compared to the iris.

Received as an associate member of the Academy of Saint-Luc, close to the crown as well as to the aristocracy, Frey enjoyed great reputation during his lifetime. The artist did not systematically sign his works, and the authorship of his pastels has sometimes been confused with those of his eminent contemporaries such as François-Hubert Drouais (1727-1775). Moreover, numerous late pastiches bearing an apocryphal signature were noted by the specialist Neil Jeffares, revealing the aura that the artist enjoyed during his lifetime.


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