Daniel DUMONSTIER (Paris, 1574 – 1646)

Portrait of a Young Widow

40.5 x 29.5 cm. (15 1516 x 11 58 cm.)
Circa 1620. Black and red chalk, stump.

One of the last members of an illustrious dynasty of Parisian portraitists, Daniel Dumonstier was the one who fundamentally adapted the subtle and specifically French Renaissance style of chalk portrait drawing to the 17th century. Developed in the late 15th century by Jean Perréal and perfected by Jehannet Clouet and his son François, this very simple technique, because it consisted only of black and red chalk on unprepared paper, nonetheless required a sure virtuoso hand capable of capturing the model in all its verity in a single sitting, without ever departing from a conventional small bust portrait formula or resorting to idealization. Transposed very precisely into painting as many times as necessary, reduced so as to be reproduced in miniature, simplified for painted Limoges enamels, the drawn portrait in the 17th century was the source of a whole production and the word “crayon” (transl. note: which today means pencil, but in this context at that time, indicated chalk) was even synonymous with “portrait.” At the same time, with the notable exception of the works by Clouet demanded by Catherine de’Medici, there was no reason for these drawings to circulate and they remained in the studios of royal portraitists. This fact explains the high number of them in the Prints and Drawings Department, the Cabinet des Estampes, at the French National Library which had absorbed all the great Parisian graphic collections at the end of the 17th century, starting with, among others, the contents of studios of three families of artists who had succeeded the Clouet: the Decourts, Quesnels, and Dumonstiers.

While the Cabinet also owned a large collection of drawn portraits by Daniel Dumonstier, they differed from those of the Renaissance in that they mainly came from collectors of the Grand Century as finished works not intended for the production of paintings.

Daniel Dumonstier was the son of Côme Dumonstier, who was a specialist in portrait miniatures in the service of Catherine de’Medici and the Queen of Navarre, and the nephew of Etienne and Pierre Dumonstier, portraitists in title of Catherine de’Medici, Charles IX, and Henri III. The elder, Etienne, whose graphic and painted oeuvre remains to be reconstituted, had launched “crayon” on a new more expressive and three dimensional path. He had generalized the work with stump, introduced pastel and the use of a brush loaded with water to dilute the pigments and better render the high vaporous hairstyles of both gentlemen and ladies under the last Valois king.
The three Dumonstier brothers had built careers as court painters and royal officers apart from the Parisian guild of painters. Like his father and uncles, Daniel entered royal service early as a painter and chamber valet (the later title being purely honorary) and claimed to be a “noble man.” That is how he is designated in 1602 in his marriage contract with Geneviève Balifre, the daughter of the master of the child musicians in the king’s chamber.

With Martin Fréminet and Daniel Rabel, he was one of the young artists who enchanted the exigent Henri IV and triggered an artistic revolution which culminated in Simon Vouet’s grand genre. As opposed to his elders, Daniel Dumonstier specialized very rapidly in drawing, and almost entirely ignored painting. Twice as large as François Clouet’s or Etienne Dumonstier’s, his chalk portraits were perfectly finished, even if he liked to play with the way the clothing was rendered by omitting detail in order to bring out his sitters’ faces better. Although François Pourvus had just become the royal family’s official portraitist, Dumonstier concentrated on rapidly catching the likeness of the most eminent members of Louis XIII’s court and thus creating fragile refined yet solemn works. Certain portraits were engraved, but most remained with their sitters who were concerned with thus showing their attachment to old tradition, their distinction and culture.

From then on, Dumonstier’s career suffered no breaks. In 1622, the king granted him lodging in the Louvre. Four years later, the responsibility of painter to Monseigneur, His Majesty’s brother Gaston d’Orléans, was added to that of ordinary painter to the king and reigning queen (Anne of Austria). The artist was a man full of curiosity, constantly seeking more knowledge, passionate about music and books, and spoke several languages. His curiosity cabinet was one of the most well-known in Paris and his company in demand. He had made friends with the best minds of his time, such as the erudite Claude Fabrie de Peiresc and the poet Malherbe.

Our drawing remarkably illustrates Daniel Dumonstier’s elegant manner which combined a refined line and broad determinedly pictorial hand. He depicts a young woman attired in the fashion of the very early 1620s in a dress with a low neckline and high collarette trimmed with lace. A large bow decorates her bodice. A quite similar dress can be seen in a portrait of an unknown lady dated by the artist himself this 8th of March 1620 and conserved in the Cabinet des Estampes (Na 24b res., fol. 33.) The sitter’s hair is brushed back and covered by a bonnet which seems like a widow’s attifet even if it doesn’t have the characteristic point descending down the forehead. Furthermore, the lady wears little jewelry which only consists of pearls, the sole jewels which widows were allowed to wear. A black string falls under the edge of the neckline: a cross or medallion hangs from it.

During the same period, in one of his three known profile portraits, Dumonstier drew another unknown lady with the identical headdress which renders visible the ingenious construction. This particular attifet seems to indicate a widow who has remarried. Unfortunately there is nothing that makes it possible to identify the sitter of this chalk drawing to prove this hypothesis. Similarly, the lady in our drawing retains her involuntary anonymity because no inscription tells us her name and no known portrait, whether painted or engraved, shows the same face. We can only say, given her appearance, that she was of eminently noble background and belonged to the highest level of society. Her identity should probably be sought among Queen Anne of Austria’s ladies in waiting or the spouses of the grand servants of the Crown.

With remarkable softness and acuity, the portraitist has captured the lady’s fine features, the depth of her brown-eyed gaze, as well as the whiteness of her complexion which brings out the bluish veins on her temple. The sanguine delicately emphasizes her carmine lips, the rims of her eyelids and edges of her ear, while stump veils the scalp, softens contours, and sometimes becomes shadow, sometimes veritable color, especially in the bow.
Transl. chr

General Literature (Unpublished Work)
Daniel LECŒUR, Daniel Dumonstier. 1574-1646, Paris, Arthéna, 2006.

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