Pope Benedict XIV (Prospero Lambertini, 1675–1758)
Pierre Hubert Subleyras (French, Saint-Gilles-du-Gard 1699–1749 Rome)
Oil on canvas
25 1/4 x 19 1/4 in. (64.1 x 48.9 cm)
Purchase, Friends of European Paintings Gifts, Bequest of Joan Whitney Payson, by exchange, Gwynne Andrews Fund, Charles and Jessie Price Gift, and Valerie Delacorte Fund Gift, in memory of George T. Delacorte, 2009
Elevated to the papacy in 1740, Benedict XIV is shown wearing the ermine-lined cape (mozzetta) and ermine-lined hat (camauro) characteristic of papal winter garb. The stole is decorated with the papal keys and armorial device of the noble Lambertini family of Bologna. Subleyras had been chosen to paint the state portrait of the pope, but this informal one takes us much closer to the man whom Horace Walpole described as "a priest without insolence or interest, a prince without favorites, a pope without nephews."
The Artist: Born in Saint-Gilles-du-Gard in the south of France, Subleyras studied with his father, Mathieu, and in 1717 entered the Toulouse workshop of Antoine Rivalz, for whom he acted as a principal assistant in 1722. He received his first independent commission in 1725, for canvases for the ceiling of the Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs in Toulouse (now in the Musée des Augustins), and at about the same time began working as a portraitist. He moved to Paris in 1726 and won the Prix de Rome the following year with Moses and the Brazen Serpent (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nîmes). His stay at the Académie de France was extended from the autumn of 1728 until 1735, despite some opposition from the director, Nicolas Vleughels, and owing to the support and patronage of the French ambassador to Rome, the duc de Saint-Agnan, for whom he illustrated four scenes from the fables of Jean de La Fontaine (Musée du Louvre, Paris) and painted, in 1737, The Duc de Saint-Aignan Awards the Cordon Bleu of the Saint-Esprit to Prince Girolamo Vaini (Musée National de la Légion d’Honneur, Paris). Subleyras married the Roman miniaturist Maria Felice Tibaldi in 1739 and in 1740 was elected to membership in the prestigious Accademia di San Luca. Owing in part to ill health, and because he found patrons locally, he declined to return to France and refused invitations to take up positions at court in either Dresden or Madrid. He had increasing success with his portraits, the most important of which represent Frederick Christian of Saxony, son of the elector Augustus II, painted in 1739 (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Gemäldegalerie, Dresden), and Pope Benedict XIV, painted in 1740–41 and later given by the sitter to the Sorbonne (it is now in the Musée Condé, Chantilly). Subleyras received major commissions from religious orders, notably from the Lateran Canons, in 1737, for the enormous and well received Banquet in the House of Simon the Pharisee (Musée du Louvre, Paris) as well as for altarpieces for the churches of Rome, and for the cathedrals of Toulouse and Grasse, in 1741. A brilliant colorist and an accomplished draftsman and printmaker, Subleyras died of tuberculosis at the age of forty-nine.
The Painting: Prospero Lambertini (1675–1758)—elected Pope Benedict XIV in August 1740—wears the ermine-lined papal cape and hat (mozzetta and camauro). His stole is decorated with the papal keys and the armorial device of the noble Lambertini family of Bologna.
Subleyras's earliest likeness of Benedict XIV is the official portrait commissioned in 1740 and completed in early 1741, now in the Musée Condé, Chantilly. Numerous replicas of this nearly full-length, seated portrait survive. The present more informal bust portrait was clearly painted from life and matches the description of a work in the inventories of Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga, Benedict's secretary of the treasury, and a renowned connoisseur and collector. Confirming evidence, however, such as an inventory number on the canvas itself or its reverse, is lacking. At least two painted copies of this portrait survive, one formerly in the Mansi collection, Lucca, and later in the collection of Jon Landau, New York (art market, Florence) and a second formerly in a private collection, California (sale, Christie's, New York, June 8, 2011, no. 44, as Studio of Pierre Subleyras). A damaged pastel in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, attributed to Subleyras (56 x 42 cm), reflects the same composition (see Schöndruck, Widerdruck: Schriften-Fest für Michael Meier zum 20. Dezember 1985, Munich, 1985, fig. 17).
