Quentin La Tour (Maurice Quentin de La Tour) was an admirable pastelist and a great magician of color; nature had given him less fortunate in character. He was usually quinteux and whimsical. Very advanced in the doctrines of the Encyclopaedists, he affected with the greats a casualness bordering on impertinence. He is reproached to Dauphin, for his children are very ill-bred, and he is deceived by rogues. The king himself must undergo his jests: during a sit-down session, he tires Louis XV with an outraged eulogy of foreigners:
“But I believed you to be a Frenchman,” said the king, surprised. “No, sire,” replied La Tour, slyly, “I am Picard, of Saint-Quentin.”
The execution of Madame de Pompadour’s portrait (Portrait of the Marquise de Pompadour), in particular, is marked by countless episodes and incidents. Quentin La Tour does not like the favorite. First requests were made to him in 1750, he repulsed them; asked to go to Versailles to the Marquise, he contented himself with replying to the envoy:
“Tell Madame that I’m not going to paint in town.”
Madame de Pompadour, vexed, wrote to her brother, the Marquis de Marigny, who is a friend of the artist. His intervention brings a reconciliation and La Tour throws on paper two preparations of his painting. Then he stayed two years without working; all pretexts are valid for him to escape. At Marigny, who presses him, he writes that he feels a prey “to a dejection and annihilation which make him fear fever,” and he wants to try “if the air will do him good.” Marigny then got angry, but without any result. Madame de Pompadour, who is attached to her portrait, tries to be gentle: “I am,” she said to him, “almost in the same embonpoint where you have seen me at La Muette, and I think he would be about to take advantage of the moment to finish what you have so well started. If you can come tomorrow, I will be free and with as few people as you like. You know, Sir, the case I make of you and your admirable talents.”
Overcome by so much insistence, La Tour finally yielded and went to Versailles, on the promise that no unfortunate man would interrupt his work. But, as a good philosopher, he is resolved to “give a lesson to these people.” As soon as the marquise is installed, he sets himself at his ease, removes the curls of his pumps, his collar, his wig, his garters and wears a taffeta cap. The king arrives:
“You promised, madame, that your door will be closed.”
“I will not disturb you,” said the king, smiling; “I shall remain there quietly. Go on.“
“It is impossible for me to obey your Majesty; I shall return when Madame is alone. I do not like to be interrupted.“
And he went away.
Finally, after three years of effort and disappointment, the portrait was completed and appeared at the Salon of 1855. Despite La Tour’s obvious ill-will to paint the royal favorite, the testimonies of the time agree that he put on gallantry to embellish it. How different and more truthful is the “preparation” of the painting, which is today in the museum of Saint-Quentin!
But, despite its deliberately flattering execution, this portrait is none the less a work of the first order, one of the best of La Tour. Sainte-Beuve dedicated to him one of his most brilliant pages:
“It is the very person,” he writes, “who is in every marvelous point of delicacy, suave dignity, and exquisite beauty. Holding the music notebook with lightness and negligence, she is suddenly distracted. She seems to have heard some noise and turns her head. Is it really the king who comes and goes in? She seems to wait with certainty and listen with a smile. His head, thus turned round, reveals the profile of the neck in all its grace, and its short hair, delicately wavy, the curls of which rise and the blond still visible under the half-powder which scarcely covers them. The head swims in a bluish background which, in general, is that of the whole picture. The eye is everywhere satisfied and caressed; it is melody more than harmony … There is nothing in this enchanted boudoir that does not seem to pay its court to the goddess. She herself has the flesh and complexion of a lilac white, slightly azure. This breast, these ribbons, this dress, all this blend harmoniously. Everything in the physiognomy and in the attitude expresses grace, supreme taste, affability and amenity rather than gentleness, a queenish air that has had to be taken, but which is natural and will be sustained without too much effort.”
Madame de Pompadour declared herself satisfied with the pastel, but when the hour of settlement came, the difficulties recommenced. La Tour demanded nothing less than forty-eight thousand pounds! After much talk and tug-of-war, he had to be satisfied with half that amount, but he felt an anger that was very long to subside.
The portrait of Madame de Pompadour passed, no one knows how, in the hands of the Count de Lespinasse d’Arlet, and was acquired in 1797 by the Museum of Arts. He remained in the dust of the national reserves until 1838, when he was transferred to the Louvre, where he now appears in the Salle des Pastels.
Height: 1.70 – Width: 1.20 – Natural size figure.