When I looked at works by Gabriel Metsu in a recent blog I featured a couple of scenes which depicted hunters. Scenes with hunters were very popular at the time especially with the upper classes and nobility as hunting was a pastime of the rich and so any painting which depicted the hunter alluded to wealth. Hunting in the eyes of the nobility was one of the last symbols of class distinction. It was not just the portrayal of the hunter and the hunt which was popular with the wealthy classes but also the portrayal of the hunted – the prey and the hunting dogs. Today I am featuring the works of the French painter and decorative designer who specialised in animal paintings. Alexandre-François Desportes.
Alexandre-François Desportes was born in Champigneulle, a small town fifty kilometres south of Reims, on February 24, 1661. His father was a farm labourer. When François was twelve years of age his father sent him to Paris to live with his uncle. Shortly after his arrival at his uncle’s home he took ill and was confined to bed. To while away his time his uncle gave him an engraving and told his nephew to try and copy it. François’ effort was so good that his uncle arranged for him to study art under the Flemish painter Nicasius Bernaerts. Bernaerts was an accomplished artist who had studied with Frans Snyders, the Flemish painter, famous for his depiction of animals and hunting scenes. Bernaerts carried on the painting tradition of Snyders and had worked at Gobelins, the Parisian tapestry manufacturers, where his cartoons of animals were often used as designs in their tapestries. He was to greatly influence the future work of François Desportes. Whilst studying under Bernaerts, Desportes was put to work copying Flemish paintings, particularly those depicting animals and hunting scenes. He was also encouraged to sketch flowers direct from nature and paint floral still-lifes. Desportes never found this period of his life very fulfilling as Bernaerts, who although only in his mid-fifties, was often ill and his health was further impaired by his alcoholism and very rarely offered practical advice or assistance to his students. Bernaerts died in 1678, aged 58. After the death of Bernaerts, Desportes continued his artistic training at the Académie Royale where he was able to learn about traditional classical drawing but was also able to continue with his favoured painting method – en plein air. Desportes had to fund his schooling, as well as buy food and pay for his lodgings, and to do this he earned money by designing stage scenery, gained portrait commissions and commissions to paint decorations in Paris hotels
During the 1680’s he assisted the French painter Claude Auran III in supplying paintings for Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Duc de Vendôme’s Chateau d’Anet. Artists survive on commissions and without commissions they struggle to make ends meet. France at the end of the seventeenth century struggled financially as it had been a century of costly wars. France and Spain clashed during the Franco – Spanish war (1635 – 1639) and again between 1683 and 1684 during the War of Reunions. The French and the Dutch clashed between 1672 and 1678 and France went into battle with most of its neighbours in the War of the Grand Alliance (1688-1697). Wars cost money – lots of money and in consequence, the French government had no money left for grand artistic endeavours, which meant that lesser known painters, who had yet to establish their reputation, struggled to make a living. Desportes did struggle but despite his financial hardship, Alexandre-François Desportes married Eléonore-Angélique Baudet. His wife was a linen and lace maker and through her occupation she was able to support her husband and allow him to search out commissions and carry on with his studies.
Desportes luck changed when in 1695 he received an invitation from the French ambassador to Poland to come to the court of the Polish king John III Sobieski who was also the Grand Duke of Lithuania. Desportes was commissioned to paint portraits of the king, his wife Maria Kasimiera and some of the palace courtiers. His stay at the royal court lasted less than a year as the Polish king died in June 1696. Desportes was summoned to return to France by Louis XIV. Desportes had spent a number of years painting portraits of wealthy people and he intended to carry on doing this when he returned to his homeland. However he soon found that the art establishment was awash with highly skilful portraitists and realised that it would be difficult to obtain portraiture commissions and so he decided to revert back to the training he received from Nicasius Bernaerts – the depiction of animals and still life painting and as a twist to this he would incorporate the two in his artistry. In August 1699 Desportes was received into the Académie Royale as an animal painter and his reception piece was Self Portrait as a Hunter. The painting, in which we see the thirty-eight year old artist seated in a landscape with his two hunting dogs and a large array of dead game, was a move away from the normal self-portrait as he has used the setting and what has been included in the work was a tribute to his own skill as a specialist animal painter as well as being a talented landscape artist. He was advertising his abilities!
