On the verso, a long note (actual spelling and punctuation):
Sujet du tableau
Le Portrait principal est Louis Quinze Roi de France, Minerve représentée par Mde La Comtesse Du Barry qui tient des Couronnes de Lauriers pour être distribués aux Genies de tous les Genres de Peinture qui sont au bas du tableau ainsi que la Sculpture. L’auteur P. [sic] de Sompsois le présenta au Roi et à Mde Du barri [sic] en 1774. depuis Ce tems on ignora ce qu’il étoit devenu. Ce ne fut qu’en 1806 plus de 30 ans après et depuis la mort de l’auteur que sa fille unique qui étoit retirée dans un dept et que des affaires appellèrent à paris retrouva le tableau chez un md de Tableau elle apprit qu’à la mort de Mde Du barry il avait été acheté par une personne attaché à la famille d’Orléans. Elle l’acheta et la possède depuis.
P. Sompsois fecit ci 1774 (1775 barré)
[added later in the same hand]
+on a sçut depuis que ce tableau avoit été caché à Lucienne dans une embrasure de croisée derière la boiserie. Lorsque Mde Du barry fut emfermée à la Conciergerie dont elle n’est sortie que pour monter à l’echafaud.
Subject of the painting:
The main portrait is of Louis Fifteenth of France, Minerva depicted as Mde the Countess Du Barry who holds the Laurel Crowns to be distributed to the Spirits of each of the genres of Painting who are at the bottom of the picture, as well as Sculpture. The author P. [sic] de Sampsois presented it to the King and to Mde Du barri [sic] in 1774, since That time what became of it is unknown. It was only in 1806, more than 30 years later and after the death of the artist that his only daughter who had retired to a county and whose business called her to paris rediscovered the picture at a painting merchant’s she learned that at the death of Mde Du barry it had been bought by someone connected with the family of Orleans. She bought it and has owned it since then.
P. Sompsois fecit ci 1774 1775
[added later in the same hand]
Since then it has become known that the picture had been hidden at Lucienne in a window casing of the crossing behind the wood paneling. When Mde Du barry was imprisoned at the Conciergerie from which she only left to climb onto the scaffold.
• Probably collection of Jeanne Bécu de Cantigny, Countess Du Barry (1743-1793), Louveciennes (according to the inscription on verso).
• Probably N de Sompsois, the artist’s daughter (according to the inscription on verso).
• France, Private Collection.
Composed of as many official negotiations as intrigues, plots, subterfuges, and impostures, mid-eighteenth century European diplomacy fuels a good number of legends, beginning with the most famous, that of the Chevalier d’Eon. He had to intervene in the relations between France and Russia, which remained cold and without any reciprocal ambassadors for ten years, between the departure in 1748 of the Count of Alion and the arrival in 1757 of the Marquis de l’Hôpital which had been prepared in the greatest secrecy by the Chevalier and Mackensie-Douglas. Hôpital’s very solemn embassy included Louis-Alexandre Frotier de La Messelière (1710-1777) who, in his memoirs published in 1803, attributed the improved relations between the two States to “a certain Sompsoy, son of the Swiss Guard of M. the Duke of Gesvres who, having the talent of miniature painting, introduced himself to do a portrait of the Empress.” According to La Messelière, the artist exhibited the “great veneration” that the French had for Elisabeth so well that the Tsarina ended up expressing her wish to see more French people at her court. “Sompsoy volunteered to be the one to let the king know her intentions through the intermediary of M. the Duke of Gesvres. He was approved, left on the pretext of going to get his wife in Paris, and accomplished his mission very well.” D’Eon and Douglas thus arrived on ground that had already been prepared by a miniaturist.
This short passage is sufficient to consider Sampsois as a diplomatic agent, however this information is to be taken with extreme prudence. Nothing in fact attests that Jean or Jean-François de Sompsois issued from the Duke of Gesvres’ circle. In fact, in 1778, he declared that he was noble and French, and was apparently related to a gentile family, de Sompsois, from the Champagne area. In any case, while documents and memoirs call him Sompsoy, Sampsoi, Sampçoi, Samsois, or Sumpsois, he himself never signed any way other than “De Sompsois.”
Similarly, the painter’s diplomatic activity is not confirmed by any official dispatch or missive, even though a tentative to question the heir of the throne, the future Peter III, is told in a letter of September 17th, 1756 sent by Catherine the Great to Charles Hanbury Williams. De Sompsois had just presented the pastels to the couple and took advantage of the situation to ask Peter if he was afraid that the French would meddle in questions of the succession. The interview was cut short: while the heir responded dryly to the artist to mind his own business, the future Empress threatened him with imprisonment.
