Although born in Paris, Largillierre began his career in Antwerp and London and his earlier portraits show the considerable influence of Anthony van Dyck and Peter Lely. The attenuated palette of soft colors and the still-life details in this painting reflect his early training. Although he painted landscapes and still lifes, Largillierre is best known as a portraitist of the wealthy bourgeoisie, and this sitter is traditionally identified as the wife of Claude Lambert de Thorigny, president of the Chambre des Comptes and owner of the Hôtel Lambert in Paris, which houses the celebrated Galerie d'Hercule decorated by Charles Le Brun. Surrounded by trappings of wealth, the sitter appears with a young man of African origin, whose collar indicates his enslaved status.
Born in Paris but raised in Antwerp, Largillierre was enrolled in 1668 in the Guild of Saint Luke as an apprentice to a local painter. In 1675 he was in London, where he was influenced principally by Sir Peter Lely (1618–1680), and his earliest known works are still lifes painted in 1677 and 1678 in the course of the visit. The next year he settled in Paris; he was taken up by Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), director of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, and was soon assured of success. A candidate member of the Académie in 1783, after a delay of three years he submitted a portrait of Le Brun (Musée du Louvre, Paris) as his reception piece and was admitted. His Anglo-Flemish bias was mediated by exposure to the high-style French portraiture of which he became a much sought-after exponent.
This fine portrait in three-quarter length, from the middle years of Largilliere’s long career, came to light in a 1902 exhibition at the Guildhall, London: it was lent by Wildenstein and titled Madame Lambert de Thorigny. A document which seems to have been supplied to the Museum by Gimpel & Wildenstein in 1903, when it was acquired, further identifies the sitter as Hélène Lambert de Thorigny, probably because of the existence of a print of that lady, the sister of Claude Lambert, by Pierre Drevet (1663–1738) after Largillierre. However, the print is not after our painting, nor, apparently, of our sitter. A typescript in the archive files which dates before 1905 calls her instead Marie Marguerite Bontemps (died 1701), who was married in 1682 to Claude Jean-Baptiste Lambert de Thorigny (died 1702). The alternate identification was apparently based on a biography from a standard source of reference published in 1872 (see Notes). Largillierre painted at least three other portraits of members of this wealthy family, the owners of a great house on the Île Saint-Louis in Paris which houses the celebrated Galerie d'Hercule decorated by Charles Le Brun. While it is quite possible that the sitter here is Marie Marguerite Lambert, such a claim cannot be made with any certainty.
A small number of late-seventeenth-century French portraits include enslaved children or adolescents of African descent. Presumably each of them was the personal servant of the aristocrat or prominent individual who was the principal sitter. Such portraits are likely to include trappings of conspicuous wealth, especially diamonds, pearls, and other jewelry. However, in the present painting the African boy, who is holding a dog, is presented with unusual simplicity in a uniform cap and coat trimmed with piping. He wears a hinged silver collar around his neck. The displacement of numbers of West Africans to the French islands of the Caribbean dates to the third quarter of the seventeenth century when sugar became the principal crop and the demand began to increase. France became a major player in the slave trade only after the acquisition of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) in 1664. Although the French trade in enslaved Africans during this period was poorly documented, the number of persons involved seems to have been in the ten thousands. Technically slavery was outlawed in France itself, but a few hundred individuals must have been admitted as the servants of French owners of property in the Caribbean.
The artist’s gift for landscape and still life are evident in the serene classicizing architecture as well as the flowering vine, the poppies, and the colorful parrot clinging to the basin of the wall fountain. The painting has an airy quality unusual for Largillierre. The delicate elaboration of the embroidery and trim on the dress are, on the other hand, characteristic.
[Katharine Baetjer 2016]
Inscription: Signed and dated (lower left, on fountain): peint / par N. de / Largillierre– / 1696
?marquis d'Ussel, château d'Oscamp, Belgium; [Dowdeswell & Dowdeswell and Gimpel & Wildenstein, Paris and New York, 1902–3; sold to MMA]
Art Gallery of the Corporation of London. "Selection of Works by French and English Painters of the Eighteenth Century," April 22–July 26, 1902, no. 21 (as "Madame Lambert de Thorigny," lent by M. Wildenstein).
Palm Beach. Society of the Four Arts. "Portraits, Figures and Landscapes," January 12–February 4, 1951, no. 26.
Chattanooga. George Thomas Hunter Gallery of Art. "Opening Exhibition," July 12–August 3, 1952, unnumbered cat.
Milwaukee Auditorium. "Metropolitan Art Museum $1,000,000 Masterpiece Exhibition," March 7–14, 1953, unnumbered cat. (p. 16).
