During the eighteenth century portraiture in Rome developed a distinctive, cosmopolitan style as practitioners from outside the city dominated the field: the Frenchman Pierre Subleyras, the Lucchese Pompeo Batoni, the Bohemian Anton Raphael Mengs and Austrian Anton von Maron. One reason for this diversity was Rome’s prominence as a place of artistic and educational pilgrimage for young artists and travellers from other European nations undertaking the ‘Grand Tour’. The present exceptionally fine portrait is illustrative of both the distinctive Roman style and mode of ‘Grand Tour’ portraiture; made by the celebrated French portraitist Louis-Gabriel Blanchet, it probably depicts a foreign visitor to the city proudly holding a book, a prop suggestive of both learning and the implicit educational function of travel in the mid-eighteenth century. Blanchet occupies an important – if neglected – position in the development of portraiture in Rome during the first half of the eighteenth century and this portrait is a strikingly assured and finely painted example of his early work.
Blanchet was born in Versailles in 1705, the son of a valet de chambre of Monsieur Blouin, himself the principal valet of Louis XIV. In 1727 he won second place in the Prix de Rome competition, missing out on the first prize to his friend Pierre Subleyras. This success enabled him to move to Rome and study at the Académie de France à Rome situated in Palazzo Mancini on the Corso. The Académie was then under the direction of the painter Nicolas Vleughels. Blanchet’s earliest dated portrait depicts Vleughels’s brother-in-law, the Roman painter Giovanni Paolo Panini. The portrait of Panini which is dated 1736, demonstrates how Blanchet’s earliest works were a careful combination of the rich palette of Italian Maratteschi painters, such as Marco Benefial and the grand visual language of Baroque French portraiture.
Blanchet soon established a thriving portrait practice and was encouraged by the patronage of the Duc de Saint-Aignan, the French ambassador, who had arrived in Rome in 1732. Among the seven paintings acquired by the Duc de Saint-Aignan was the double portrait of the Reverend Fathers François Jacquier and Thomas Leseur of 1752 (Musée des Beaux Arts, Nantes), mathematicians who contributed to the scientific reputation of the Minim convent of S. Trinità, they are depicted amidst telescopes, an armillary sphere, and celestial globe. Blanchet’s portraits of two rich Lyonese, the brothers Claude Tolozan D’Amaranthe and Louis Tolozan de Montfort of 1756 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon and The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore), underline his elegant, luminous, and colourful style of painting.
Blanchet is most famous for his portraits of members of the exiled Stuart Court. In 1736 he graduated from the Académie, but decided not to return to France, instead Blanchet remained in Rome; the annual census (Stati delle anime) reveal that he shared lodgings with Pierre Subleyras. Following the death of the painter Antonio David in 1737, Blanchet was commissioned by King James III (the Old Pretender) to paint copies of portraits of his sons by Jean-Étienne Liotard. This contact with the Stuart Court resulted in a number of commissions from other Jacobites resident in the city and probably brought Blanchet to the attention of other British Grand Tourists.
Blanchet’s portraits of the Stuart princes look similar to his most celebrated contemporary, his friend and fellow Academician Pierre Subleyras. Subleyras arrived in Rome in 1728, having won first prize in the Prix de Rome in 1727, according to Vleughels’s correspondence, he quickly distinguished himself as a portraitist also attracting the patronage of the Duc de Saint-Aignan. A portrait he executed in 1746-7 of the English Grand Tourist, Horatio Walpole (Temple Newsam House, Leeds) is particularly close in conception and handling to Blanchet’s portrait of A Gentleman. Walpole is shown seated at a table, his right hand resting on an open book and his left gesticulating out of the picture frame. Subleyras deploys the same stock devices of rich costume and, most tellingly, the ornate arm of a chair to frame the composition. The refined palette and exquisite handling are also similar in the two canvases, suggesting both a date range for the present picture and the visual context.
