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Portrait of a young woman seated in a landscape near a large tree. She wears a ribboned bonnet and has her hands on her lap. 1793 Black chalk, graphite and white heightening
- Height: 535 millimetres
- Width: 400 millimetres
Inscription ContentSigned lower left: "Isabey " and dated lower right: "1793"
Best known as a miniaturist, Jean-Baptiste Isabey was an esteemed portraitist who was active from the time of the ancien régime, during the Revolution, and into and beyond the Napoleonic era. Born in Nancy, in 1785 he went to Paris, where he worked in the studio of Jacques-Louis David after an apprenticeship with Girardet and Claudot. Early in his career he received portrait commissions from Marie-Antoinette and the dukes of Angoulême and Berry.
Isabey executed a series of 228 portraits for the Recueil de portraits des députés de l'Assemblée Nationale and exhibited miniatures and drawings at the Salon beginning in 1793. During Napoleon's reign he was appointed Dessinateur du Cabinet de l'Empereur, des Cérémonies et des Relations Extérieures; he was principal decorator of imperial theatres; and he did important design work for the Sèvres porcelain factory.
Isabey was a significant influence on other artists. Louis-Leopold Boilly immortalized him as the leader of the French School in Meeting of Artists in Isabey's Atelier (Paris, Louvre), in which the best known painters of the time are represented in his studio gathered around his celebrated painting, La Barque.
As a portraitist, Isabey refined the manière noire style of drawing to technical perfection. He was one of the first artists in the eighteenth century to use the technique, which mimicked the dark, textured shading of English mezzotints, as if going from a ground of dark to light. La manière noire allowed Isabey to translate his skills as a miniaturist into large-scale drawing, describing the most minute details. In the present Portrait the use of white gouache highlights the figure against the background and accentuates the soft folds of her drapery. This drawing may have been exhibited at the Salon of 1793 (Year II in the Revolutionary calendar), when Isabey showed some miniatures and several drawings under the same number, 10. One of the rare critics that still followed the Salon during the Revolution noted that Isabey's drawings had "a beautiful effect, with a velvety chalk." (Collection Deloynes, Explication par ordre des nos et Jugement motivé des ouvrages de Peinture…exposés au Salon du Louvre…le 10 août 1793, l'an II de la République française, Paris, JH Jansen, vol. 18, pièce 458).
It has been suggested (by François Pupil) that the sitter may be the artist's wife, although on the basis of other portraits of her this identification must remain tentative.The following text is from S. Lloyd and K. Sloan, 'The Intimate Portrait' (exh. SNPG & BM, 2008-9), cat. no. 123:
A few drawings by French artists have been included in this exhibition because their sitters were British and the drawings provide a small sample of the wider European context of intimate British portraiture. The sitter here, however, is probably not British (it has been suggested it may be a portrait of the artist's wife) and the drawing has been included in order to provide an example of the French style of drawing admired by contemporary reviews as 'in the English manner'. Isabey was a master of la manière noire which imitated the subtle dark tonal range of English portrait mezzotint prints which enjoyed great popularity and sold in vast numbers on the Continent. French and British artists naturally shared many common techniques over the centuries, from detailed plumbago drawings in the seventeenth century, through black and white chalks on blue paper in the early eighteenth, and black and red chalks on cream paper in the second half of the century. British drawings, such as Lawrence's 'Mary Hamilton' (BM 2005,0731.8), drawn and exhibited only four years before this one, occasionally have been described as showing French influence as a result. This is a superficial likeness, however, as are later comparisons of his work to that of Ingres. Here, however, English influence on a French style of drawing is quite clear.
Isabey studied with Girardet in his birthplace, Nancy, before moving to Paris in 1785 where he studied with David. In 1791, he exhibited miniatures and portrait drawings at the Exposition de la Jeunesse described in the catalogue as 'plusieurs portraits dessinés d'après nature, dans la manière anglaise' (Stein, p. 226) which elicited much admiration from reviewers. He refined the style, imitating the textures and tones of mezzotints, working from dark to light, adding white highlights, and using his skills as a miniaturist to bring the technique to perfection. This drawing may have been exhibited at the Salon of 1793 (Year II in the Revolutionary calendar), when Isabey showed some miniatures and several drawings under the same number, 10. One of the rare critics that still followed the Salon during the Revolution noted that Isabey’s drawings had 'a beautiful effect, with a velvety chalk' (see curatorial comment above). Like his British contemporaries during this nascence of Romanticism, Lawrence, Westall and Hoppner, Isabey drew rather than painted for modest, intimate portraits and immersed his female figure in the landscape, using nature to reflect and complement her character.
LITERATURE: T. Halliday, 'Academic Outsiders at the Paris Salons of the Revolution', Oxford Art Journal, vol. XXI, no. 1, 1998, pp. 69-86; P. Stein, 'French Drawings from the BM', New York, 2005, no.70
Not on display (Not yet placed)
2009 Mar-May, London, BM, Room 90, 'Intimate Portrait' cat.123
2016-17 Sept-Jan, BM, 'French Portrait Drawings' (no cat)
- Funded by: British Museum Friends
- Funded by: Ottley Group
- Funded by: The Art Fund
- Purchased from: David Tunick Inc (New York)
- Previous owner/ex-collection: Didier Aaron (London) Ltd (The purchasers at Piasa and vendors in 2003 to Tunick (information from Acquisition Form))
- Previous owner/ex-collection: Hôtel Drouot (Piasa 19 June 2003 lot 159)
This item has an uncertain or incomplete provenance for the years 1933-45. The British Museum welcomes information and assistance in the investigation and clarification of the provenance of all works during that era.
Prints & Drawings
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Object reference number: PDO184099
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