PIERRE SUBLEYRAS

(Saint Gilles du Gard 1699 – 1749 Rome)
 

The Triumph of Harlequin and Columbine: a design for a fan

 

oil on canvas

10 ⅜ x 21 ½ inches (26.5 x 54.5 cm.)

Provenance:[1]

Cardinal Valenti Gonzaga (recorded in his inventory of 7 September 1756 (c.801v [727]) as no. 99: ‘Altro quadro di palmi due e mezzo per traverso,rappresentante una mascarata in un ventaglio, con sua cornice dorata intagliata, dipinto da Mr. Subleras scudi 35’);[2] probably Lenglier (presumably the art dealer Jacques Lenglier), sale, Paris, 24 April 1786, lot 127, ‘Mon Belliard [possibly a corruption of Subleyras],[3]3 ‘Une mascarade d’une composition agréable, en forme d’eventail. Cette esquisse terminée est d’une bonne couleur. Hauteur 9 pouces, largeur 18. T [toile]’[4]; M. de Castelmore, sale, Hotel de Buillon, 20 December 1791, lot 19, ‘Subleyras-un sujet de mascarade, forme d’éventail. Ce morceau, d’une composition comique, est de la touche la plus precise, et en meme temps spiritual Haut 9 p larg. 18. T [toile]’[5]; where purchased for 42 francs by the picture dealer, Alexandre-Joseph Paillet (1743-1814);

Armand-Frederic-Ernest Nogarent, his deceased sale, Thierry, Paris, 6 April 1807, lot 37, ‘Subleyras. Mascarade, composition de vingt figures[6]; Antoine de Sauzay (1743-1821), sale, Paillet, Paris, 8 January 1810, lot 12, ‘P. Subleyras - Un tableau esquisse,forme d’eventail. Sujet d’une masquerade italienne[7]; Anon. Sale, Christie’s, London, 2 November 2001, lot 101 as ‘Attributed to Maria Felice Subleyras-Tibaldi’; where bought by Chaucer Fine Arts, London; Private Collection, U.S.A; sale, Christie’s, New York, 15 April 2008, lot 64.

Exhibited:

London, Chaucer Fine Arts, Artists by Artists, 2003, no. 15.

Literature:

A. Haméry, La peinture italienne au musée des Augustins, Toulouse, 2003, p. 107, plate 41.B.

 

This spirited oil sketch by Pierre Subleyras is connected with a design for a fan by the artist’s wife, the miniaturist Maria Felice Subleyras-Tibaldi (1707-1770) (fig. 1; Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, inv. no. 5511). It is probable that Subleyras provided the original idea, which was developed with modifications (in particular the addition of a landscape background) by his wife.  Her work was then used as the basis for the design of a fan now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (T153-1920), which follows the composition closely, albeit with differences in the coloring of the clothes worn by some of the figures. Mme. Subleyras’s painting, in turn, would appear to have been copied with variations by Hubert Robert in a painting formerly with Galerie Cailleux, Paris. There is also a copy of the Toulouse maquette in the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Paris.

Figure 1

Maria Felice Subleyras-Tibaldi (Rome 1707 - 1770)

Le Triomphe d'Arlequin

24 x 51 cm

Nothing is known of the original circumstances behind the creation of this painting, but it is first recorded in the 1756 inventory of the collection of Cardinal Valenti Gonzaga, who owned eight other pictures by Subleyras: no. 99, ‘quadro di palmi due e mezzo per traverso, rappresentante una mascarata in un ventaglio con sua cornice dorata intagliata, dipinto da Mr.Subleras.[8] It is not known how our painting left the Gonzaga collection, since it is not recorded in any of the Gonzaga sales. Around the turn of the nineteenth century a painting, corresponding very closely to this work, was recorded as changing hands several times in a number of sales held in Paris. It then disappeared from view for almost two hundred years, before finally re-emerging at auction in London in 2001.