Louis XIV had started to have his palace at Versailles built in 1664 and he decided to incorporate a menagerie within the palace’s park. The design of his menagerie was in line with other Baroque menageries of the time with its circular layout, in the centre of which was a magnificent pavilion. People were able to walk along the paths which surrounded this central building, and alongside them were the cages which housed the wild animals. The king had been very impressed with the animal paintings of Desportes and commissioned him to complete five works of art which depicted animals and hunting scenes for the menagerie pavilion. Desportes, like a present day method actor who immerses himself into his character, often went on hunting trips with Louis XIV so that he could realise the thrill of the hunt. During the hunt he would carry with him a small notebook in which he would make on-site sketches of the hunt “trophies” – the dead animals, which could then be used later for still-life depictions of the game that resulted from the day’s hunt, Louis XIV would then choose the best sketches and Desportes would go off and complete an oil on canvas painting of the king’s chosen subject. Four such paintings, Deer Kill, Boar Hunt, Wolf Hunt and Hounds Guarding a Dead Deer, still survive and are housed in the private Paris museum, Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (Museum of Hunting and Nature).
Louis XIV was so pleased with these paintings that in 1702, he commissioned Desportes to paint six works, portraying the portraits of the hunting dogs which were his personal favourites. In one such work entitled Bonne, Nonne and Ponne we see the king’s three favourite hunting dogs chasing and flushing out pheasants and partridges from the long grass. The king was so pleased with the work Desportes produced for him that he awarded him a pension and two years later he made Desportes a councillor of the Académie Royale.
Desportes reputation as an artist spread outside of France and soon he was in high demand. In 1712 he visited London and stayed for six months working on commissions. When Louis XIV died in 1715, Desportes carried on working for the Regent of France, Philippe, Duc d’Orleans, who was ruling for the infant Louis XV, the grandson of Louis XIV and over time provided many paintings for the royal residences at Versailles, Marly, Meudon, Compiègne and Choisy. It was not just hunting scenes that Desportes had mastered for he also spent time painting still-life works featuring the dead “trophies” brought back from the hunt cleverly arranged alongside floral displays or displays of vegetables lying on a table or even in landscape settings. Two such paintings, Dog, Dead Game and Fruit and Dog with Flowers and Dead Game completed in 1715, can be seen in the Wallace Collection in London.
These pendant pictures were commented on by the Revue Universelle des Arts in 1857 as being:
“…incontestably the finest which came from the brush of Desportes…”
The two works were bought by Captain Richard Seymour-Conway, the 4th Marquess of Hertford in 1857 for his country house, Château de Bagatelle, in France and at the time he commented on his acquisitions saying:
“… a little rubbish for the country…. beautiful of the sort and perfect for my shooting place…”
There is an interesting connection between the buyer of these paintings and where they are housed today for the purchaser of the paintings, Lord Hertford, also owned a house in London known as Manchester House, situated in Manchester Square. He was an avid art collector and built up a sizeable collection of European art. On his death in 1870, his illegitimate son, who had acted as his secretary, Sir Richard Wallace, inherited his father’s unentailed estates, and large collection of art in 1871. Wallace added to the collection himself, and in 1897, after his death, the works of art were donated to the nation by his widow. They are now housed in what was his London home, Hertford House, Manchester Square, London, and are part of the Wallace Collection.
Several of his still-life paintings which combined game with fruit or flower displays also featured some beautiful pieces of silverware which came from Louis XIV’s collection. One such painting is entitled Still Life with Silver and was completed around 1720. Before us is a buffet laid out with an array of objects in silver, porcelain, and semi-precious stone as an array of fruit. The gold and silver vessels are displayed on a tiered console table which is weighed down with fruit and flowers. The composition is monumental in scale, measuring 262cms x 187cms (almost 8ft x 6ft). This is what one might have seen as a centrepiece on the table if we had attended a royal banquet. At the centre we can see the dragon-handled tureen and vermeil salvers both of which are in the Régence style of 1715-23.
Alexandre-François Desportes died in April 1743, aged 82. He left a legacy of paintings and sketches as well as his cartoons which were used as designs for tapestries made up at the famous Parisian tapestry company, Gobelins. Many of his designs were also used at the Savonnerie company, the Parisian carpet factory at Chaillot, which manufactured the most prestigious European manufacturer of knotted-pile carpets.