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The Napoleon Series > Biographies > Biographies

Jean Baptiste Isabey: The Little Court Painter

By Chris Maine

Art Historians only too recently have attempted to fully come to terms with the works of the famous Neo-Classical artist Jaques Louis David. Searching for a place in history to place both David and his works into social context, these so-called historians have often overlooked the significant contributions of several of David's contemporaries. Men such as Jean Baptiste Isabey, François Gerard, and Louis Leopold Boilly. The purpose of this paper is to shed light on the often overlooked life of one of these men, Jean Baptiste Isabey. To show how Isabey's distinguished career perhaps even rivalled that of master David and exhibited just as profound an influence upon his contemporaries, culminating in the salon of 1798.

The last and second surviving child of seven, tradition in Nancy, the province where Jean Baptiste Isabey was born in 1767, decreed him to belong to the King and to future greatness. "He was destined to royal service, il appartenait au roi." Friends and neighbors urged that the child born with the birthmark in the shape of a fleur de lis might receive a baton someday, who knew? His father Jaques Isabey, a bourgeois philosopher, wished his son to be neither servant nor soldier of the King. So Jaques Isabey decided he would educate his sons as best he could. Opening a small grocery store, he decided both should follow the arts, one would be a musician, the other a famous painter. Louis was chosen to be the painter and Jean Baptiste the musician. Jean Baptiste developed a love for music but struggled frequently, for up to two years with the violin which he came to despise, and which refused to produce music for him from its taut strings. Quickly becoming irritable when watching his brother wreak havoc with a box of drawing materials, several quarrels developed and eventually it occurred to their father that maybe he had made a mistake. Questioning his sons, Jaques Isabey found that both secretly coveted the other's chosen role.

So it was that, Jean Baptiste immediately produced several drawings, one of which, showed tremendous promise. Being a pupil of Claudot at the time, Isabey's drawing of Pegasus in a chariot with four horses on a winged flight to heaven, expressed vivid life, action, and surety of touch, all things to marvel at, and he was only twelve years old! Neighborhood interest instantly centered on Jean Baptiste. Osmond states: "The old lady's in the quartier in Nancy used to lie in wait for him at odd corners in order to seize him, and verify, if possible the tradition of his birthmark. These crones watched his career with great interest, and they prophesied great things for him... He related in his personal diary it was irksome to him as a small boy."

Isabey hated ugliness, to him beauty was the breath of life. Born at a time when an artist could achieve social eminence irrespective of birth status or money. Isabey worked hopefully and happily, looking toward the day when he might start for Paris, and possibly become the pupil of the great new master, Jaques Louis David. Residing at home, the artist must have indeed sometimes felt cramped in his low ceiled, brick walled house, with a modest living room, and stone floor. His personal bedroom compared to a modern day closet, was no more than six square feet wide. None the less, Isabey progressed in his studies, learning to paint landscapes with Giradet and Claudot. Managing to scrimp and save he could earn merely enough to pay for his lessons with Claudot. By seventeen Isabey had gained some local notoriety by decorating the town hall of Nancy, the walls of a neighboring noble's chateaux, and by painting a few memorable miniatures. As for technique, and color, Isabey had to learn from the artists with whom he worked, from nature, or from that which was within him. There were no "old masters" to study in France. And for the student who couldn't journey to Rome or Holland, there were no galleries in which to gain inspiration.

David's reputation had spread throughout France, due to his "Oath of the Horatii" (1785), and Isabey placed his faith and destiny in him. Everyday Isabey heard the stories of how the master's studio in the Louvre became overcrowded with noble's eager to see the latest picture which, the critics declared, breathed the spirit of the ancients. David represented that which was new and Isabey someday hoped to paint historical pictures like those of the master.

Falling in love at age eighteen, and spurned badly, Isabey fell into a period of brooding, refusing to eat and work, and spent his days wandering and hatching bizarre schemes of revenge. His father seeing his hopes for his son's greatness dissolving in front of him, resolved to send the young man to Paris immediately at all costs. The neighborhood contributed and eventually quite a large sum was collected, but it was not enough. Once again Isabey's good fortune paid off and his mother who had taken years to save six Louis gave them to her son, with tears in his eyes Jean Baptiste promised to work hard and to repay it. His mother was never to be dissatisfied by his career.

