An opulently dressed man with glossy clean-shaven skin and clear blue eyes gazes directly at us with a slight smile on his lips. He wears a rose-gold coloured jacket with exotic gold tassels, covered with a gorgeous teal silk-velvet cloak lined with embroidered gold silk damask. His soft velvet cap matches his cloak and is decorated with a spray of black herons’ feathers in a gold setting, from which dangles a huge pear-shaped baroque pearl. It is likely that this costume belonged to Largillierre, as both the clothes and jewel appear in portraits by him of other people.
The man has been previously identified as the painter Jean-Baptiste Forest (1613–1712) and as the poet Jean-Baptiste Rousseau (1671–1741), but the evidence does not entirely support either suggestion. There is an almost identical portrait by Largillierre in the Uffizi, Florence, which is dated 1710 on the back.
An opulently dressed man with glossy clean-shaven skin and clear blue eyes gazes directly at us with a slight smile on his lips. He wears a rose-gold coloured jacket with exotic gold tassels, covered with a gorgeous teal silk-velvet cloak lined with embroidered gold silk damask. His soft velvet cap matches his cloak and is decorated with a spray of black herons’ feathers in a gold setting, from which dangles a huge pear-shaped baroque pearl.
The man was previously identified as the painter Jean-Baptiste Forest (1613–1712), but he does not resemble the portrait of Forest by Largillierre in the Musée des Beaux Arts, Lille. It has also been suggested that he is the poet Jean-Baptiste Rousseau (1671–1741), based on the identification of a version of this portrait in the Uffizi, Florence, with the date 1710 inscribed on the back. Although the sitter’s costume would support a date around 1710, Rousseau’s own life and words suggest that this cannot be him. Rousseau was originally training to become a lawyer but was dismissed for insolence. His first comedy, Le Café, was performed in 1695. Although his plays met with a mixed reception, in 1705 Rousseau was elected a full member of the Académie française. The poetry said to be by him caused such a scandal that he took refuge in Switzerland at the end of 1710 before going to Vienna. He was banished from France in 1712 for his allegedly scurrilous publications.
In a letter of 1735, the marquise de Châtelet called Rousseau ‘an old snake’. Even after his death he was described as ‘naturally restless, capricious and vindictive. He let himself be led by that spirit of spite and harassment [which is] the scourge of societies.’ A letter which Rousseau wrote to the lawyer Brossette in 1716 claims ‘I shall be painted for the first time in my life’, suggesting that it is extremely unlikely that he had already been portrayed in 1710. The following month, Rousseau wrote again to Brossette to say that the portrait had been painted by Jacques van Scuppen – a pupil of Largillierre – and that it was a good likeness. It is possible that Rousseau may have been joking when he said he had not previously been portrayed, but there is still insufficient evidence to support the identification of the sitter here as Rousseau.
Whoever the man may be, the oriental appearance of the gold tassels on his coat and the rare herons’ feathers set in gold with a large baroque pearl on his cap suggest that he embraced the luxurious and exotic. The opulent, tactile velvet, lace and embroidered silk, with their gorgeous gold and teal colours and the soft quality of the sitter’s dimpled flesh create an extremely sensuous and engaging portrait. However, it is unlikely that the man owned the clothes or feathered jewel himself. There is a portrait of the actor Michel Boyron, called ‘Baron’ (Musée Hyacinthe Rigaud, Perpignan), by or from the studio of Largillierre, which shows the sitter clothed in the same costume as this man, and the heron’s feathers and pearl also appear in Largillierre’s portrait of Mme de Souscarrière (?) and her page. Another copy of the National Gallery’s portrait, described as a self portrait of the artist, was featured in the sale of 29 January 2013 at Doyle, New York.
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