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Jean Marc Nattier - 1685-1766

( Originally Published 1902 )


THE following account of Nattier's life is abridged from a biographical sketch written by his eldest daughter, Marie-Catherine-Pauline, wife of the painter Louis Tocqué.


JEAN-MARC NATTIER was born in Paris on the seventeenth of March, 1685. His father, Marc Nattier, was an artist and a member of the Royal Academy of France, and his mother was a miniature painter of decided ability. When she was only twenty-two years of age, however, she became paralyzed, and was an invalid for the remainder of her life. Although the expenses necessarily incurred by this sad condition of affairs were a great drain upon their fortunes, the parents gave every possible ad-vantage in the way of education to their two sons, who from earliest child-hood had shown such a marked inclination for painting that their father determined to make every sacrifice for their advancement in this art. His hopes were not disappointed, for the boys responded to his wishes with genuine enthusiasm for the study.

As soon as little Jean-Marc, the younger of the two boys and the subject of this memoir, was old enough to hold a pencil, his father sent him to the Academy, where before long he took a prize for drawing. Indeed, his taste and his love for drawing were so great that he eagerly seized every opportunity to copy the works of the great masters; and so excellent were his copies that once when he submitted to the king, Louis XIV., a drawing which he had made from Rigaud's celebrated full-length portrait of that monarch, Louis commended him, saying, "Monsieur, continue to work thus and you will become a great man."

Nattier was only fifteen years old when he copied from prints four large battle-scenes painted by Le Brun. When the drawings were shown to Mansart, who was then superintendent of buildings in Paris, he was so struck by their merit that he rewarded the young draughtsman by conferring upon him the small allowance which was set aside by the Academy for the benefit of its most deserving pupils. The boy's father, moreover, obtained for his son permission from the king to make .drawings for an engraver from Rubens' pictures, then in the Luxembourg Palace, representing scenes in the life of Marie de Médicis.

After his father's death Nattier devoted himself still more earnestly to study. The Duc d'Antin, noticing his great assiduity at the Academy, proposed that he should go to Rome, where as a pensioner of the king he might take a place then vacant in the French Academy of that city; but Nattier had already undertaken several commissions that were so urgent that he declined this honor. In after life, however, he bitterly regretted his decision, and could never forgive himself for having lost such an opportunity.

The death of Louis XIV., that great patron of art, led Nattier to listen to propositions made to him in 1715 by Monsieur Lefort, minister and envoy of Peter the Great, Czar of Russia. Lefort was commissioned by that monarch to induce artists of every kind to go to St. Petersburg, and having already engaged an able French architect, Leblond, to undertake the journey, he found no great difficulty in persuading Nattier to join the czar at Amsterdam, where Peter the Great then was. No sooner had Nattier reached Amsterdam than the czar desired him to make portraits of many of the personages of his court then assembled in that city, and finally ordered him to paint a picture of which he himself, Peter the Great, should be the hero, the subject being the famous battle of Pultowa. When these various works had been completed to the satisfaction of the czar, that prince, who was on the point of leaving Amsterdam, despatched Nattier to The Hague with an order to paint there a portrait of the Empress Catherine, his consort. Scarcely was this work begun than the czarina wrote such a glowing account of it to the czar, who was then in Paris, that he, curious to see it, commanded Nattier to return at once to the French capital, and to bring the portrait of the empress with him, which Nattier did. Now it so happened that on the day on which the portrait arrived the czar was to sup at the house of the Duc d'Antin, and he was so delighted with the striking resemblance which the painting of the czarina bore to the original, although the head was the only part of the portrait that was entirely finished, that he ordered it to be sent to the duke's house, and had it placed upon a throne in the banqueting-hall. On the following day Nattier began a portrait of the czar, with which that prince was as much pleased as he had been with the artist's other works.

On the day before his departure for St. Petersburg, the czar, never doubting that Nattier had fully decided to go to Russia, although as a matter of fact the artist had only agreed to take the journey to Holland, despatched Monsieur Alsouffiow, Grand Marshal of the Russian court, to ask him when he would be ready to follow the emperor. This direct question troubled Nattier exceedingly, for, having been absorbed in his travels and his work, he had given no serious thought to the matter, and was consequently entirely undecided as to what to do. All the hardships and inconveniences of such an undertaking as a journey to Russia at once presented themselves to his mind. If, on the one hand, the alluring prospect of a brilliant fortune lay before him, he could not, on the other hand, shut his eyes to the innumerable difficulties which lay in his path. Fortunately for him, a friend in whom he had every confidence opportunely appeared on the scene and helped him out of his dilemma. Most decidedly disapproving of the scheme, this friend so forcefully represented to Nattier all the dangers to which his talent, his reputation, and even his life would be subjected in expatriating himself and in undertaking such a journey, that the artist, convinced by his friend's reasoning, no longer hesitated, but positively declined to accompany the czar. Peter the Great was so incensed by this refusal that, as a mark of his resentment, he immediately ordered the portrait of the czarina to be removed from the studio where it had been taken at his command that miniature copies might be made from it; and as a consequence the picture was never entirely finished, nor, indeed, was it ever paid for.