Arriving in Paris in 1786 he was disappointed to find master David departing for Rome. Given both letters of introduction to David, and to Dumont, who came from the same province, Isabey called on the latter considered to be the "premier peintre en miniature de la reine." "I can do nothing for you,' he said. ' I do not take pupils for miniature." But Dumont upon seeing Isabey's discouraged face, offered him the address of a local studio where models were available and where he sometimes visited.

Fired by the splendor witnessed at Dumont's residence and wishing the same for himself Isabey immediately sought out the location of the studio. His funds diminishing rapidly for studio fees and the necessaries of life, he quickly established a small clientele in the area of St. Denis painting copies of Vanloo and Boucher on the lids of snuffboxes and on buttons made of ivory for five francs a piece. These buttons and snuffboxes, despised by Isabey, represented an art which was still fashionable, and which a celebrated artist like Boucher and Fragonard had produced in earlier years. Portraiture in miniature had reached its height under the reign of Louis the XVI, when all were eager to acquire replicas of themselves.

Upon returning home in 1787 after the death of his father, Jean Baptiste resumed to fulfill his good fortune and destiny in Paris. Returning to Paris a friend from the studio, who's father was maitre d'hotel to the marquis de Serant, at Versailles, offered to share a small room with Isabey near the Louvre. It was to be this decision which sealed Isabey's future. One of Isabey's miniatures was shown to his friend's father who knew the marquis had been given permission by the Queen to locate someone inexpensive who could secretly paint portraits of the comtesse d'Artois' two small sons onto a snuffbox. This was to be a birthday gift from Queen Marie Antoinette who demanded on someone who could be relied upon to paint a good likeness? As a result Isabey received his first commission.

While secretly working at Versailles Isabey was befriended by the comte d'Artois (the king's brother) who frequently came to supervise the works progress. One day he attended by the Queen herself entered the chamber where Isabey was working and both seeing Isabey's nervousness praised him on his talents. A couple of days later Isabey received his second commission from the Queen to alter a part of the costume in one of her portraits painted by Sicardi. Jean Baptiste's manners were simple and unaffected, he revered and adored the noblesse, whom he considered the only real patrons of art. Soon after the Queen sat for him wanting a portrait redone in miniature and Isabey becoming a favorite with everyone, was designated the "little court painter."

Isabey was soon absorbed into court life and often found himself designing fancy dresses, or giving drawing lessons to the court ladies. He had achieved fame greater than that of Dumont, who had embarrassed him with his splendor not so very long before. Osmond states: "One would suppose from Isabey's journal that there was no trouble brewing behind the scenes, but then, from his point of view the revolutionary menace was merely political... he confesses more time was spent in pleasure than at work."

Eventually Isabey felt the need to further his career realizing that this adventure would not take him very far. He still had much to learn. What could he add to the art of miniature? Though he had rivalled Dumont and Sicardi dare he challenge the master of that genre, Pierre Adolphe Hall, he doubted he could surpass them all. But fortune once again smiled on Isabey as the art of painting miniature portraits on ivory was soon rive gauche. Isabey still thought that David had made the grand new statement in his classic pictures, and he had heard that David was returning from his travels.

His reputation counted little with David who was already steeped in revolutionary doctrine, but he perceived in Isabey an artist who could go far. And known for selecting only those pupils who showed promise, Isabey was fortunate to be accepted among the likes of Girodet, Gros, Fabre and Robert, comrades and pupils of the master. Pupils were required to pay David eighty francs a month, a sum which Jean Baptiste found hard to come by. The Queen continued to grant Isabey commissions which enabled Isabey to pay David's fees. Osmond states David took note of it asking: "Why do you go there so often? He asked. "You leave reality and the serious study of art behind when you visit that frivolous Court... Isabey explained that he went there in order to execute commissions to paint miniatures."

David upon hearing Isabey's explanation that he did not wish to be a miniature painter, but that he did so to pay David's fees, forbade his pupil to pay any fees at all. Ironically none of these miniatures have survived. After the Revolution of 1789 Isabey devoted himself to his craft. Isabey admired and revered the master, and he worked hard, drawing from models and copying David's pictures. Isabey painted most of the accessories in David's picture of "Paris and Helen," which was hung in the Salon of year 1789. David had started to become consumed by the Revolution and his strange obsessions, for love of violence and morbid interest with death. He developed a hatred of the Academy and all it represented. In his mind it became associated with tyranny. Osmond quotes David's comments with respect to the Academy: "The Academy is like a wigmaker's shop"..."One can't get away from it without spoiling ones' coat with powder."

