Gouache on vellum stretched over a copper plate
5 15/16 “ x 7 ½ “ (150 x 190 mm) (Framed 8 13/16 “ x 10 5/8 “ - 22.5 x 27 cm)
Gilded and carved wood frame from the Louis XIII period
This cabinet miniature is truly an artistic tour de force: in an area of just a few inches, the artist manages to portray Narcissus, who is reflected in the water in the foreground, and an attractive landscape behind him. The career of Henri Gascar, who was active on both sides of the Channel, could explain the strong influence of English miniaturists in this exceptional piece. We believe it constitutes a portrait historié of Louis of France, the Grand Dauphin, shortly before his wedding.
1. Henri Gascar, a cosmopolitan artist in the second half of the 17th century
Little is known about the life of Henri Gascar. He was born in Paris in 1635 into a family of artists: his father Pierre Gascar was also a painter and sculptor and probably provided Henri’s first training. After a stay in Rome around 1659, Henri Gascar specialised in portraits.
In 1674, he left for England, probably at the request of Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, the favourite mistress of King Charles II. The patronage of this great lady and Gascar's flamboyant style, characterised by the sumptuous rendering of fabrics and jewels, ensured his success at the Stuart court, where he stayed until 1679.
Back in Paris after a sojourn in the Netherlands, he was admitted to the Royal Academy in 1680. A great traveller, he went to Modena (in 1681), Venice (in 1686) and Poland (in 1691) before settling in Rome where he lived until his death on January 1st 1701.
During his stay in England Henri Gascar is also said to have been one of the first engravers to practice mezzotint, or manière noire. A number of gouaches on vellum recently presented on the market were also attributed to him, demonstrating the diversity of the mediums he practiced.
2. Description of the miniature
In our opinion, this gouache is a "portrait historié", i.e. a portrait representing an individual in the guise of a historical, biblical or mythological figure.
A young man, his torso clad in a kind of armour, lies alongside a pool in which he is reflected. Leaning on the grass, he rests his head on his left arm while his right hand is slightly raised, as if to greet the image he is contemplating.
The narcissus flower on the far right gives us the key to this representation and allows us to identify the mythological model as Narcissus, the young hunter of great beauty who fell in love with his own image.
The technique is particularly impressive since the artist manages to render not only the detail of the model's anatomy under the tight-fitting armour, but also the reflection of his deformed and slightly faded body in the water. The particular technique, which relies heavily on the use of wide verticals on a lighter background, evokes the art of an engraver and may suggest that the artist had experience as an engraver. As an additional refinement, the edge of the cuirass, which was most likely painted using lapis powder, is very lightly enhanced with gold.
While geometric rocks and a grove of trees, occupy the background on the right, a bluish horizon opens up on the left of the composition. Beyond a river, we discover an island on which two shepherds are wandering accompanied by animals, and beyond another grove, the outlines of a town.
3. A portrait of the Grand Dauphin?
An inscription on the back of the copper plate identified the model of this portrait historié as Philippe d'Orléans, the future Regent. While we would agree that by its magnificence this gouache evokes a princely character, it was probably executed around 1679-1680, during Henri Gascar's stay in Paris. At that time, Philippe d'Orléans was no more than 6 years old, and the portraits we have of him represent him with dark hair; these two elements seem to contradict this identification.
A more likely proposal would be to see in this portrait Louis of France (1661 - 1711), also called the Grand Dauphin. His features represented in our gouache correspond quite closely to the description of him given by the memorialist Saint-Simon: "Monseigneur was rather tall than short, very fat, but without being too cramped, looking very tall and noble, without anything rough [...]. He was of a very beautiful blond, his face was very red all over, and very full, but without any physiognomy; he had the most beautiful legs in the world; his feet were singularly small and skinny.”
The choice of Narcissus for a portrait historié may seem surprising at first. Louis de France married Marie-Anne of Bavaria on 7 March 1680; the choice of his wife was a matter of state. If we assume that this portrait represents Louis de France before his wedding, we can sketch out an explanation for the choice of this allegorical representation. Like Narcissus, Louis de France became exceptionally beautiful and attracted many suitors. Narcissus contemplating his own image thus becomes the representation of an introspective quest of the young man, seeking, through the contemplation of beauty, the profound meaning of his existence.
It is interesting to note the presence of an iris at the bottom left of the gouache as its shape looks like a metaphor for the fleur de lys, the heraldic emblem of the throne of France, to which our young Dauphin is entitled.
4. The influence of English miniatures, figures of melancholy
Beyond the choice of Narcissus, the very fact of being portrayed lying on the floor is unusual. In this respect, we would like to relate this portrait to two cabinet miniatures respectively by Nicholas Hilliard (1547 - 1619) and by his pupil Isaac Oliver (1565 - 1617), which we believe are two essential iconographic sources for our portrait and which enrich the image of Narcissus with a melancholic dimension.
The portrait of Henry Percy is a typical work of Nicholas Hilliard's mature period. It was produced between 1580 and the middle of the following decade. During this period, Hilliard produced half a dozen large miniatures (257 mm x 173 mm for this one), intended for display on the walls of a collector's cabinet.
The depiction of Henry Percy is a complex emblematic representation, but the interesting point here is the fact that the young man lies on his elbow, an immediate symbol for the sixteenth-century public of a melancholic figure.
This figure was used again some twenty years later by Isaac Oliver for his portrait of Edward Herbert, the first Baron of Cherbury.
This miniature presents two aspects of the model, his active life through the knight hanging his armour to the tree in the background, and his contemplative life through his melancholic pose beside a stream. The presence of water, the bluish background with a flowing river, make this last miniature even closer to our portrait.
It seems quite plausible that, during his stay at the Stuart court, Gascar had access to these two portraits, which were owned at that time by the descendants of the models. Beyond the formal influence, the reference to these miniatures enriches the symbolism of Narcissus with a melancholic dimension, which seems to us to be entirely appropriate for the portrait of a young prince of the classical age. As Walter Benjamin wrote , the Prince can be seen as the paradigm of the melancholic. And, as Pascal wrote: "Royal dignity is great enough by itself to make the one who possesses it happy by the mere sight of who he is, isn’t it ?”
This gouache on vellum has been framed in a carved and gilded wooden frame of the Louis XIII period. Although this frame is from a slightly earlier period, its gilding highlights the greens and browns of the grass and rocks against which our figure stands.
A comparison with two miniatures produced in England a century earlier sheds light on the iconographic origins of our work. By associating our portrait with the classical figure of melancholy, this comparison enriches the psychological portrait of our young Prince who is about to embark on life, adding this complementary dimension to the figure of Narcissus.
Main bibliographic elements :
(under the direction of) Jean Clair – Mélancolie – génie et folie en Occident - RMN/Gallimard 2005
Elizabeth Goldring - Nicholas Hilliard - Life of an Artist - Paul Mellon Centre for Studies on British Art London 2019
Roy Strong - Nicholas Hilliard's miniature of the 'Wizzard Earl' - Bulletin van ek Rijksmuseum Jaarg. 31, number 1 (1983)
Delevery information :
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