Austin, Tex. City Coliseum. "Texas Fine Arts Festival: Metropolitan Museum $1,000,000 Collection of Old Masters," April 18–26, 1953, unnum. checklist (p. 3).
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. "Largillierre and the Eighteenth-Century Portrait," September 19–November 15, 1981, no. 18 (as "Portrait of a Woman").
Catalogue of the Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1905, p. 98, no. 501, as "Marie Marguerite Lambert de Thorigny".
Elisabeth Luther Cary. "The Scrip: Some of the Portraits in the Metropolitan Museum." International Studio 37 (April 1909), p. LX, ill.
Georges Sortais. Largillierre manuscript. [ca. 1912] [manuscript of a catalogue raisonné of the oeuvre, begun ca. 1912, in the Cabinet des Estampes, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, Da 58, vols. 3 and 5], lists it twice, as Marie Lambert de Thorigny and as the marquise de Simiane.
Georges Pascal. Largillierre. Paris, , p. 63, no. 76, p. 68, no. 127, as no. 76, "Madame Lambert de Thorigny," 55 x 42 in., belonging to Wildenstein, and also under no. 127, as "La Marquise de Simiane," 53 x 40 in., signed and dated 1696, at the MMA.
O. Kellner inAllgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 22, Leipzig, 1928, p. 384.
Charles Sterling. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of French Paintings. Vol. 1, XV–XVIII Centuries. Cambridge, Mass., 1955, pp. 95–97, ill., identifies the sitter as "Madame Claude Lambert de Thorigny (?)" and calls it a fine example of Largillière's "middle manner".
René Gimpel. Diary of an Art Dealer. English ed. New York, 1966, p. 298, observes that his father's biggest sale in 1902–3 was to the Metropolitan Museum: this Largillière and a Nattier (03.37.3) for $70,000.
Marianne Roland Michel. "Of Women and Flowers . . . [in L'art du dix-huitième siècle, advertisement supplement to Burlington Magazine]." Burlington Magazine 108 (July 1966), p. iii, as "presumably representing the younger Madame Lambert de Thorigny, the wife of Claude".
Myra Nan Rosenfeld inL'art du connaisseur/The Art of Connoisseurship. Exh. cat., Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal. Montreal, 1978, pp. 94, 102, fig. 7, comments on the influence of Lely.
Georges de Lastic. "Largillierre's Portrait of Madame Aubry." Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin 63 (1979), p. 75, as "the very young and witty Marquise de Simiane".
Myra Nan Rosenfeld. "Nicolas de Largillierre's 'Portrait of the Marquise de Dreux-Brézé'." Apollo 109 (March 1979), p. 205, fig. 6.
Recent Acquisitions: French Paintings & Sculptures of the 17th and 18th Century. Exh. cat., Heim Gallery. London, 1979, unpaginated, under no. 11, compares it with "Portrait of a Young Woman as Venus with her Son as Cupid" of 1698, and notes that our sitter is wrongly identified as Madame Lambert de Thorigny.
Myra Nan Rosenfeld. Letter to Dean Walker. December 21, 1979, observes that Jean Cailleux, who knew Sortais, asserts that Sortais merely accepted titles that were current at the time; she has looked in his files and found no engravings of Mlle or Mme de Thorigny.
Myra Nan Rosenfeld. Largillierre and the Eighteenth-Century Portrait. Exh. cat., Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Montreal, 1981, pp. 100, 104, 107, 120–23, 129, no. 18, ill., notes that Largillierre has taken the statue of a nude female figure from Lely's "Portrait of Anne Hyde, Duchess of York" (Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh), and suggests "an allegorical allusion to the woman as Venus or a water nymph"; considers this sitter too young to be Marie de l'Aubespine (wife of Nicolas Lambert de Thorigny), and notes that no likenesses of Marie-Marguerite Bontemps (wife of Claude Lambert de Thorigny) appear to have survived.
Myra Nan Rosenfeld. "Largillierre: Problèmes de méthodologie." Revue de l'art no. 66 (1984), p. 72.
John Pope-Hennessy. "Roger Fry and The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Oxford, China, and Italy: Writings in Honour of Sir Harold Acton on his Eightieth Birthday. Ed. Edward Chaney and Neil Ritchie. London, 1984, p. 231.
Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw. Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century. Exh. cat., Addison Gallery of American Art. Andover, Mass., 2006, pp. 18–19, fig. 10 (color).
A. Jal, Dictionnaire critique de biographie et d’histoire: errata et supplement, 2nd ed., Paris, 1872, pp. 248–49, 732–33, provides a biography of Marie Marguerite, who died at the Hôtel Lambert in Paris on 5 August 1700.