Provenance:A label on the reverse bears the name 'Slaes', which could refer to either Leon Slaes (d. circa 1890), Brussels, or Arthur Slaes (d. circa 1897), Paris, France, both were art experts involved in several auctions from c. 1870 to 1897;
Bernard Minoret (1928-2013), Paris, France.
M.F. Boyer, Private Paris, Paris, 1988, where documented in the Parisian home of Bernard Minoret.
Further information:Portrayed with lively realism, the sitter of the present terracotta bust casts his gaze upwards and into the distance, while the corners of his lips curl into a quiet yet confident smile. On the reverse, a date is carefully incised in the clay: 1794, the third year of the Republic, 3rd or 4th Brumaire. Noted according to the French revolutionary calendar, it corresponds to 24th or 25th October 1794, only a few months after the end of Maximilien Robespierre's Reign of Terror, arguably the Revolution's darkest hour. Indeed the self-assured, almost buoyant, expression of the sitter appears to reflect the sense of relief and high hope that must have pervaded France upon Robespierre's arrest in July 1794. The fact that the date is written according to revolutionary custom signals - together, as shall be explained, with the compositional qualities of this portrait - that the sitter adhered to the cause of the Revolution.
Wearing no hat or wig, with his hair loosely tied in a pigtail at the back of his neck and his chemise unbuttoned, the present sitter is highly representative of portraiture during the revolutionary period, a significant yet short-lived chapter in the history of French art that heralded a break away from the canons of Academic teaching. Examples of note dating to the last decade of the eighteenth century, comparable to the present terracotta, include the 1791 portrait by François-Joseph Martin, known as Martin de Grenoble, of Jean Paul Marat, the political theorist and writer who, after being assassinated in 1793, became a Jacobin hero and an emblem of the Revolution; the one of Armand Gensonné, a Girondin member of the revolutionary legislative assembly, attributed to François Masson and dated circa 1795; the portrait of General Guillaume Brune, a revolutionary and later ally of Napoleon, by Joseph Chinard (c. 1800, Minneapolis Institute of Arts); and that of Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau, one of the leaders of the moderate revolutionary faction, by Jacques Philippe Dumont, now at the Speed Art Museum in Kentucky.
It is interesting to note that, like the present bust, all the above listed examples - apart from the effigy of Gensonné - were executed in terracotta. This medium had by the end of the eighteenth century become an established choice for finished portraits, being particularly appreciated by artists and patrons alike for the impression of vibrant realism that it helped convey. For example, the young man's pupils in the present work are deeply carved in a swirl, which creates a lively chiaroscuro effect further accentuated by the texture of fired clay (as opposed to the smoother marble or bronze). This technique had been first finessed by Jean-Antoine Houdon, one of the greatest portrait sculptors within the generation that witnessed the epilogue of the Ancient Regime and the onset of the French Revolution.
Another aspect of the present bust that has its roots in French portraiture of the second half of the eighteenth century is the suggestion of informality in the sitter's dress and demeanour. This was traditionally the sole prerogative of intimate portraits, or of representations of artists, musicians, thinkers, and literati, in other words individuals who chose to do away with the pageantry and ostentation of patrician imagery, in order to call attention to the subtleties of their expressions, their intellect and personal traits. Examples of this kind can be found in the work of illustrious French sculptors such as Jean-Jacques Caffieri (Portrait of the philosopher Claude-Adrien Helvétius, 1772, formerly New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Portrait of the poet and playwright Jean-Baptiste Rousseau, 1786, Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art), Jean-Antoine Houdon (Portrait of the composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, c.1775, The Cleveland Museum of Art; Portrait of the Comte de Cagliostro - the enigmatic adventurer and occultist - from c.1786, Los Angeles County Museum of Art), and Augustin Pajou (Portrait of the dramatist Jean-François Ducis, 1779, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; Portrait of the painter Hubert Robert, c. 1780-1790, The Cleveland Museum of Art), to name a few. Similar to these artists and men of letters, supporters of the Revolution (some of whom came from the same circles) wished their effigies to reflect their disregard for the social hierarchy of the Ancient Regime, and to signal in their portraits their political stance against the King and his court.