The present portrait - the sitter’s identity, as with many of Blanchet’s Roman works, is unknown - also shows strong similarities with Blanchet’s earlier portrait of Panini, particularly in terms of the pose and handling. The sitter is shown seated facing to the right in a similar blue-coat with gold frogging, which contrasts to the voluminous russet cloak which suggests a classical Roman toga. As Bowron has noted writing about the portrait of Panini it is these elements which demonstrate: ‘Blanchet’s usual confident command of light, color and texture.’ The sitter’s hand is shown resting on a book, a standard trope of Grand Tour portraiture, which identifies him as a man of learning undertaking an educational tour. Unlike in later portraits by Blanchet, the spine of the book is left blank and in contrast to his later works, the background is not ornamented with vegetation, antique sculpture or an interior view giving an unusual intensity to the work.
Blanchet was in contact with a number of British painters and travellers outside the Jacobite court. In 1753 he painted a portrait of the architect William Chambers, shown in an oval with a number of architectural plans and books and a portrait of the Irish painter James Barry in 1766. Blanchet painted numerous English tourists, including a fine portrait of Henry Willoughby, Lord Middleton and Henry, 8th Baron Arundell of Wardour. But Blanchet’s greatest impact on British painters was through his innovative landscape drawing, he was one of a number of French painters living in Italy who pioneered the use of drawing plein air studies in black and white chalks on blue or grey paper, which had an enormous impact on artists such as Richard Wilson and his Danish follower Johan Mandelberg, whose portrait Blanchet painted (Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen).
This masterful portrait perfectly demonstrates the qualities which made the French trained painters of the 1720s the leading portraitists in Rome in the middle of the century. The masterful handling of costume demonstrates the impact painters like Blanchet and Subleyras had on their Italian contemporaries, particularly Pompeo Batoni. Although the sitter has not, so far, been identified, this painting is a highly stylish Grand Tour portrait and probably depicts a traveller in Rome. Given its early provenance in Britain and Blanchet’s close contact with British travellers and painters it may well depict a British sitter.
- Blanchet has received only one dedicated scholarly article: Olivier Michel, ‘Un pittore francese a Rome, Louis-Gabriel Blanchet’, Strenna dei romanisti, 57, 1996, pp.467-86.
- Ed. E P Bowron and J J Rishel, Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century, exh. cat., Philadelphia (Philadelphia Museum of Art), 2000, pp. 327-328.
- Olivier Michel, ‘Un pittore francese a Rome, Louis-Gabriel Blanchet’, Strenna dei romanisti, 57, 1996, pp.470-472.
- For Subleyras see: eds. Olivier Michel and Pierre Rosenberg, Subleyras 1699-1749, exh. cat. Paris (Louvre), 1987.
- For Blanchet’s work for the Stuarts see: Edward Corp, The Stuarts in Italy; A Royal Court in Permanent Exile, Cambridge, 2011, pp.285-303.
- For the link between Stuart and British Grand Tour patronage see: Edward Corp, ‘The Stuart Court and the Patronage of Portrait-Painters in Rome, 1717-57’, in eds. David R. Marshall, Susan Russell and Karin Wolfe, Roma Britannica: Art Patronage and Cultural Exchange in Eigtheenth-Century Rome, London, 2011, p.46-47.
- eds. Olivier Michel and Pierre Rosenberg, Subleyras 1699-1749, exh. cat. Paris (Louvre), 1987, pp.21-4.
- Ed. E P Bowron and J J Rishel, Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century, exh. cat., Philadelphia (Philadelphia Museum of Art), 2000, cat. no.182.
- For example Blanchet’s portrait of an unknown sitter in a private collection dated 1766 shows him holding a copy of the Dialogues of Phocion. See Francesco Petrucci, Pittura di Ritratto a Roma: il ‘700, Rome, 2010, II, p.437. Also the unknown portrait in a private collection, showing a sitter in a stone oval holding a copy of Bernard Forest de Bélidor’s work on hydraulics. See Francesco Petrucci, Pittura di Ritratto a Roma: il ‘700, Rome, 2010, I, p.177.
- See Francesco Petrucci, Pittura di Ritratto a Roma: il ‘700, Rome, 2010, I, p,176.
- See Pittura di Ritratto a Roma: il ‘700, Rome, 2010, II, pp.438-439.