Portrait of a Boy 1650
Charles Le Brun (1619-1690)
“This engaging portrait, from early on in the artist’s career, shows Le Brun’s ability to capture character as well as likeness.”
Oil on Canvas
13 ½ x 11 ½ inches; 34.3 x 29.2 cm
With Colnaghi and Stair Sainty Matthiesen, New York, 1986
Charles Le Brun was the single most successful and dominant artist in France in the seventeenth century. His taste and talent set the benchmark for almost every important artistic and decorative scheme at the height of Louis XIV’s grandeur, from the chateau at Vaux-le-Vicomte to the palace of Versailles.
This engaging portrait, from early on in the artist’s career, shows Le Brun’s ability to capture character as well as likeness. Later, in the 1660s, Le Brun would further explore portraiture, physiognomy and psychology in tandem with the writings of philosophers such as Descartes, and it is tempting to see here in this vivid study proof of Le Brun’s belief that the full range of human characteristics could be seen in a person’s facial expression. The plain toned background allows the viewer to focus fully on the sitter, whose features are painted with Le Brun’s characteristic vigour and intensity.
The present portrait is a relatively rare piece, for Le Brun did not often find the time for portraiture. It is a unique and finished picture – as evidenced by the flamboyant signature – and does not relate to any other known work. The sitter has not yet been identified. From 1650-51 Le Brun was working for Jérôme de Nouveau, an important patron and Superintendent-General of Posts, but present researches have not identified any portraits of Jérôme’s children.
Given the intimate approach of such a small, sketchy work, it may instead be a boy with whom Le Brun was on more familiar terms. Le Brun had no children of his own, but he was named as a godfather to two boys in 1647, both of whom would have been the correct age to be the sitter here three years later in 1650. The first, born on 16th April, was a child of Pierre Mariette (1607-1657), a leading publisher and print seller in Paris, while the second, born on 26th October, was the son of Jean Humbelot, an engraver who later reproduced some of Le Brun’s own paintings. It may well be relevant that both godchildren were born to parents closely involved in the art world, and thus the natural recipients of a small, quickly made portrait sketch such as the present picture.
Le Brun first trained in France as a young man, but, having come to the attention of such masters as Poussin, was sent to Rome to further his artistic studies. He returned to Paris in 1646, fully accomplished in drawing from life – as well as having made copies after the antique and earlier painters such as Raphael – with a desire to paint historical and religious pictures in the grand manner. He immediately achieved prominence for works such as the Stoning of St Stephen (Notre Dame, 1647) and Mercury Abducting Pschye (Musée Carnavalet, Paris) both of which displayed the skill for heroic imagery that would come to dominate his later historical and political large-scale paintings.
In 1648 Le Brun became one of twelve founder members of the Academie Royale, and soon after began to enjoy the patronage of the highest French courtiers and politicians. Fouquet, Richelieu and Mazarin all commissioned important works from the artist, and so inevitably did the King, Louis XIV. The monarch was so enamoured with Le Brun’s work that he declared him the best French painter of “all time”, ennobled him, and made him responsible for practically all artistic aspects of the regime, from painting to garden design. Le Brun’s most impressive work remains the epic productions at Versailles, for which he was almost wholly responsible.