Medium: Oil On Canvas
Size: 139 x 105 cm
Signed: and dated: NATTIER 1743
Mme. la Comtesse d’Argenson, 1754. Marc, Comte d’Argenson, 1765.
Marc-René, Marquis de Voyer, Comte d’Argenson. At the Château of Les Ormes, by descent until 1985. Private Collection, New York.
Paris, Salon, 1750, no. 66, Madame la Comtesse d’Argenson, tenant un petit caniche (sic).
Matthiesen Fine Art Ltd, London, French Paintings 1700-1840, 1989, cat. no. 11, pp. 43-46, color pl. 13.
Musée national des chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Versailles, Jean Marc Nattier 1685 – 1766, 26 October 1999 – 30 January 2000, cat. no. 38, pp. 162 – 164, illus. (color) p. 163.
A member of an artistic family, Jean-Marc Nattier began his training in his father’s studio and may have continued to study under Jouvenet. He first worked as an engraver’s draughtsman and early in his career was commissioned by the Crown to make drawings for engravings after the Marie de Medici cycle by Rubens at the Luxembourg Palace. He married Marie-Madeleine de la Roche in 1714, by whom he had four children, including one son, Nicolas Nattier, who became a painter, while two of his daughters married painters (Michel-Ange Challe and Louis Tocque). After the death of Louis XIV, Nattier moved to Amsterdam where he painted portraits of the Czar and Czarina of Russia, but refused the appointment he was offered in Saint Petersburg. Returning to Paris, he became an academician in 1718 with Perseus turning Phineus into Stone, although history painting never became his speciality.
Nattier was greatly renowned as a portrait painter at the court of Louis XV (painting the King’s daughters several times) and in aristocratic circles, adapting the conventions of Largillière and Raoux to an extremely flattering style that has come to be regarded as the archetypal eighteenth century French portrait. Very prolific at the time that it was fashionable to possess a Nattier, the artist nevertheless lost his fortune by investing with the Scottish financier, Law. Still successful, he exhibited regularly at the Salon from 1737 until 1763, but by the 1750s his retardataire style was regularly criticised by Diderot, Cochin and Bachaumont, and Nattier soon fell from favour.
The master of what has come to be regarded as the archetypal eighteenth century French portrait, Nattier’s reputation has suffered from the attribution of many of the pictures from his studio to his own hand. Enormously popular with the Court, the aristocracy and the haute-bourgeoisie, Nattier painted all the members of King Louis XV’s family, many of the leading courtiers as well as the wives of Councillors at the Paris Parlement. In this particularly beautiful portrait from the height of his career, he has avoided the allegorical format of many of his best-known pictures, concentrating instead on achieving a highly realistic characterisation of an elegant society matron.
The sitter, Anne Larcher, Countess d’Argenson, was the daughter of an enormously wealthy Councillor of the Paris Parlement, Pierre Larcher, Seigneur de Pocancy, from one of the most ancient and distinguished of the noblesse de robe families, the Larchers. The Larchers traced themselves back to a minor official of the Parisian bureaucracy living in 1427. Within three generations they had established themselves in the bourgeois nobility, one Larcher daughter married the son of the great Colbert while others married into the higher nobility. Anne’s father, Pierre, Seigneur de Polancy had married Anne-Thérèse Hebert du Buc and died just three weeks before his daughter and only child’s birth in March 1706. A great heiress, she was married shortly after her eleventh birthday to the scion of one of the most ancient noble families of Touraine, Marc-Pierre de Voyer, Comte d’Argenson, Viscomte de Paulmy, Baron de la Haye (1696-1764). Although the men of his family had historically pursued military careers, his great-grandfather had become a lawyer, then a Councilor of the Paris Parlement and eventually Intendant of the Royal Armies (only to renounce all his worldly achievements to enter the priesthood).
Both his father and grandfather chose to pursue careers in the Magistrature and Marc-Pierre followed in their footsteps. A Paris Councilor in 1719 he became Lieutenant-General of Police of Paris in 1720, Chancellor of the Order of St Louis in 1721, Chancellor of the Duke of Orléans, Regent of France in 1723 and in 1742 a Minister of State. The following year he was Minister of War in succession to the Marquis de Breteuil and in 1744 Superintendent of the Posts while he was elected an Honorary member of the Academy of Sciences (1726) and the Academy of Inscriptions (1749). During his tenure of office, France won the battles of Fontenoy (in 1745) and Lawfeld (in 1747) while he was responsible for the foundation of the École Militaire. His extremely ambitious elder brother had been Minister of Foreign Affairs but had never really had the King’s trust. The Count d’Argenson, however, was one of Louis XV’s longest serving Ministers (holding his post at the War Ministry for a little more than thirteen years), and might have served longer had he not incurred the enmity of Madame de Pompadour. Shortly before his wife’s death he took as mistress the Pompadour’s cousin, Mme. d’Entrades, who was jealous of the favorite and wished to arrange her downfall. Argenson survived one more year but after the King recovered his health and reinstalled the Marquise de Pompadour, who had been temporarily dismissed, he received a curt note ordering him ‘to resign your offices as Secretary of State for War, along with your other offices and to withdraw to your estate of Les Ormes’ (Jan 17th, 1757). He and his wife had two sons, the elder of whom succeeded him in the family estates while the younger became a Knight of Malta.
Seated in a fine carved and gilded bergère of the period, the Countess, a stately but beautiful woman of thirty-seven, wears a magnificent décolleté off-white satin gown held by a pearl belt and arm bracelets. She wears no other jewelry and is holding in her lap a small, clipped spaniel (incorrectly described as a poodle in the entry in the Salon livret). The artist has placed a curtain immediately behind her chair to define the space opening through a pillared embrasure into a wild and mountainous landscape (a pentiment shows the artist had originally painted a large tree which he subsequently removed). The compositional technique was employed frequently by Nattier in the portraits of Madame de Lambesc, The Marquise de la Ferté-Imbault and Queen Marie Leczinska, among others. The portrait was exhibited at the Paris Salon with that of her husband (which was engraved twice), but for reasons we have been unable to determine not until seven years after the painting was completed. Nolhac mentions the existence of a reduced replica in the collection of the Marquis de Valfons.