All thought of Russia being given up, Nattier now devoted himself to the task of painting his picture of admission to the Royal Academy,—a historical work (now in the Tours Museum) representing Perseus showing the head of Medusa at the wedding of Phyneus. In the year 1718 he was received into the Academy with every possible mark of distinction. As his natural taste lay in the line of historical painting, his first work after becoming a member of this society was a large allegorical painting of the family of Monsieur de la Motte, Treasurer of France.

In 1719 occurred the "System" of Law,' that scheme which destroyed so many fortunes and had such a disastrous effect upon Nattier's finances that it cannot be passed over in silence. Messieurs Couturier and Desvieux, directors of the India Company, whose portraits Nattier was at that time painting, advised the artist to sell his drawings of Rubens' works to Law in exchange for stock in the "System." Unfortunately Nattier took this ad-vice, and the drawings were disposed of for the sum of 18,000 livres paid in bank-notes. At the end of two months the notes depreciated to half their face value, and soon afterwards, in the general ruin of Law and his "System," became utterly worthless, while Nattier's beautiful drawings, the admiration of all Paris, were carried off by Law's son.

This loss, a considerable one for a young artist, was followed by a family lawsuit which so reduced his financial resources that nothing was left him but his talent. He consequently determined to devote his attention to portraiture as the most lucrative branch of art, and was soon fortunate enough to acquire a great reputation in that line.

In 1724 Nattier married Mademoiselle de Laroche, a charming girl whose talents, youth, and beauty had captivated his heart. Her father was a former officer to the king, and the family lived with such an air of ease and luxury that Nattier, judging from appearances, thought that in following his inclination he should also benefit his financial condition. It was not until several years after his marriage that he discovered that his father-in-law's fortune had been entirely wiped out by Law's "System," and found himself obliged to support a dowerless wife and a family of children who could in no way lighten for him the burden of their maintenance. Happily his reputation for portraiture brought many distinguished patrons to his studio, and before long he became, so to speak, the rage among the fashionable world—a distinction which he enjoyed for several years. Among the works which contributed most largely to his reputation were the full-length portrait of Marshal Saxe, an allegorical picture of Mademoiselle de Clermont, one of the Princesse de Lambesc as Minerva arming her brother the Comte de Brionne, and those of the princes and princesses of the House of Lorraine. His work called forth the admiration of all, and won for him the epithet, bestowed upon him by Gresset, the poet, of "pupil of the Graces and painter of Beauty."

All these portraits were treated historically, and added so much to Nat-tier's reputation in that particular style of painting that the Chevalier d'Orléans, Grand Prior of France, wished him to finish the series of pictures in the Temple' which had been begun by the artist Raoux, who had died before completing it. The first of the series, however, was to be painted in competition with the gifted artist Noël Nicolas Coypel; but as Nattier was so fortunate as to be victorious in the competition the Grand Prior decided in his favor, and placed a beautiful apartment in the Temple at his disposal. There he painted the six allegorical pictures which completed the decoration of the Prior's gallery, and finally the full-length portrait of the Grand Prior himself in command of a seaport with all appropriate attributes.

In the year 1740 Madame la duchesse de Mazarin engaged Nattier to paint portraits of her two nieces, the beautiful Mesdemoiselles de Nesle (notorious in later years as Madame de Châteauroux and Madame de Flavacourt), as `Point du jour' and `Silence.' These two pictures created such a sensation at court that the queen's curiosity was excited; and when she saw them she was so struck with their exact resemblance to their fair originals that she immediately ordered Nattier to paint a portrait of one of her daughters, Madame Henriette. The artist accordingly painted a full-length of this princess engaged in making a crown of flowers, and afterwards, by order of Louis XV., painted a second portrait of Madame Henriette and also one of her sister Madame Adélaide, which were placed at Choisy in the king's sleeping-apartment. When these works were finished his majesty bade Nattier come to Versailles to paint his own portrait, after which the artist was despatched to the Abbey of Fontevrault with an order to paint the portraits of the three royal princesses who were being educated there. This expedition was a secret one, as the king wished the pictures to be a surprise to the queen, who when she saw them was so delighted with Nattier's work that she decided to have him paint her portrait also.