The history of the Valenti Gonzaga collection is discussed in detail in an essay by Rossella Vodret: "Dopo Silvio Valenti Gonzaga: sulle tracce di una collezione," in Ritratto di una collezione: Pannini e la Galleria del Cardinale Silvio Valenti Gonzaga, Milan, 2005, pp. 45–60.
[Mary Sprinson de Jesús 2012; updated by Katharine Baetjer 2017]
It is very rare indeed to examine an eighteenth-century painting that is in almost pristine condition. This portrait is one such example. Unlined, on its original strainer, and with barely a crack, this beautiful and powerful portrait is superb.
Support: The painting is on a medium-weight, plain-weave canvas which has a relatively open construction. It is still attached to its eighteenth-century strainer with the original wire nails which were partially hammered in and then bent flush with the sides in the usual manner. The nails are now slightly rusted. Cusping of the weave on all four edges confirms that the fabric support was stretched over this strainer before the ground and paint layers were applied. The canvas itself is in extraordinary condition. The strainer has developed a slight torque but the painting is taut and almost perfectly in plane.
Paint Layer: The portrait is executed with an assured and fluid hand, yet such is the artist’s command of form and his astonishing but understated facility with the brush, that it is almost possible to overlook what a bravura piece of painting this is. The condition of the paint layer is almost close to perfect with only one very small flake loss in the bottom left corner. Strainer bar marks are barely visible and although there are some extremely minor frame abrasions at the very edges and a few tiny abrasions in the main body of the picture, these are really of no consequence. There are several pentimenti where the artist has made significant adjustments to the contours: narrowing the hat and head, the ermine trim, and the white collar.
Structural Work and Cleaning: The painting underwent conservation treatment shortly after acquisition that involved the local reattachment of the canvas to the strainer─where the original wire nails had rusted through the fabric─and the removal of an oxidized varnish that muted the rich coloring and tonality and diminished the subtle paint handling in the face. Following the application of a new varnish, restoration was limited to the repair of the small flake loss in the bottom left corner and the amelioration of the more distracting permanent marks left by old fly spots.
[Extracted from the Condition and Treatment Report by Michael Gallagher, May 2009]
Inscription: Signed and dated (reverse): Pietro Subleiras 1746:
?Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga (until d. 1756; his estate, 1756–77; printed inv., n.d. [1756?], no. 509, as "Quadro di palmi 3. per altezza, e palmi 2., once 3. per larghezza, rappresentante Ritratto di Papa Benedetto XIV., in busto, in tela, del Subleras." [a painting 67 cm high by 50 cm wide, depicting Pope Benedict XIV, bust length, on canvas, by Subleyras]; ms. inv., 1756, no. 509, as "Altro quadro alto palmi tre, rappresentante ritratto di Nostro Signore Benedetto XIV, con sua cornice liscia dorata, dipinto da Mr. Sublera scudi 10" [another painting 67 cm high, depicting Our Father Benedict XIV, with its burnished gold frame, painted by Subleyras 10 scudi]); ?his nephew, Luigi Valenti Gonzaga (1777–d. 1808; inv., 1777, no. 509); ammiraglio Simone Pacoret de Saint-Bon, ministro della marina, Rome (until d. 1892); Alexis Pacoret de Saint-Bon, comte de Saint-Bon, Villard-Léger, Savoie (1892–1911); G. Christin, Nyon, Switzerland (from 1911); private collection, Geneva (about 1949–about 1999; sold to next owner); private collection (about 1999–2009; sale, Sotheby's, New York, January 29, 2009, no. 73, to Adam Williams for MMA)
Inventario dei beni dell'eredità del cardinale Silvio Valenti Gonzaga. September 2, 1756, c. 795v–796r, no. 688 [Archivio di Stato, Rome; published in "Ritratto di una collezione: Pannini e la Galleria del Cardinale Silvio Valenti Gonzaga," exh. cat., Milan, 2005, p. 348; Getty no. I-4144, with date as September 7], calls this work a portrait of Pope Benedict XIV by Subleyras, "Altro quadro alto palmi tre [h. 67 cm], rappresentante ritratto di Nostro Signore Benedetto XIV . . . dipinto da Mr. Sublera scudi 10" [probably our picture].
