Sunday, June 6, 2010

Jean Valade......who is that?

Jean Valade (1710-1787) was born in the small town of Poitiers, France but made his career in Paris.

Pierre Faventines (1695-1776), Marquis de Roquefeuil and Vicomte d'Alzon made his fortune as so many do today by managing other people’s money, especially that of the Duchesse de Bourbon, he then became the Treasurer of the Parlement of Bourgogne as well as a fermier général (tax collector) in Provence and Languedoc.

Personally, I do not believe that a good painting has anything to do with the name of the artist. Why are Watteau, Fragonard and Boucher about the only artists that anyone, not involved in the field of 18th century France, heard of? One of the reasons is that they were set above all their contemporaries by the Goncourt Brothers who were the great publicists of the virtues of 18th century French art from the vantage point of the following century. One must admit that all three painted more pictures of quality than not, which have found their way into public collections and have, therefore, been available to be written and lectured about.

This does not mean, however, that every work they did was a masterpiece or even necessarily good. A few are dogs! But, as in the stock market, the investors who come out ahead in the long run are those that have made more successful than unsuccessful transactions. The differences in percentage are small and every point above 50% is significant.

Valade was a member of the Academy and one of the most successful portraitists of his day. Our two pastels are among his most ambitious works and, painted in 1768 represent the climax of his career. They were central to the 1993 monographic exhibition in Valade’s home town and were clearly the stars. We know that Valade was the favored artist of the Faventines because the artist painted a number portraits of them and their family, mostly smaller conventional treatments.

Valade was one of the few masters of the difficult medium of pastel in this period. Two of the best known who happen to be of the same generation are Maurice Quentin La Tour (1704-1788) and Swiss artist Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-1789). They often command attention when their work comes up in an exhibition or auction sale.

What attracts me particularly to these Valade pastels is that they combine the individuals with the objects of their time. They go beyond the standard bust-length likeness to present the individuals in surroundings that represent who they are. Clearly the Faventines are showing off a bit. The Marquis appears as the up-to-date businessman sitting in his fine “morning coat” working at his desk, whose design and gilt bronze laurel swag convey the message that he is a patron of the avant garde classicising style. But do note he has not given up his comfy Louis XV chair. Madame is industrious as well, working at her embroidery loom (needlework being the emblematic occupation of a virtuous woman). She may sit along side an old-fashioned Boulle-work bracket clock but she shows off her gold snuffbox of the latest Neo-Classic design. Note what is on her lap and on her left wrist as well.

Further we are dealing with a rare instance of 18th century pictures in their original frames. In this case they are major architectonic statements whose carved swags complement and balance the pictorial compositions. The fact that they have remained in their original frames is one reason for the fine state of preservation of this notoriously delicate medium of pastel.

A point that I will come back to again and again is that a great work by a lesser artist is preferable to a lesser work by a great artist. Here we have “museum quality” in an artist who is not a household name.

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