La Tour, Maurice-Quentin de

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La Tour, Maurice-Quentin de (1704-1788): French, Painter

Maurice-Quentin de Latour was born September 5 in Saint-Quentin in Picardy, Northern France, the third son to François de La Tour, trumpeter in the Duc de Maine’s regiment and later musician. Maurice-Quentin attends school in his home town but spends much of his time drawing and copying prints rather than studying. In 1719, he goes to Paris and is taken on as a student by the painter Claude Dupouch. At 18 years of age, he meets a famous engraver, Nicolas Tardieu, who helps him meet other painters. Maurice-Quentin’s attempts to work as an assistant to established painters repeatedly meet with refusal until he makes the acquaintance of Jacques-Jean Spoëde, a Flemish artist who introduces him to the works of Rubens and Van Dyck. It is unknown when La Tour leaves Spoëde’s studio but, in 1723, he is already back in Saint-Quentin where he has an affair with his cousin, Anne Bougier, who will bear his still-born child, circumstances which force him to leave his hometown. He moves to Cambrai where representatives from the king of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor are meeting to end the Anglo-Spanish war. La Tour finds his first success with the portrait of the Spanish delegate which favorably impressed the English delegation. It is believed that he therefore receives an invitation to England. Another explanation for his departure for London is that, while in Cambrai, he falls in love with a married woman who tricks him into coming to her house for a nightly rendezvous but the woman and her husband dupe La Tour and manage to let him hang into a basket outside her house between two floors. Embarrassed and humiliated, he decides to leave for London.

In England, he grows into a successful portraitist renowned for achieving very good likenesses. He chooses rather pastel than oil because this medium does not require as many sittings for there is no need to wait for the canvass to dry. In 1727, he is back in Paris and devotes much of his time to perfecting his drawing ability. His first recognized major work takes place in 1737 with his self-portrait, L’Homme qui rit, with the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. He, then, sends a second painting to the judges, a Portrait of Mme Boucher, which earns him the position of Associate at the Academy. From 1738, the artist’s recognition is ensured with successful portraits such as the ones of Mademoiselle de la Boissière and Jean Restout. His exceptional knowledge of color and texture bring him much success. The public appreciates the depth and intimacy captured in the human face by the new artist en vogue. In addition to the likeness of his portraits, La Tour strives to catch the touch, vitality and personality that differentiate each of his sitters in life.

In the salon of 1739, two of his drawings consecrate him as the portraitist of his day, Father Fiacre and Claude Dupouch (his former teacher at the Academy of Saint Luc). He is then in demand with the nobles and the influential people of Paris. A year later, he is portraying Louis XV and his family. However, in spite of his fame, he worries about losing his celebrity and his income specifically because he realizes that his popularity might prove temporary and also because many critics believe pastel inferior to oil. In 1741, to prove his detractors wrong, he undertakes on a very large scale, a portrait of a judge, President de Rieux, 74” high on 56” wide. The work is considered a masterpiece because of its precision, likeness and realism; it matches any oil work using simple colorful pastels. In the salon of 1745, more pastels of Louis XV, the dauphin and many other prominent aristocrats and state men grant him a personal studio in the Louvre only reserved for the best artists of the period. The powerful nobles of Europe turn to him to have their portrait done and critics recognize that he can seize the physiognomy but also the character of his sitters. One of his gifts resides in his faculty to capture the psychology of his models through the expression he puts in their eyes. He is then promoted Premier Painter to the king. He also paints the great military men of France, the most famous being the ones for the Marshal of Saxe for whom he made several portraits. He also draws one of the most famous woman of France, Louis XV’s mistress, Pompadour, Marquise de, who holds in her hands much of France’s politics. In 1750, he meets Marie Fel, an opera singer nine years younger than he. Unsuccessfully courted before by other artists, including Grimm, Baron Friedrich Melchior von. Fel would become the pastellist’s devoted companion until the latter’s health degrades and must return to his native Saint-Quentin before his death. His passion for his art is well illustrated by a significant episode while making Mme de Pompadour’s portrait. One of his conditions was that he would suffer no interruptions during the sitting. However, when the king dares enter the room, the draughtsman stops his work for the day and exits the room impatiently reminding Mme de Pompadour in front of the king his prerequisite. La Tour was known to be direct even with the highest political leaders like the king himself. In 1752, he receives a royal pension that ensures his old days. La Tour’s works can be regarded as a collection of the most important and famed people during Louis XV’s reign. However, he was very sensitive to the hardship and suffering of the masses and developed friendship with many of the philosophes. His portraits of Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de, Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Alembert, Jean Le Rond d’, and theater’ and opera’s idols like La Camargo and Mademoiselle Sallé (both also painted by Lancret, Nicolas) are among his most charismatic ones.

In 1766, he travels to Holland and visits Amsterdam, the Hague and Utrecht. In Utrecht, he meets one of the most famous Dutch writer of the Enlightenment, Isabelle de Zuylen, also known as the “Belle de Zuylen,” or "Isabelle de Charriere" of whom he will make an appealing and renowned portrait. Back in Paris, La Tour continues to paint and exhibits many pieces in the salons of 1769, 1771, and 1773. In his later years, his production slows down and the artist is more preoccupied in retouching portraits that had been previously finished and even delivered to their owner. La Tour feels he must make alterations because he cannot find his original inspiration. He realizes that he is searching for an excellence that is beyond human skill. Now in his seventies, he becomes very involved in charity. He founds a free school of paintings, gives large sums to maternity hospitals and, of course does not forget his relatives, his friends and his faithful companion, Marie Fel. La Tour seems to have lost touch with reality hoping to contribute to an impossible ambition where human kind would be linked through love and charity. On June 20, 1784, he leaves Marie Fel and returns to his native Saint-Quentin where most inhabitants are out greeting him and thanking him for his generosity. Later on, he loses his mind and believing he is one of the richest man on earth want to give everyone big chunk of his fortune. He dies on 17 February 1788.

Often regarded as one of the best portraitists of his time, La Tour succeeds in showing the sitters 'soul in their appearance. One of the differences with other portraitists is that with La Tour, his subjects 'eyes do not necessarily seem to watch outbound but often hold an expression that invite the public to watch inside them to understand the profundity of their charm and character. The light in the pastel along with the models 'expression and diminutive smile propose a complicity that one accepts unintentionally. La Tour did not bother to sign his works. He knew that pastels did not enjoy the same esteem as oil but was so skilled that he was able to prove that pastels could capture the large spectrum and diversity of the human heart through people’s face.

Further Reading:

Adrian Bury, Maurice-Quentin De La Tour, The Greatest Pastel Portraitist, 1971

Guy David Toubiana

The Citadel