This drawing is a disillusioned portrait of a middle-aged man, full of psychological analysis. Probably drawn around 1793-1795, it illustrates the immense graphic talent of David's pupils, but it also constitutes an enigma: who was this man, probably close to the most radical revolutionaries, the Montagnards?
1. Jacques-Louis David's studio, the training ground for a generation of artists
Born in Paris in 1748 into a middle-class family, the young David was fatherless at the age of nine. He was directed by the painter François Boucher, his mother's cousin, to the studio of Joseph-Marie Vien and, after several unsuccessful applications, won the Prix de Rome in 1774, where he stayed from 1775 to 1780.
Upon his return from Italy, his painting Bélisaire begging ensured him a great success and he opened his studio in 1781. It is estimated that some 400 painters, sculptors and engravers were trained in this studio until 1821. Among the artists working alongside David before the Revolution were Jean-Baptiste Wicar (who joined David in 1781), Jean-Germain Drouais (in 1783), François-Xavier Fabre (in 1783), Anne-Louis Girodet (in 1784), Jean-Urbain Guérin, Jean-Baptiste Isabey (in 1786) but also a few women such as Marie-Guillemine Benoit (in 1786) or Constance-Marie Charpentier (in 1787).
2. Description of the work
This portrait shows the profile of a middle-aged man dressed with nonchalant elegance. The blurring technique gives his dark frock coat an untidy, supple look that harmonises with the impression of carelessness conveyed by his rather loose hairstyle: medium-length hair with a few curls protruding above the collar, a ponytail tied with a ribbon.
The finesse of its execution allows for a rich psychological analysis of the model. He wears a heavy earring at his ear as a final transgression. A vein seems to be pulsating on his temple and numerous wrinkles streak his face. The sharp gaze, the slightly stooped posture, the wide eyes testify to a certain weariness, even apprehension, while his half-opened mouth gives him a slightly bewildered look.
It seems interesting to evoke in connection with this drawing the famous series of portraits of Imprisoned Montagnards drawn by David in June-July 1795 during his incarceration in the Quatre-Nations prison. Although they are of a completely different technique, being executed in wash, and slightly larger in size (18.5 cm for the one shown below), we see an obvious contemporaneity between those drawings and the one we are presenting here. While this one can in no way be attributed to David, it seems reasonable to think that its author belongs to this generation of artists trained in David's studio.
Another interesting comparison can be made with the medal struck by the French émigrés in Berlin in 1794 to celebrate the beheading on November 6th, 1793 of the Duke of Orleans, known as Philippe-Egalité.
Our character appears older than Philippe-Egalité but wears an earring like him, with half-length hair and a small plait at the back. He also wears a frock coat of a very similar model.
Should we see in this portrait that of a liberal aristocrat, close to the Montagnards and the Duke of Orleans, disillusioned by the excesses of the Revolution and by the disappearance of the man in whom he had placed his political hopes?
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