Commentary on Portrait of Marguerite-Elisabeth Forest of Largillierre and her son Nicolás
This portrait by Largillière entered into the MNBA collection as Mère et fille (Mother and Daughter) and Georges Lastic identified the artist’s wife, Marguerite-Elisabeth Forest and their son, Nicolas upon comparing it with a portrait of the family conserved at the Kunsthalle Bremen dated in 1704, in which the artist himself and daughter Elisabeth-Marguerite are also represented. Largillière married the daughter of landscape painter Jean Forest on August 19, 1699 and Nicolas was born in 1704.Lastic dates the MNBA’s painting around 1712, although the child who adorns his mother’s hair with flowers in an early attitude of gallantry seems to be somewhat younger than eight years old, which he would have been at the time if the approximate date Lastic proposes is accepted. It is interesting to examine the self-portrait from 1711 (Musée National du Château de Versailles), painted when the artist was 55 years old, where he is represented while working on a canvas with the iconography of an Annunciation. If we put it together with the portrait of his wife and son, a dialog develops between the figures that recalls the relationship they maintain in the 1704 work. The portrait of Mme. Largillière and her son therefore forms part of a series of family portraits, an outstanding, late example of which is conserved at the Louvre, ca. 1730. It is difficult to corroborate this scholar’s statement maintaining that the MNBA painting was catalogued by Georges Pascal without recognizing the people portrayed. In the same way, it is difficult to determine whether or not it was present in the 1928 exhibition that rescued the artist from oblivion (2). The problem of identifying the painting’s subjects is a central issue in Largillière’s work, and their unknown status makes it all that much more difficult to trace the paintings in catalogs and inventories (3).The MNBA portrait undoubtedly corresponds to the artist’s mature phase; it is executed with a new atmosphere of harmony between subjects and decoration, with subtle color effects and precise contours that do not interrupt the continuity between the figures and the other elements represented. The painting presents an extraordinary mastery in detailing the textures that every academic artist was expected to do and in the elegant precision of the movement of the hands. It is possible to suppose a combination of direct painting au naturel (the heads) and studio sketches in the hands, fabrics, flowers, the couch and the dog. The hands in our portrait have been associated with a study conserved in a private collection in England, exhibited at the Musée Jacquemart André in 2003. The influence of Dutch and Flemish painting on French baroque portraiture is notorious in Largillière’s work from the late 17th Century, which had already begun to move more toward the compositional elements and intimate sensations that would constitute the Rococo period. Through his work, this artist represented the fatuous elegance of courtesans in addition to the rise of the high 18th Century bourgeoisie, a new source of portrait commissions during the eras of Louis XIV, Regency and Louis XV. Is it feasible to think of this portrait from the standpoint of traditional allegorical portraiture? Largillière did practice the genre in works such as Portrait d’une femme en Astrée (Portrait of a Lady as Astrea, Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal), Portrait d’une femme en Pomone (Portrait of a Lady as Pomona, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresde) and Portrait d’une femme en Diane (Portrait of a Lady as Diana, The New York Historical Society), with a petit chien in the same position included in the latter of the three. The same mythological substrate that Largillière employed in some other works can be found in the MNBA’s double portrait, as Rosenfeld has already pointed out; in this case the presence of flowers leads us to presume that the artist’s wife is portrayed as Mother and Venus, while his son Nicolas is also Cupid (4). This is a play on a reading of Ovid that is more conventional than erotic. While Largillière represented himself as a Catholic painter in the previously mentioned self-portrait, here he appeals to a different tradition, that of classical knowledge, in order to represent a different form of love.
by Roberto Amigo
1— “Contrat de mariage” in: Myra Nan Rosenfeld, Largillierre. Portraitiste du dixhuitième siècle, exhib. cat. Musée des beauxarts de Montréal, 1981, p. 390-392.
2— Georges Pascal, Largillière. Paris, Les Beaux-Arts, Édition d’études et de documents, collection “L’Art français”, 1928; N. de Largillière, Palais des Beaux- Arts de la ville de Paris (Petit Palais), 1928. In this exhibition, entry nº 86, titled Femme et enfant, from Baron Maurice de Rothschild’s collection, has dimensions very similar to those of the work in the MNBA.
3— No similarly nominated work can be found in the “Inventaire des biens de Nicolas de Largillierre, Rue Geoffroy L’Angevin, 26 mars 1746” (Paris, Archives nationales, Minutier central, XIV, 329), transcribed in: Rosenfeld, op. cit., p. 392-399.
4— Lesley H. Walker, A mother’s love: crafting feminine virtue in Enlightenment France. Cranbury, NJ, Associated University Presses, 2008, p. 37 and ss.
1982. LASTIC, Georges, “Largillierre et ses modèles. Problèmes d’iconographie”, L’oeil. Revue d’Art Mensuelle, Paris, nº 323, junio, p. 24-31 y 78-79, reprod. p. 79.
2003. Nicolas de Largillière 1656-1746. Paris, Musée Jacquemart André, Phileas Fogg, p. 132.