The most precise information that we have about Sompsois can be found in the texts of Jacob von Stählin (1709-1785), professor of the Academy of Sciences in Saint Petersburg, first Director of the Academy of Fine Arts, poet, medal maker, and engraver. Although he says not a word about the education and arrival of the artist in Russia, he describes him as a remarkable miniaturist and pastelist, author of many portraits of members of the court, and especially of the Empress, mainly on the snuff boxes which she liked to give as presents. The miniature of the Austrian ambassador Miklós Esterházy was, in Stählin’s opinion, “particularly successful.” For Elisabeth’s birthday in 1753, Count Alexei Razoumovski had commissioned a fan from Sompsois with views of Tsarskoe Selo enlivened by “hundreds of figures.” Van Stählin highly respected the Frenchman’s talent, though he found his drawing somewhat weak. He recounts that one day, de Sompsois, who was at the Baron de Breteuil’s (French Ambassador to Russia between 1760 and 1763), saw the painter Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée drawing portraits there of the guests. “Another one to add here,” declared the miniaturist, while tracing the image of Lagrenée himself which he pinned to the wall next to the other folios.
The painter made two trips to Saint Petersburg. The first, in about 1753-1755, and the second between 1755-1756 and 1763-1764. His Russian career is confirmed by several works signed in his hand, including eleven pastel portraits of the Ladies of Honor of Catherine figuring as elements, continents, or seasons (Oranienbaum, Chinese Palace) and which are mentioned in one of the Grand Duchess’ letters. Several portraits are datable to the years 1763-1764: one of a pastel of the future Emperor Paul I, (Saint Petersburg, Russian Museum, 45 x 38 cm.) one in oil of the Countess of Solms-Sonnenwalde, wife of the Prussian Ambassador who arrived in 1762, and a miniature of an unknown lady.
The latter is the largest of Sampsois’ extant miniatures, even if it remains bust length. That is in fact the case for all of his portraits, regardless of technique, with the exception of his lost self portrait with his wife which is known on account of a short poem by Barnabé Farmian Durosoy published in 1769. On this occasion, the poet imagined a dispute between “the God of Taste” who wished to carry the œuvre to the Temple of Minerva, and Cupid who wished it for his mother Venus.
In the context of such a uniform corpus, our work appears to be completely exceptional. First of all, its size transforms the miniature into an actual painting. Add to that the great complexity of the composition, the exuberance, and detailed setting, as well as the introduction of numerous allegorical figures and putti. Of the latter, only one other example can be cited, that of the little Zephyr in the portrait of Narychina, while column bases or draperies embellish a few miniatures. Finally, the date of our painting, 1774, raises the question of Sompsois’ activity after he returned from Russia.
For, as strange as it may seem, a gap exists in his biography for the period between 1764 and 1775, when the name “de Sompsois, squire” appears in the list of eleven free associates of the Academy of Saint Luke. In fact, he did not exhibit anything in the salons of this institution which disappeared with the suppression of the Parisian guilds starting in 1776. In 1778, de Sompsois was received as master painter in The Hague while refusing nonetheless to pay entry fees as a French noble. In the Russian documents, a payment of 750 rubles – a considerable sum – is registered in 1780 in the painter’s favor. Several pastels dated between 1782 and 1791 attest to his presence in the Low Countries. He subsequently was in Paris and connected with the Count of Paroy, which made it possible for him to do Madame Royale’s portrait (50 x 36 cm. private collection). Cited in a document of 1797, the miniature of the Count of Provence appears to be the last mention of de Sampsois.
Works are also lacking for the ten years of his career between 1765 and 1775. Only two signed miniatures seem, based on the costumes, to date from this period: that which is inscribed on the verso “Madame Roussel” (Gouache on parchment, 4.3 x 3.5 cm. formerly David-Weill collection, no 784; Sale Sotheby’s London, November 10th, 1986, lot 78), and that depicting an unknown lady. The profile of the actor and dramatist Pierre Laurent Buirette de Belloy engraved by Augustin de Saint-Aubin for the frontispiece of the first of edition of the Siege of Calais in 1765 should be added . The rich staging for the portrait with putto and cenotaph, though it bears similarities with our miniature, is in fact the work of Saint-Aubin, as is noted in the inscription beneath the engraving, “De Sompsois delin effigies / De St Aubin Fecit.”
It would seem nonetheless that de Sompsois lived this whole time in Paris, probably rue de Tournon in the house where his wife, Marie-Anne Langlois died in 1760. Was our large and sumptuous miniature intended to be the pinnacle of his career, an expected masterpiece, even a commission, or on the contrary, the fruit of a desire to be finally noticed, the ultimate attempt to establish his reputation at court? The elements are lacking to be able to decide in favor of one or the other hypothesis, though it would be in fact surprising that an artist like de Sompsois couldn’t quickly assemble a clientele upon his return from Saint Petersburg. The art of miniature was particularly prized during that period and commissions abounded. The artist’s creations are probably to be sought among the unsigned portraits, such as the eight miniatures which were recently sold and depicted the Russian, Swedish, and Dutch sovereigns (William V of Orange Nassau and his wife Wilhemina of Prussia, born in 1751).
