L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Sunday, September 22, 2013

By an unknown artist

"Portrait d’un homme et de ses enfants" circa 1810.  Musée de Tessé.

This is a painting I absolutely love.  Formerly titled "Le Conventionnel Michel Gérard et sa famille" or "La Famille de Michel Gérard", and residing at the Musée de Tessé since the end of the nineteenth century, it is now just referred to as a portrait of a man and his children.  This expertly made work was formerly attributed to David but, though various experts have tried to fit it into the oeuvres of other likely artists, the painter remains unknown.

I like to imagine that it was painted by the missing wife and mother of this family.  First, because then - and, to a degree, still - female artists, no matter how accomplished they might be, weren't taken as seriously as male artists.  Also, "propriety" would lessen the likelihood that a woman painter would actually become a professional, with her work publicly exhibited.  So it isn't hard to imagine that the author of this work would be little recognized in her own time and then quickly forgotten.

But I think what really shapes my hopeful hypothesis is how understood all the figures in this portrait are.  Each person is so particular.  Their expressions, their gestures.  And even more than that, how they relate to each other.  The direction of their gaze, the way they touch each other, crowded together in the picture plane.  The rough-hewn father, jacket-less with his sleeves rolled up, smiling gently and holding his youngest son, his large hand lovingly at the boy's waist.  The boy, looking over at his sister at the clavier, with maybe a hint of jealousy or resentment in his dreamy gaze.  The girl looks up from playing, and so much can be read into her expression.  Is she just a little proud of her accomplishment?  Or is that the timeless "oh, mother...!" look in her eyes?  Behind, the eldest boy looks self-assured - or at least the self-assurance assumed by a young man just coming of age - his left hand tucked into his jacket.  He has his right arm protectively draped over the shoulder of the middle brother, a boy who seems so shy - almost completely in shadow, his head tilted downward - that he nearly disappears from the painting.

I've never been able to find a larger image of this painting - or seen it in person, of course - so I can't comment on the finesse of the actual painted surface or all the described details.  (I'd love to know what is written on the card or slip of paper that is tucked into the mirror frame.)  There are certainly many, many portraits that are more graceful or grand or technically adept.  But I can think of very few that come close to this in the way it portrays the real connection and love of a simple family.


  1. Wow, I love this post. What lovely attention you pay to this very evocative painting.

    1. Thank you, dear. Maybe we'll get to see this painting face to face someday. : )