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Pierre-Joseph-Victor de Besenval was an eminent military man and art collector. His association with the circle around Queen Marie Antoinette prompted his flight to his native Switzerland in 1789, during the French Revolution, but he was arrested while fleeing. He avoided the guillotine and was released from prison in 1790.
This portrait was probably painted by Danloux in 1791, the year the baron died. Funded by inheritances and by generous salaries, awards and pensions, the baron had spent lavishly throughout his life, forming a collection of paintings and oriental porcelain. Having lived an eventful life in which he risked death both on the battlefield and due to his connection with the royal court, the baron relaxes in an environment stamped by his style and personality. Danloux presents him as a collector of refinement and taste in a painting that is itself an object of consummate skill.
Pierre-Joseph-Victor de Besenval (1721–1791) was a soldier and art collector who from 1764 lived in part of what is now the Swiss embassy in the rue de Grenelle in Paris. He fought in numerous campaigns as an officer in France’s Swiss Guards and, just prior to the French Revolution, had been their commander-in-chief. Made a chevalier de l’Ordre royal et militaire de Saint Louis in 1744, he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Louis in 1766. His highly successful military career culminated in his appointment in 1781 as commander-in-chief of all French troops of the interior except Paris. The baron had also belonged to the circle close to Queen Marie Antoinette. His association with such an unpopular figure prompted his flight to his native Switzerland soon after the fall of the Bastille in 1789, but he was arrested while fleeing. Through luck and a good legal defence, he avoided the guillotine and was released from prison in 1790. He died the following year in his home, surrounded by his collection of furniture, objets d’art and paintings.
This portrait was probably painted by Danloux in 1791, the year the baron died. Although his salon (a living or drawing room) is extremely well furnished, the furniture and fittings do not represent current fashions but instead reflect Rococo styles that had been fashionable around the mid-eighteenth century. Funded by inheritances and by generous salaries, awards and pensions, the baron had spent lavishly throughout his life. In addition to his collection of paintings, some of which we see here, he collected oriental porcelain. A Japanese Arita carp is shown behind his left shoulder and vases in Rococo gilt-bronze mounts stand on the mantelpiece.
Besenval himself wears a stylish version of a plain cutaway English coat, probably made of a silk/wool cloth with a velvet collar. Danloux paints the different textures of skin, fabric, porcelain, wood and marble with great dexterity, creating subtle colour harmonies from the dark greens of the chair and damask wall covering, the grey coat and the glimpse of red waistcoat set against the gilt mounts and picture frames. The painting’s own French Louis XVI giltwood frame may be original.
A preparatory drawing shows the baron seated with his legs crossed, but with his face and upper body turned towards the viewer instead of the profile view we see here. By changing the pose from full frontal to profile, Danloux focuses the viewer’s attention less on Besenval himself and more on the objects in the room; the baron, in effect, becomes part of his own collection. In the drawing he may be wearing a decoration on his chest, which would have been the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Louis. However, this does not appear in the painting, as it would have been unwise, in the political climate of 1791, for the baron to display his association with the Swiss Guards and Ancien Régime.
Having lived an eventful life in which he risked death both on the battlefield and due to his connection with the royal court, the baron is shown as a reflective man relaxing in an environment stamped by his style and personality. Danloux presents him as a collector of refinement and taste in a painting that is itself an object of consummate skill.
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