The version by Mme. Subleyras now in Toulouse entered the museum in 1955 from the heirs of Nicolas-Joseph Marcassus, baron de Puymaurin, who had acquired it at the Toulouse Salon in 1773.[9] In the Salon livret the work is said to have come from the estate of M. le Chavalier de Lassalle[10] and it is described as ‘Esquisse d’un eventail peint en miniature pour la Reine d’Espagne par Madame Thibald de Subleiras de l’academie de Saint Luc de Rome.[11] Although the Salon livret does not describe the subject of the fan it seems highly probable that it is the maquette by Mme. Subleyras now in Toulouse. On the basis of the above description, the Toulouse work has traditionally been associated with a project for a fan for Elisabetta Farnese (1692-1766), second wife of Philip V of Spain, who was an avid collector of fans. In 1735 twelve fan designs (of which eight survive) were commissioned for Elisabetta, featuring scenes commemorating the military triumphs of her son Don Carlos (1716-1788), who was crowned King of the Two Sicilies in 1735.[12] Given the differences in iconography, it seems impossible that the Toulouse picture was part of this commission and it is much more likely that it was painted some four or five years later, after Maria Tibaldi’s marriage to Subleyras in 1739. It is, however, possible that Mme. Subleyras’s painting was produced for the Queen as there were connections between members of the Spanish Court and the Subleyras family: in 1739 Mme. Subleyras’s sister married the lawyer Domenico Bagnara, who was the confidant of the Spanish Ambassador to Rome, Cardinal Acquaviva, and there is a surviving letter by the latter extolling the merits of Subleyras’s new wife.[13] Furthermore Cardinal Valenti-Gonzaga, who owned not only Subleyras’s original sketch but also a pastel by Elisabetta Farnese[14] (which implies a certain degree of intimacy), may also have been in a position to recommend the artist’s wife to the fan-loving Spanish Queen.[15]

In the present sketch, Subleyras added spandrels which transform the work into an architectural fantasy. Whereas the spandrels of the Toulouse maquette were left undecorated, here they are painted en brunaille with suggestions of paneling, and this, together with the di sotto in su perspective, might indicate that it was intended to be incorporated into a decorative scheme. While the picture is certainly too narrow to have functioned as an overdoor, it is not inconceivable that it once hung as the upper part of a boiserie panel, given the relatively narrow widths of eighteenth-century French paneling.[16]

The narrative of Harlequin and Columbine was a popular theatrical piece, and in the present sketch the lovers are represented in a chariot before an elaborate architectural backdrop of a triumphal arch. This differs significantly from the more open and naturalistic design by Mme. Subleyras. Furthermore the theatricality of the scene is highlighted much more strongly by Subleyras. He includes members of an audience in boxes in the wings and musicians playing instruments in the orchestra pit, their scores illuminated by candlelight, all of which create the impression that we are attending a performance in an eighteenth-century theatre. By contrast, the fan design by Mme. Subleyras presents a less crowded and more stately triumphal procession taking place in an open air setting. The stage has been replaced by a terrace and the orchestra pit by a flight of steps guarded by stone lions and flanked by fountains. There are also significant differences in execution. Subleyras’s sketch is executed briskly with the artist’s characteristic bravura brushwork, whereas the Toulouse canvas is much more carefully executed in a meticulous technique which reveals the hand of a miniaturist. Although Subleyras’s design is more sophisticated in terms of its handling of space and lighting, the Toulouse maquette has greater clarity and works better as a design for a fan

The inspiration behind this charming design comes ultimately from Watteau, who is known to have provided at least one design for a fan: a commedia dell’arte subject featuring Pierrot and Columbine, which was engraved by Boucher.[17] Here, though, the figure of Harlequin is derived directly from another Watteau design engraved by Cochin (Pour garder l’honneur d’une belle), while the triumphal chariot on which the lovers ride comes from an engraving by J.B. Pierre, Mascarade chinoise (1735), where the figure of the Emperor of China was modeled on that of Subleyras himself. Pierre was responsible for engraving the series of illustrations by Subleyras to the Contes of La Fontaine, which were published around the same time, and, as Méjanes has shown,[18] the Pierre engraving of the Mascarade chinoise records an actual event in which both Pierre and Subleyras were involved: a Chinese masquerade put on by the pensionnaires of the French Academy in Rome in 1735.

The final stage in the complex evolution of The Triumph of Harlequin and Columbine was when Hubert Robert produced his version of the subject.[19] His painting, originally thought to be by Watteau but published as Robert by Marianne Roland-Michel,[20] was probably painted by the young artist between his arrival in Rome in 1754 and his return to France in 1765. This painting clearly takes its cue from Mme. Subleyras’s design rather than the oil sketch of her husband, borrowing, for example, the open landscape background and the motif of the parasol above the chariot, which is not present in our painting. In translating what was originally a fan design into an easel painting, Robert painted the trees in the background more loosely and filled up the ‘hole’ in the foreground by moving the dog, who in the maquette is shown drinking from the basin of one of the fountains, to the center of the composition. Thus an original idea by Subleyras, drawing inspiration from Watteau and a Chinese pageant in the Rome Carnival, provided the source both for a celebrated fan painted for the Queen of Spain and one of Hubert Robert’s most capricious early oil paintings.

 

 

            

[1] We are grateful to Julia Armstrong-Totten for her help in clarifying the early provenance of the present work.

