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Dictionary of pastellists before 1800

MAURICE-QUENTIN DE LA TOUR (1704–1788)

 

"Obtiendrait-on d'une étude opiniâtre et longue le mérite de La Tour?" – Diderot, Salon de 1767

Maurice-Quentin de La Tour sits at the heart of the Pastels & pastellists site, and receives here special treatment. This page serves as a table of contents of a virtual catalogue raisonné with a short preface below. The work remains within the scope of the online Dictionary, so that cross-references to other artists' articles, indexes of sitters; museums; collectors; engravers etc., bibliographies and exhibition details all direct to the common pages. Note that the links are mostly to pdf documents, some of up to 25MB in size, so they will appear in Downloads. The pdfs are searchable. Images within the columns may be viewed at higher magnification simply with Ctrl++.

There have been hundreds of books about La Tour, especially on the Saint-Quentin collection, and a major exhibition in 2004. No one who writes about La Tour can fail to benefit from this wealth of scholarship. The shoulders we stand on are many: Georges Wildenstein and Maurice Tourneux, Élie Fleury and Gaston Brière, Christine Debrie and Xavier Salmon - not to mention the far larger number of scholars who have studied individual works. Inevitably that means that much of the material summarised in this work has been published (and sometimes examined and challenged) before. But a catalogue raisonné has a quite different purpose from such publications. The last was published in 1928. The emphasis here is not on academic approaches - whether of eighteenth century painting theory, as currently taught in so many universities, nor of social historical approaches to the role of portraiture and its relation to power, nobility and finance (although we cannot ignore such frameworks completely) - but on a practical, Handbuch-type approach to the pictures themselves, and on assembling a sometimes dry, but essential base of facts about the artist, the pastels and their lives. In starting from the objective evidence, many myths have been discovered, and some important works shown not to be what they were thought to be.

Should a catalogue raisonné of a portraitist arrange the works in chronological order, or in alphabetical order of sitter? The former approach is a peculiarly unhelpful approach for La Tour: he did not sign or date his works, only a small proportion of which can be linked to exhibitions or other events (perhaps 150 or so works can be objectively dated), and multiple versions may not all have been made at the same time. Although La Tour lived to an advanced age, no work is known before about 1735, and very little after 1770, so costume information provides limited guidance. La Tour's technique is quite varied, but it does not evolve continuously over time. Even if an accurate chronological arrangement were possible, it would be of little utility to readers seeking to find a portrait of a named sitter. For those reasons, the La Tour catalogue here follows the standard sequence conventions in the Dictionary.

No catalogue raisonné is completely accurate. If the decisions were easy, mechanical or scientific, there would be no need for such a catalogue. The judgements here are of course subject to the disclaimer on the home page of this site. The problem in the case of La Tour is acute. Repetitions, copies and fakes abound: in private collection, in salerooms and in museums: even the so-called ancien fonds de l'atelier (Saint-Quentin) has cuckoos, some of which have never before been challenged (e.g. J.46.2869). The ability of contemporaries as well as later generations to imitate La Tour's technique creates enormous difficulties, as previous writers have acknowledged (e.g. Salmon 2004a) - compounded by La Tour's use of non-standard materials and assemblies, which removes one of the art historian's best detective tools. Perhaps no case reminds us of our fallibility more clearly than the Amiens self-portrait, J.46.1128, a famous icon that had never previously been doubted until our detailed investigation revealed documents suggesting that it is a copy by one of La Tour's favourite pupils.

Information on sitters is presented in several ways. The most important pastels are given separate essays, summaries of which appear in the main catalogue. Many of La Tour's clients belonged to important families and were the subject of other portraits: these can be found in the iconographical genealogies (which allows us to omit the dry recitals of pedigrees which occupy so many catalogues), along with more biographical material and sources, albeit in compact form (the entries typically list only the names of portraitists working in other media, for which full details can be found from standard catalogues). While one might expect the entries to reflect the celebrity of the sitter, I have avoided providing long biographies for subjects whose achievements are readily available elsewhere (particularly when these famous names may have been imaginative suggestions by owners rather than accurate identifications of La Tour's sitters), and have concentrated rather on discussing how they fit within La Tour's work (including where relevant comparative iconography, details of which will also be found in the genealogies to which family names are hyperlinked), and on presenting biographical facts (many new discoveries) which cannot be obtained from standard reference sources (the "usuels" which we have drawn upon silently are listed here). To keep citations to a minimum such sources as are indicated here are assumed to have been consulted, and facts which can be verified in the documentation are referenced there without repetition in the catalogue notes. References to sources listed in the bibliographies for each work are usually not repeated in the accompanying essays.

I first published an article on La Tour in 2001. Over the decades I have worked on him, I have been indebted to a great many people whose knowledge and kindness have enhanced this work. They are too numerous to name individually. But I must acknowledge the particular assistance I have received from M. Hervé Cabezas who has generously shared much information regarding the collection at Saint-Quentin and related archives.

If the Dictionary is work in progress, the sections on La Tour in particular will continue to be the focus of attention for years to come. Communications from art historians, museums and private collectors with new pastels, better images of known ones and documents of any kind will be particularly welcome, as will notification of the errors or omissions that no doubt remain.

Neil Jeffares