This large ink wash, carried out at the dawn of the French Revolution by Jean-Urbain Guérin using dazzling technical skills, presents us with the portrait of Joseph-Alexandre de Ségur. Famous for being one of the "last libertines", the life and especially the amorous exploits of the Viscount of Ségur are somewhat reminiscent of that of the Viscount of Valmont, one of the main characters of the Dangerous Liaisons. As reality sometimes meets fiction, our model was also a friend of the author...
1. Jean-Urbain Guérin (1760 – 1836)
Son of the engraver Jean Guérin from Strasbourg, Jean-Urbain Guérin received his initial Art training from his father, then from Charles-Alexis Huin (1735 - 1796). He was subsequently sent to the French capital with Jean-Baptiste Kléber, his childhood friend where he frequented the Alsatian community in Paris, in particular the miniaturist Jean-Baptiste Weyler (1749-1791), who oriented him towards miniature painting. He continued his apprenticeship with Jacques-Louis David (1748 – 1825) and then worked with Jean-Baptiste Isabey (1767 – 1855). Alongside Jean-Baptiste Isabey and Jacques Augustin (1759 – 1832), he became one of the most renowned miniaturists of his time.
Throughout his life he alternated between miniatures and drawn portraits, using often watercolours, portraying the elegant society of his time: as an example, in 1791 he painted a miniature portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire , friend of Queen Marie-Antoinette’s. The latter, who he also drew a portrait of, will always protect the young artist. He also produced portraits of Louis XVI, several members of parliament and the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart .
On June 20th 1792, when the royal family is under threat from the sans-culottes in front of the Tuileries , Jean-Urbain Guérin defended his royal patrons in front of the Tuileries. A suspect under the Terror regime, he leaved France and joined Desaix's army.
Returning to France under the Consulat, he entered the service of Joséphine de Beauharnais and painted the portraits of several generals of the Republic and the Empire, including a famous portrait of Kléber, his childhood friend. He regularly exhibited at the Salon until 1827 and died in Obernai on October 29th 1836.
2. The Viscount of Segur, one of the "last libertines" (1756 - 1805)
The life of the Viscount of Segur was extensively evoked by Gabriel de Broglie in his book Ségur sans cérémonie 1757-1805, ou la Gaieté libertine and more recently by Benedetta Craveri in her book "Les derniers Libertins".
Born out of wedlock, Joseph-Alexandre de Ségur was the illegitimate son of the Baron de Besenval (1721 - 1791), a colonel in the Swiss Guards Regiment and the Marquise de Ségur. The Baron de Besenval was a brother-in-arms and best friend of the Marquis, Philippe-Henri de Ségur (1724 - 1801), who through his mother’s side of the family was the grandson of the Regent, and whose father’s family were of Huguenot origin who distinguished themselves in the service of Henri IV. He was an officer during the wars of Louis XV, and Secretary of State for War of Louis XVI from 1780 to 1787. In 1783 he was raised to the dignified position of Marschal of France.
Joseph-Alexandre, although bearing the name Ségur, chose to emulate the life of his biological father, to whom he bore a striking resemblance. As Benedetta Craveri writes, "the Viscount had the lightness, the gaiety, the fatuity, the hedonism of his natural father and, from adolescence onwards, endeavoured to imitate his style".
Impelled by the Marquis de Ségur to pursue a military career, he entered the gendarmerie at the age of sixteen in 1772 and in 1784 succeeded his elder brother as Colonel Commandant of the Ségur Regiment. The peace that followed the Seven Years' War (concluded in 1763) never gave him the opportunity to test his military capabilities, instead social success became his raison d'être and the great concern of his life.
A romantic liaison with opera dancer Julie Careau that began in 1778 when he was 22 years of age, was the beginning of his “life of gallantry". The young couple settled in a house on rue Chantereine in Paris. Ségur recognised the two sons born from this relationship. But the couple soon drew apart and went their separate ways, Ségur returning to his love intrigues with the ladies of high society while the beautiful Julie left Ségur for the actor Talma, leading to their definitive break-up in 1788.
Ségur wrote comedies for which he did not hesitate to take the stage himself: thus in January 1787 he played the leading role in a comedy of his own composition Le Parti le plus gai. Ségur performed jointly with Mademoiselle Contat, one of the most popular actresses of the time. This first success was followed by the premiere at the Théâtre-Français of Rosaline et Floricourt, another comedy by Ségur, on November 17th, 1787 which established him as a fashionable author.
In the summer of 1787 he was exiled to Luzancy (about 100 km from Versailles to the East of Paris) following an outburst of derogatory sarcasm about the King during a visit to the opera. During that time Ségur met Choderlos de Laclos, whose regiment was garrisoned in the vicinity, and introduced him to the Duke of Orléans who took Laclos into his service as secretary of the commands.
In 1789, the year our portrait was painted, Ségur published an epistolary novel, inspired by his love affair with Julie Careau, in the form of a literary pastiche: Secret Correspondence between Ninon de Lenclos, the Marquis de Villarceaux and Madame de Maintenon.
Elected deputy by the nobility of Paris to the Etats Généraux, Ségur soon turned away from politics to pursue his literary work, discovering journalism. He remained faithful to the King. In 1792 he started a liaison with Reine-Claude Chartraire de Bourbonne, Countess of Avaux, who bore him a son in 1793 and who remained his mistress until his death.
He was imprisoned during the Terror and was transferred on May 26th 1794 to the prison of Port-Libre (the former monastery of Port-Royal) where he owed his salvation to Charles de La Bussière who managed to make his file disappear from the records, thus enabling Ségur to avoid the guillotine and to leave prison immediately after Thermidor.
Now earning his living through his writing, Ségur published the Memoirs of the Baron de Besenval in 1805. He died on July 27th 1805 in Bagnères-de-Bigorre (Hautes-Pyrénées), lovingly looked after by Madame d'Avaux.
3. Description of the portrait
Aged 33 in 1789, and recently separated from Julie Careau, Ségur is a successful playwriter, a very fashionable man, extremely sociable and self-confident, and very much used to gallant success. Ségur is depicted sitting on a chair with a backrest covered in a fabric decorated with foliage patterns. His slightly casual attitude matches his disdainful and disillusioned look. His attire, both simple and yet highly elegant, reflects the taste of the Parisian high society at the time for a less formal, English-inspired fashion.
David's influence is evident in the dazzling technique that Jean-Urbain Guérin deploys in the quasi-photographic rendering of the face as well as the smallest folds of the jacket.
The date of the portrait - 1789 - makes it a poignant testimony to the twilight of this refined and hedonistic aristocratic society, destined to disappear with the Revolution.
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3 800 €