The Revolution's impact on artists in Paris and beyond was not limited to the changing landscape of their patronage, but also directly affected their working practice. From its creation in 1648 until 1789, the year the Revolution erupted, the Parisian Acadèmie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture had been the epicentre of the arts in France (the contemporary Académie de Saint-Luc was no match in terms of authority and fame). Only its students and alumni could be selected for state commissions, and its governing board had direct influence over the yearly Salon exhibition, where only members of the Acadèmie could showcase their work. In other words, the making of an artist in eighteenth-century France largely depended on acceptance at the Acadèmie Royale. Already on the occasion of the 1789 Salon, several critics had condemned the "favouritism" that academicians enjoyed, noting how some of the entries displayed little talent. Within the Acadèmie itself, "agréé" members (the entrant level) began to demand equal rights to academicians and, when they were met with refusal, moved to form a separate association of artists, which they named "Commune des Arts". The influential painter Jacques-Louis David headed its commission, which on 22 March 1791 presented a memorandum to the National Constituent Assembly (the heir to the victorious revolutionary assembly), highlighting the urgent need of reform within the academy. It proposed replacing the monarchic institution with an assembly "of all artists without exception, and without any distinction of rank", adding that "comparison is how artists' talent should be tested. It is therefore only via a public exhibition that we can understand who the most skilled amongst them are", the argument being that if academicians were so confident of their abilities, why did they fear open competition?
In August 1791, the Commune des Arts' commission renewed its attack, stating that, since the Constitution had suppressed all corporations and the Acadèmie operated as one, it should be closed. A period of debate followed, until, in August 1793, the Acadèmie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture was forced to close its doors. The Commune des Arts replaced it, though it was soon substituted in turn by the Société populaire et républicaine des arts, and, finally, by the Institut National (1795). The Salon, being the principal means for artist to display their work, continued to operate, albeit after much controversy and under new rules, with openness to a wider range of entrants as its main principle, and a jury not made of academicians.
In 1794, the year the present portrait was created, the Acadèmie had recently been abolished and no catalogue of the Salon survives. In addition, the government was urging artists to produce, through public competitions called "Concours", works dedicated to celebrating the republic, thus shifting the focus away from more "private" subjects such as portraits like the present one. This, together with the knowledge that the authorities actively encouraged artistic enterprise from individuals of all backgrounds - many of whom did not operate in established workshops and whose names have not come down to us - accounts for the difficulty in identifying the author of the present work, albeit its compositional and stylistic traits closely match those of contemporary portraits. The most directly comparable appear to be those by Martin de Grenoble, the afore-mentioned author of the terracotta Bust of Marat. Parallels can be detected between the latter and the present likeness in the arrangement of the pleats of the chemise and of the rigidly folding lapels of the coat, and in the definition of facial features such as lips and pupils. The treatment of the surface, however, differs, with the present artist opting for a more textural rendition of fabrics and of details such as brows and hair.
As to the identity of the sitter, the first line of the inscription on the reverse of the present bust - the first word of which remains difficult to decipher - can be interpreted as referring to a "Brune" or "Bruni". In the first case, the sitter could be the young General Guillaume Brune, later immortalised in the bust by Joseph Chinard, who in 1794 was already well known in revolutionary circles. Only later images of the general survive, which complicates the comparison, but the long forehead, decisive stare and rather wide mouth match. In the second case, it could be the violinist Antonio Bartolomeo Bruni (1757-1821), who had also adhered to the revolutionary cause from its inception and whose only known likeness bears some resemblance to the present terracotta.
The surname Slaes, which appears on the bust's fragmentary back label alongside a number, refers most likely to either Arthur or Leon Slaes, who both feature as part of the Comite Spécial de l'Exposition Historique de l'Art Ancien for the Belgian section of the Exposition Universelle of 1878. Both were art experts that worked towards a series of auctions taking place from c. 1870 to 1897. Arthur Slaes had his office at 6 Rue Saint-Goerges in Paris, whilst Leon was based in Brussels. It is interesting to note their surname is Belgian in origin, and that the sale of Arthur Slaes's estate took place in Brussels, nor Paris, which suggests he spent the last years of his life there.
More recently, the bust formed part of the collection of French writer Bernard Minoret (1928-2013), who displayed it in his Parisian apartment in Faubourg Saint-Germain (see Boyer, Private Paris, 1988). Minoret was an important literary figure in France, renowned for his work as a novelist, playwright and screenwriter. In his youth, Minoret had moved in the same artistic circles as Pablo Picasso, Dora Maar and Jean Cocteau, and in later life became the host of legendary soirees at his Faubourg Saint-Germain apartment.