In his portrait of the queen, which he accordingly made, Nattier succeeded even beyond his hopes, and was gratified by the universal applause which it evoked, not only because of the excellent likeness it bore to her majesty, but also on account of the noble simplicity of the composition—a simplicity which he had taken pains to preserve at the express request of the queen. Nattier was also successful in his portraits of Monsieur le Dauphin and Madame la Dauphine, Monsieur le duc de Bourgoyne, and Madame, the daughter of the Dauphin. While engaged on these works he received an order to paint the princesses for the third time. A portrait of Madame Elisabeth, the Duchess of Parma, in court dress was his last work, for he fell ill very soon after it was completed.

Nattier's reputation had been greatly increased by his continuous and pronounced success. Commissions poured in upon him from all the youth and beauty of court and city. He had the honor to paint the Duc and Duchesse d'Orléans, the Prince and Princesse de Condé, and many other personages belonging to the nobility. It would be an endless task to enumerate them: suffice it to say that his talents were in demand at almost all the courts of Europe, and that there was none where his name was not known and which did not deem it an honor to possess some example of his work.

Always industrious, Nattier devoted every moment not given to painting to reading and drawing, his favorite pursuits, and the beautiful sketches which he has left are due to this employment of his leisure moments.

If Nattier's prosperous days only were to be recorded in this biographical sketch and no mention made of those full of sorrow and sadness which followed, this would be the place to close; but truth demands that as exact and faithful an account shall be rendered of the last years of the artist's life as has been given of the first. As a matter of fact, the extent of Nattier's fortune was never so great as it had seemed to be, and still less was it in proportion to his reputation as a painter. Moreover, he had unfortunately neglected to insure an easy old age for himself, so that had he attempted to continue to live with the same degree of comfort to which he had been accustomed he would have been obliged to work up to the last moment—all through the long illness, in fact, which confined him to his bed for more than four years. Appreciating as he did the necessity for work, it was doubly hard to find that his popularity was waning. Long before he became incapable of using his brush he experienced the unhappy fate of so many celebrated men of every age,—he realized that he had outlived his reputation. War, that enemy to art, the inconstancy of the public, the taste for novelty—everything, in short, combined to make him experience the most pitiful neglect. An almost complete desertion on the part of the public succeeded the great popularity to which he had been accustomed, until at last, of all his commissions, there remained only the completion of a few works begun for the court in his more prosperous days.

Domestic sorrows also embittered Nattier's last years. The keenest of these was the death of a son, who had shown a decided talent for painting, and whom at his own expense he had sent to the French Academy at Rome. This son drowned himself in the Tiber six months after his arrival in Rome; and as Nattier had become a widower in 1742, three daughters were alone left to console his declining years. In July, 1762, he became ill; and after four years of great suffering he died, on the seventh of September, 1766. ABRIDGED FROM THE FRENCH

MADAME TOCQUE closes the account of her father's life with a touching tribute to his virtues. "He was most tenderly attached to his friends and to his children," she writes; "and such were the frankness and simplicity of his nature, the purity of his character and the sweetness of his disposition, such his scrupulous honesty and eager disinterestedness in serving others, that he fully merited the titles of a good father, a true friend, and a thoroughly upright man—titles by no means brilliant it may be, but which when taken in their fullest significance are the highest praise that can be bestowed upon a man."

The writer then goes on to summarize a statement made by her father in explanation of his lack of worldly success, in which Nattier reproaches himself with having made many unfortunate bargains, as, for instance, his disposal to Law of his drawings of Rubens' pictures in exchange for stock in the "System"; blames himself for careless investments and a too great willingness to lend money to people who as a rule never returned it; for his negligence in exacting payments for many portraits which he had painted, not only for his friends, but often for mere acquaintances; for having spent more money than he had been justified in spending in the purchase of articles of virtu; and finally he pleads that he had had heavy expenses to bear, as an invalid wife and a family of nine children had necessitated large inroads upon his fortune.

"With so much to contend with," concludes Madame Tocqué, "it may be seen that it was difficult for Monsieur Nattier to save much of the money which he had so easily acquired; but can any one in justice blame him, and does he not judge himself too harshly ? Surely any man may be counted happy who at the end of a long life can reproach himself with no other failings than those which every noble and generous soul can readily forgive."

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Jean Marc Nattier - 1685-1766

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