Isabey was content to be an artist. He went on working, paying David's fees, and painting the accessories of all the huge paintings which David now neglected more and more for the Jacobin Club and the Convention. It was to save time that Isabey developed a new technique of painting miniatures in arquelle, transparent watercolor, on paper, with a skill that made the old style on ivory seem stiff and artificial. David after seeing one of these works recognized the genius of his pupil. Until now watercolor had always been used with white paint. David said: "I don't know if it is done in oil or vinegar, but it's good; my god, it's good" This from David was high praise"

Yet David still continued to criticize Isabey for his patrons, in the new France of Liberty and Equality there could be no such thing as patronage. Isabey was not interested in the struggle, but wondered. What of Art? He kept away from the studio as much as he dared. Upon hearing of the death of the Queen, Isabey's enthusiasm for David waned.

Near starvation Isabey resolved to spend his last francs on having clean linen. Befriending his laundress he secured a commission from a publisher who was her customer and who wished to have over two hundred portraits completed of members of the Convention. The black and white sketches were so good that the artist was sought out by the men of the new Republic. They came to his studio to get more finished likenesses of themselves. The whole society of Deputies, celebrities, famous and infamous, persons frequented his studio. Isabey while managing to survive wondered how long the Republic itself would survive, for his experiences of the past had taught him not to depend on the future. It was during this time frame that Isabey fell in love with and married Mademoiselle Laurice de Salinnes expecting great success from an exhibition of his drawings and miniatures in the salon of Madame de Stael.

Isabey's studio was soon filled with patrons. Having invented a new form of miniature, naturally there were pupils eager to learn the secrets of arquelle. It was not so easy for others to achieve the same beauty as that attained by the master's hand. With the death of Robespierre society once again relaxed and Isabey became the premiere painter of miniatures. "Never had I found life so pleasurable," wrote Isabey," and never afterwards did I enjoy it so much." His son Eugene was born later in that same year.

An old friend of Isabey's returned to Paris in 1798, and there was a wonderful reunion. This friend was none other than Vigee Le Brun. But Vigee Le Brun longed for the wit and grace of the old regime, its taste suited her well. She was revolted by the vulgarity she saw around her. She made ready for a journey to England, where she had commissions to paint the Prince of Wales and the highest members of English society.

But before she left Paris she exhibited in her studio Isabey's most famous picture, "La Barque," 1798. This was a charming portrait in black and white of the painter, his lovely wife and three angelic children grouped in a boat, drifting on a calm river against a background of clouds and trees. The subject of the picture as well as the management of it, delighted everyone. Domesticity so exquisite charmed the taste of the people weary of the tragedies they had passed through and witnessed. In Madame Le Brun's salon, "Le Barque" was admired by all the distinguished critics and painters of the day. Isabey became the fashion of France.

Isabey not only influenced the times in which in lived, but he had a profound impact on his contemporarie's lives as well. Susan L. Siegfried, in her work The Art of Louis Leopold Boilly: Modern Life in Napoleonic France, states: "Louis Leopold Boilly's seminal work was "A Reunion of the Artists in Isabey's Studio" (Figure 2.) from 1798, which enjoyed so much success that it established the future viability of such subjects in France, not only for Boilly but for later artists as well." Boilly was attempting to show the new influence among the artists of self-determination and Jean Baptiste Isabey exemplified this ideal. Siegfried states: ''The embodiment of the elegant and successful modern artist was Jean-Baptiste Isabey, the nominative subject of Boilly's painting. He was an especially important figure for the 1790's because he was a kind of "self-made" man who represented the expanding ambitions of previously marginalized artists such as Boilly. The unseen work on the easel that one group admires was undoubtedly Isabey and his Family, a highly finished drawing by Isabey that is half genre, half-portrait and represents the artist sketching in a boat with his family, drifting along a river-an idyll of the new family life and also of the romance of art. Exhibited in 1798, this large and elaborate "subject" drawing was an unprecedented Salon entry for a miniaturist." Boilly included all the arts for a total of thirty one figures who now represented the new genre excluding the old masters, such as David. In post-Revolutionary Paris, artists no longer were protected by the Royal Academy and once again became dependent on their own personal talents in order to survive professionally.