[2] ‘Another painting 2 1/2 palms wide [= c. 50 cms.], depicting a masquerade in a fan, with a gilt inlaid frame, painted by Mr. Subleras, 35 scudi.’

[3] Three lots (125-127) are by a ‘Mon Belliard’. The descriptions of lot 127 is very close to the present sketch such that one may suggest that ‘Mon Belliard’ is a corruption of the name Subleyras. The other two lots also correspond closely to the types of work Subleyras produced, especially lot 126, which features six monks dressed in white.

[4] ‘A masquerade, of pleasant composition, in the shape of a fan. The sketch is executed with an attractive use of color. 9 inches high, 18 wide, canvas.’

[5] ‘Subleyras, a masquerade, in the shape of a fan. This work, of an amusing composition, is finely executed and at the same time spirited. 9 inches high, 18 wide, canvas.’

[6] ‘Subleyras. A masquerade, 20 figures.’

[7] ‘P. Subleyras - A sketch, in the shape of a fan. An Italian masquerade.’

[8] ‘Another painting 2 ½ palms wide [= c. 50 cms.], depicting a masquerade in a fan, with a gilt inlaid frame, painted by Mr Subleras.’ An inventory of the Cardinal’s collection made shortly before 1763 also lists what is presumably the same painting (no. 99, ‘una mascherata, in tela, di M. Subleras’), even though it is not described as ‘in vantaglio’ and is given smaller dimensions (‘Quadro di palmi 1, e mezzo per traverse’).

[9] Recorded in the posthumous 1791 inventory of baron de Puymaurin’s collection is ‘no. 17, Subleyras. Le Triomphe d’Arlequin.  Both Méjanes (Collectionneurs Toulousains du XVIII Siècle, Toulouse, 2000, no. 47, p. 135) and Haméry (loc. cit.) argue this is the Toulouse maquette by Mme. Subleyras, rather than the present oil sketch by her husband. This identification would certainly make sense given that (1) in 1791 our  sketch was probably in the hands of the dealer Paillet in Paris (see provenance) and (2) the Toulouse picture is listed in1773 Salon livret as by Mme. Subleyras (see main text) and not by her husband.

[10] A still life by Subleyras was also exhibited described as ‘De la succession de M. le Chavalier de Lassalle’, so he seems to have been a collector of paintings by both husband and wife.

[11] ‘A sketch for a fan, painted in miniature for the Queen of Spain by Madame Tibaldi-Subleyras of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome.’

[12] Many of these were attributed to Pier-Leone Ghezzi, who recorded the commission in his unpublished memoirs, but it may be significant that one of the surviving Don Carlos fan designs appeared on the Paris art market under the name of Pierre Subleyras.

[13] Méjanes (loc. cit.) suggests that a fan of The Triumph of Harlequin based on the maquette now in Toulouse may have been sent to Spain in 1740 in the entourage of

the Cardinal, along with a replica of the Portrait of Benedict XIV by Subleyras, to help promote the talents of Mme. Subleyras to the Spanish Queen.

[14] A Head of Saint Catherine is listed in the 1756 inventory of the Cardinal’s collection (no. 130).

[15] If this is the case, the Toulouse maquette perhaps remained in Rome in the 1740’s and 1750’s in the Cardinal’s possession, while a fan based on its design, possibly the one now in the Victoria and Albert Museum and maybe painted by Mme. Subleyras herself, was

dispatched to Spain. Certainly the unusually high quality of the painting of the fan suggests the hand of an artist who was not just a fan painter.

[16] We are grateful to Sarah Medlam for this suggestion.

[17] The design, in watercolour, is now in the British Museum, London; see P. Rosenberg & L.A. Pratt, Antoine Watteau, Catalogue raisonné des dessins, vol. I, 1996, no. 189.

[18] Collectionneurs Toulousains du XVIII Siècle, Toulouse, 2000, no. 47, p. 135.

[19] Illustrated in Méjanes, op. cit., p. 138.

[20] Marianne Roland-Michel, ‘Notes on a painting by Hubert Robert formerly attributed to Watteau’, Burlington Magazine, [Supplement], 102, [November 1960], pp. ii-iii. Roland-Michel does not appear to have been aware of the existence of the our picture and

therefore assumed that Mme. Subleyras, who was not known for the originality of her compositions, must have been copying the work of the young Hubert Robert rather than vice-versa. However, Méjanes and Haméry think it much more likely that the young Robert took his cue from Maria Tibaldi and, apart from the fact that this works much better chronologically, it seems much more plausible also that she should have taken the idea for her design from her husband than from a young, and relatively untried, visitor to Rome.