Painted by de Troy for one of the sitters and possibly the version included in the Sceaux inventory;1
Comte de Labessière;
from whom acquired by the family of the present owner by 1957
The Astronomy Lesson of the Duchesse du Maine presents a window into the glittering life at Sceaux, the seat of the Duc and Duchesse du Maine. The Duc was the legitimized son of Louis XIV and Mme de Montespan and the Duchesse, Louise-Bénédicte de Bourbon, daughter of the Prince de Condé. In 1700 they moved into the chateau, which was built for Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), the controller general and later secretary of state for the navy to Louis XIV. It was near enough to Versailles for them participate in some of the court life there, but far enough away to have an independent existence. According to Saint-Simon, the noted memoirist, the Duc was solitary and unpleasant, while the Duchesse was a lively personality, fascinated by the arts and sciences, who devoted herself to spending her husband's fortune on a variety of remarkable entertainments. She even founded a imaginary order of chivalry called the Ordre de la "Mouche à Miel" (Order of Flies to Honey) of which she was naturally Reine des Abeilles (Queen Bee). Under her guidance Sceaux became famous for both its wit and extravagance.
The present work is a hitherto unknown version of one of the most important commissions that de Troy painted for the Duc and Duchesse du Maine.2 A second version of The Astronomy Lesson of the Duchesse du Maine is in the collection of the Musée de l'Île-de-France at Sceaux.3 According to Dominique Brême, who has compared the two versions in person, both were painted at the period, c.1705-10, and neither can be distinguished as the prime version.4 He has further suggested that one would have been made for each sitter, the Duchesse, Nicolas de Malézieu and the Abbé Charles-Claude Genest.5
The painting is set in the Duchesse's apartments, which were part of the public rather than the private space at Sceaux. It had formerly been the library of Colbert, and much of the furnishings were his. The only recognizable sign of the Duchesse's taking it over is the clock on the rear wall, which has the Duc's and Duchesse's supported by the figures of Time and Love.6 The Duchesse is seated in an arm chair (fauteuil) as befitted a princess of the blood and across from her on a stool (tabouret), indicating his lower rank, is Nicolas de Malézieu, a tutor to the Duc, and a member of the Académie des Sciences and the Académie française, among other accomplishments. Malézieu was part of the learned and talented people with whom the Duchesse surrounded herself and was her mainstay in organizing her various projects and entertainments. While the Duchesse is in her daytime clothes, her hair unpowdered, Malézieu is wearing a theatrical costume, possibly denoting the seamless transition from art to science that characterized life at Sceaux.7 He appears to be enumerating various points related to astronomy which she confirms, referring to the large text before her and the celestial globe to her left. In the doorway at the far left appears the Abbé Charles-Claude Genest, whose long nose prompted the Duchess to compose an anagram about it. He in turn is shown holding a loupe in his hand and gesturing toward Malézieu, who had extremely poor vision.
Despite his provincial roots, de Troy was one of the most famous portrait painters in France. In 1679 Louis XIV asked him to paint Anne-Marie Christine Victoire de Bavière, who was to marry the Grand Dauphin, and from that time his career as a painter of the court was insured. We can get a sense of de Troy's working methods from a preliminary drawing of the Duchesse (present whereabouts unknown) for The Astronomy Lesson of the Duchesse du Maine (see fig. 1). There he uses another figure to stand in for her while he works out the pose for the finished painting. In the latter the Duchesse herself is clearly recognizable from her small stature, her wide mouth and her heavily rouged cheeks. It is a testament to de Troy's skill that given the strictures of life at Sceaux he was able to create such a lively and accurate description of the Duchesse and her surroundings.
We are extremely grateful to Dominique Brême for his help in cataloguing this lot.
1. See below for a discussion of the three versions of this picture.
2. Along with the grand Feast of Dido and Aeneas, sold in these rooms on June 8, 2007, lot 264. See D. Brême, François de Troy (1645-1730), exhibition catalogue, Toulouse, Musée Paul-Dupuy, 1997, pp. 58-64.
3. There is also an inferior replica in a private collection in Paris, see G. Poisson, "La leçon d'astronomie de la duchesse du Maine par François de Troy" in La Revue du Louvre, no. 4 (1989), p.242.
4. D. Brême, in conversation, December 2008.
6. G. Poisson, op. cit., p. 240.
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