Stato attivo e passivo dell'eredità di Roma del Card.le Silvio Valenti . . . 1777, no. 509 [Archivio di Stato, Mantua, Notaio Angelo Amadei, 1777; see published in "Ritratto di una collezione: Pannini e la Galleria del Cardinale Silvio Valenti Gonzaga," exh. cat., Milan, 2005, p. 315; Getty no. I-4145], describes it as a "Quadro di palmi 3. per alrezza, e palmi 2., once 3. per larghezza, rappresentante Ritratto di Papa Benedetto XIV., in busto, in tela, del Subleras." [a painting 67 cm high by 50 cm wide, depicting Pope Benedict XIV, bust length, on canvas, by Subleyras] (probably our picture).
Odette Arnaud. "Catalogue de l'œuvre de Subleyras." Les peintres français du XVIIIe siècle: histoire des vies et catalogue des œuvres. Ed. Louis Dimier. Paris, 1930, p. 83, under no. 133, lists as no. 133 a portrait of Benedict XIV (64 x 49 cm) in the Manzi [sic for Mansi] collection in Lucca and mentions an early replica with G. Christin in Nyon [Switzerland], purchased in June 1911 from "l'amiral Comte de Saint-Bon" in Italy; adds that the Christin replica is inscribed on its reverse: "Pietro Subleiras, 1746"; mentions another early copy at Versailles (no. 4494).
Olivier Michel and Pierre Rosenberg. Subleyras, 1699–1749. Exh. cat., Musée du Luxembourg. Paris, 1987, pp. 252–53, mention the bust portrait in the Mansi collection, Lucca, and the replica [our picture] with G. Christin mentioned by Arnaud [Ref. 1930]; tentatively identify the latter with a portrait on the art market in 1889 that bore a different inscription on its reverse; note that Anthony Clark "prudently" attributed the Munich pastel to Subleyras in a written communication.
Important Old Master Paintings. Sotheby's, New York. January 29, 2009, pp. 194–95, no. 73, ill. (color, overall and detail), identifies this portrait as the example sold by the comte de Saint-Bon to Christin in 1911 [see Ref. Arnaud 1930].
Paul Jeromack in "Met Nets Sotheby's Subleyras." Artnet. March 11, 2009, ill. (color) [http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/new/jeromack/jeromack3-11-09.asp], calls it "perhaps the most human and beautiful portrait by the artist".
Alexandra Peers. "The Met Drops a Cool Million for an Old Master." New York Magazine online. March 12, 2009, ill. (color) [http://nymag.com/daily/entertainment/2009/03/the_met_drops_a_cool.html].
"Un portrait de Benoît XIV par Subleyras entre au Met." Tribune de l'art. March 12, 2009, ill. (color) [http:///www.latribunedelart.com/Nouvelles_Breves_2009/03_09/Subleyras_Metropolitan_988.htm].
Francesco Petrucci. Pittura di Ritratto a Roma: il Settecento. Rome, 2010, vol. 1, fig. 255 (color); vol. 3, pl. 1268.
Keith Christiansen in "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 2008–2010." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 68 (Fall 2010), p. 39, ill. (color).
The Road to Rome: A Distinguished Italian Private Collection, Part I. Sotheby's, New York. January 28, 2016, p. 50, fig. 1 (color), under no. 314.
Pierre Rosenberg. "Le peintre Subleyras, pensionnaire au palais Mancini." L'Académie de France à Rome: le palais Mancini: un foyer artistique dans l'Europe des Lumières (1725–1792). Ed. Marc Bayard et al. Rennes, 2016, p. 305.