François Jean Sablet, called le Romain, was born in Morges, a small Swiss town near Lausanne. His father, Jacob Sablet, was a decorator and gilder, as well as a merchant of paintings and art objects, a fact which determined the career choices of François and his younger brother, Jacque Henri, called Sablet the Younger (b. 1749).
François began his artistic education in Berne and then went to Paris in 1767. Thanks to letters of recommendation obtained by his father, he succeeded in being admitted to Joseph-Marie Vien’s studio where a return to the antique was strongly advocated. Five years later, Jacques Sablet the Younger joined his elder and, in about 1775, the two brothers accompanied their master to Rome who had just been appointed Director of the French Academy there. This first trip to Italian earned the older brother the nickname “the Roman” which he kept his whole life.
Back in Paris in 1777, François Sablet set himself up as a portraitist and landscape painter and married. Family tradition has it that he was one of Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s collaborators. Whether that was the case or not, he seems to have received a great number of commissions and led a prosperous life, punctuated by many Roman sojourns which continued until 1796, in spite of tumultuous Franco-Italian relations after 1789. The Revolution ruined Sablet’s finances and obliged him to return to Switzerland. However the door of the Salon now was open to him, as it was no longer confined only to academicians. The artist exhibited there starting in 1791, and was received as a member of the Popular and Republican Society of Arts in 1793. The following year, in a competition of sketches held by the Convention, he won a prize of 4,000 francs.
Naturalized as a French citizen in 1805, Sablet settled in Nantes where, with the help of the architect Mathurin Crucy, he rapidly was viewed with great esteem and was able to constitute a loyal clientele of ship builders and owners, artists, and distinguished men who solicited his talents as a portraitst. Many of these portraits, often in a small format, are conserved in the Museum of Fine Arts in Nantes. Sablet also painted many landscapes and, in 1812, received a commission from the city of Nantes to decorate the Stock Exchange with six paintings in grisaille which imitated low relief sculpture and depicted various scenes of Napoleon’s stay in that city.
Our portrait of an unidentified man belongs to Sablet’s Nantais period and fits in perfectly with this production destined for the city’s wealthy families. The format is reduced, the presentation as a small bust is simple, the ground neutral, the attire sober in dark colors, the expression restrained. As in the little portraits by Corneille de Lyon during the Renaissance, Sablet’s pictures concentrate on the face and a few clothing details, although he never omits rendering the sophisticated hairdos of the First Empire as precisely as possible. As did his illustrious predecessor from Lyon, the artist worked directly from Nature by modeling volumes through fine delicate brushstrokes which followed the forms and recreated, by superimposition, the brilliance of the iris and the skin’s warm tints. Lines are drawn through the hair and thicken in the cravat and surprisingly pale pink vest. This little imaginative touch is in keeping with the sitter’s carefully worked hairdo and reveals that he was not as strict as the customs of the upper bourgeoisie in Nantes tended to require.
General Bibliography (unpublished picture)
Paul MARMOTTAN, “Les peintres François et Jacques Sablet,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 69th year, 1927, vol. II, pp. 193-210.
Anatole GRANGES DE SURGERES, Les Sablet. Peintres, graveurs & dessinateurs, Paris, Rapilly, 1888.