This leaves us to suppose that Sompsois remained active during all those years without ever entering the Academy. Was our work which celebrates Painting and Sculpture intended to make it possible for him to be presented before his colleagues? The fact that the name de Sompsois does not appear in any session minutes invalidates this supposition. In view of the time necessary to produce such a painting, it is more likely that it was a private commission rather than a personal initiative. Why not a present for or from Madame Du Barry?
For it is indeed the favorite who is to be recognized in the figure of Painting finishing a portrait of the king Louis XV in his coronation robes. Based on Louis Michel Van Loo’s famous picture, the portrait is painted on a separate piece of parchment with extraordinary precision. The rest of the composition acts as its setting, beginning with the richly gilt frame decorated with the arms of France in which each detail is a model of perfection.
The parchment with the royal portrait has been cut out so as to receive the profile of Painting, a colored replica of the bust of Madame Du Barry by Pajou. At the foot of the easel, a putto is busy engraving a profile on a copper plate, while another is choosing a pastel stick to continue his drawing. On the right, a putto seated at a table pouts the last touch on an oval miniature; in front of him, shells are used for preparing his colors. Two other putti are creating medals: one plunges the metal into the fire of a brazier, the other holds an awl and proudly displays the result to Sculpture, who is busy sculpting a bust of the king in marble. She, too, bears the physiognomy of Madame Du Barry, as she appears in a 1773 portrait by Drouais or the engraving by Louis-Marin Bonnet dated 1769 and accompanied by the motto: “The Graces and Cupid ceaselessly surround her, and the Arts, with them, each in turn, crown her.” Above all of this creative agitation to the glory of the Very Christian King and his muse – how can one not be reminded of the allegorical portrait of the favorite as the Muse of the Arts exhibited by Drouais in the Salon of 1771 –Minerva sits enthroned on a vaporous cloud. The goddess holds two laurel crowns destined for Painting and Sculpture. Her pose is freer and better proportioned than those of the two allegories which leads us to believe that Sampsois must have referred to an existing image with her figure.
The entire work is a celebration of the Fine Arts, or more precisely, the glorification of the art of the portrait, the artist’s specialty. Breaking with academic hierarchy, the portrait thus becomes the first of the genres, the only one capable of representing the king in his majesty. But our miniature is also a real marvel in flamboyant colors whose harmony is sustained by the omnipresence of whites and the grey background of clouds and somewhat awkward columns which are typical of the artist. De Sompsois takes care of the least details in his masterpiece: the owl on Minerva’s helmet, the pink bow in Sculpture’s hair, the green laces in Painting’s sandals, the pastel crayons in their box and the low reliefs on the base of the green marble pedestal. Here he shows that he is an accomplished artist, capable of going beyond the narrow limits of his genre to become a history painter, which he emphasizes with his proud signature, De Sompsois Invt et Pinxit Anno 1774. However it is probably this date that deprived the miniature and its creator of a largely merited celebrity: the king died on May 10th, 1774 and the favorite lost all influence by leaving court.
Leo R. SCHIDLOF, La miniature en Europe aux XVIe, XVIIe, XVIIIe et XIXe siècles, Graz, 1964, vol. II, p. 714.
Андрей А. КАРЕВ, Миниатюрный портрет в России XVIII века, Moscow, 1989, pp. 90-92.
Miniatures and enamels from the D. David-Weill Collection, Paris, 1757, p. 304.
Miniatures et émaux de la collection David-Weil, Paris, 1957, p. 304.
Neil JEFFARES, Dictionary of Pastellists before 1800, London, 2006, p. 506.
Neil JEFFARES, Dictionary of Pastellists before 1800, on line version updated March 13th, 2015, http://www.pastellists.com/Articles/sompsois.pdf.
[Vladimir G. KLEMENTIEV] Владимир Г. КЛЕМЕНТЬЕВ, « Портреты Жана де Сампсуа в коллекции Китайского дворца-музея », Памятники культуры. Новые открытия. Ежегодник 1990, Moscow, 1992, pp. 298-307.
[Galina N. KOMELOVA] Галина Н. КОМЕЛОВА, « Миниатюрист Франсуа Самсуа в России », Россия-Франция. Век Просвещения. Сборник научных трудов, Saint-Petersburg, 1992, pp. 88-99.
Berndt PAPPE et Juliane SCHMIEGLITZ-OTTEN, Miniaturen des Rokoko aus der Sammlung Tansey, Munich, 2008, pp. 228-229.
Sabine MOEHRING, L’original était fait pour les Dieux! Die Comtesse Dubarry in der Bildkunst, Cologne, 1995.