Francois Pascal Gerard (1770-1837) befriended Isabey while both attended master Jaques Louis David's studio. Gerard, while David's favorite student, could not live up to his masters standards and so developed his own personal style. This style was according to Walter Friedlander: "The likable, gracious, and elegant character of Gerard's art had no connection either with the political or heroic, and he could not, like David, attain his full stature in those fields...The brutal gestures demanded by his own time were alien to him. Even his large pictures such as the "Belisarius" 1795) contain soft and sentimental features. Gerard's general is a blind old graybeard who has come upon his young emperor wounded by a snake bite ...The whole is set in a broad landscape. The theme is compelling, but complicated and vague. This could be any blind man." Gerard while not known as a portraitist produced some of his best work early on in his career. "Isabey with his daughter" [Figure 1.], is among one of his best. Walter Friedlander states: "Here his work is still free and graceful, though obviously without David's additional strength and directness. For this very reason, however, Gerard retained the favor of "society". Mme. Recamier for example, was not pleased with David's portrait of her...Gerard made her much more feminine and sentimental, was all so much more conventional that the classicism was reduced to a mannered style, with none of the intensity of David's conception."

This work was based on a drawing conducted by Isabey and was done as repayment for Isabey's purchase of Gerard's first work, Belisarius, for which Gerard could not find a buyer. The portrait is of Isabey holding his daughter Alexandrine by the hand. Alexandrine, as was the high style of the day, is dressed as a grown woman would be in an ankle length high-wasted gown. Her father slim and elegant, with a curl on his forehead, wears a short coat and tall tasselled boots. There is a friendly dog in the picture, and through the open door a view of a staircase, a simple flight of stairs without ornately carved rails or balusters. Under the Empire Gerard became the court painter and gained the title, peintre de roi. He had the most elegant salon in Paris and was known to be much more a painter of women. "Cupid and Psyche" was Gerard's best known work. When shown in the 1798 salon it received acclaim, but was widely criticized as being too affected and metaphysique.

Isabey found it difficult to cope with the number of people who desired to be painted by him. It was at this time that, in order to satisfy the demands made upon his energy, he perfected the method of the arquelle, thus creating a style all his own, and a medium that suited his talent. The majority of miniaturists until that time had painted on ivory, leaving the flesh tints transparent, and working the background and accessories with gouache, watercolor made solid with a mixture of white. The surface of ivory, being difficult to retouch with paint, requires an amount of labor, trying the patience of the artist and the sitter. The use of ivory for the art of the miniature belonged to more leisured days. Isabey had an excellent touch with watercolor on paper, and was thus able to avoid the tedium and finish that would have prevented him from executing the great number of commissions he received. For the same reason he suppressed all accessories, and even backgrounds, giving only a cloudy touch of color which melted into the creamy tint of the paper. His idea was to make a faithful portrait rather than a fancy picture, but he cannot be accused of harsh realism, for his clients were all very pleased with their portraits. Three known portraits of Isabey at an advanced age are known to exist, each giving its own impression as to his diverse personality. One of them, by Horace Vernet could be seen at the Louvre, another by Princesse Mathilde was once at the Musee Carnavalet, the last is a drawing by Isabey's own son Eugene. Carrying a sketchbook and a pencil. The elderly gentleman wearing trousers and a morning coat, gives one no feeling of the man of genius, the little Court favorite. He is merely represented by Eugene as a father, not as a famous painter. Horace Vernet, on the other hand portrayed a grand old man grayed with eyes full of observation and understanding and on his breast a single touch of red, to symbolize the ribbon of the legion d' honneur. Princesse Mathilde shows the aged face of Isabey, still with shining eyes, and with a sweetness about him. This was the Isabey of the chateaux, of the Salons, adorer and adored. Was Isabey in fact a combination of all these portraits? "Isabey has been called the faithful historian of his models...Isabey loved his art, he loved it so much that when he perceived his work was falling from the high level which he had kept it so long, with rare courage and determination he laid aside his brushes and colours, and thus spared himself and others the pain of seeing its decadence."

Isabey feared that a race of man was evolving which had become blind to beauty, taste and perception. Fantasy and glamour were fading out, but ideas, discoveries and inventions were taking their place. The worst of these numerous inventions in Isabey's eyes, was photography, because it lead people to believe that these pictures presented them with a perfect likeness. To an artist such as Isabey photos were hideous, they somehow missed the individuality, the life, the soul of the person portrayed. The miniaturist painter was no longer needed thanks to M. Daguerre, discovering his own process, which he called by his own name, and so by making the daguerreotype envogue, gave the death blow to miniature art and to men who had influenced their age, such as the little court painter Jean Baptiste Isabey.


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