Jean Victor II, Baron de Besenval et du Saint-Empire (1671-1736) belonged to a noble Swiss family of Aostian origin which settled permanently in Switzerland in the early 17th century. His grandfather, Martin Besenval (1600-1660) had been elevated to the aristocracy by Louis XIV and given the title of Baron de Brunstatt, and was also allowed to buy for his son, Jean Victor I de Besenval (1638-1713), a colonelcy in the Swiss Guards, a military rank that passed from father to son in subsequent generations. Jean Victor II received knighthood in the military order of Saint Louis in 1705 and was made brigadier general in the infantry of the French army. He later served the French monarchy in the diplomatic corps, first as an envoy to Charles XII of Sweden and then at the court of King Stanislas Leczinski at Warsaw. In 1718, during his mission to Poland, he married Catherine Bielinska (circa 1688-1761), the daughter of Grand Marshal François Bielinski. Their son, Pierre Joseph Victor (1721-1791) was a favorite of Queen Marie-Antoinette and best known for his account of life at the court of Louis XVI, Mémoires relatifs à la Révolution française, and for his important art collection.2
By the time this pair of portraits was in the collection of Henri Coïc, the sitters’ identity had been lost. At the Coïc Estate sale in 1872, they were acquired by the painter Jean-Léon Gérôme who bequeathed them to his daughter, Mme Aimé-Nicolas Morot. In 1928, the paintings were shown at the Largillierre retrospective at the Petit Palais where only the portrait of Baron de Besenval was correctly identified. The portraits were separated in 1961 when they were featured in an auction held in Paris at the Palais Galliera and were reunited in 1979 through the efforts of the late Georges de Lastic.
These works will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the works of Largillierre by Georges de Lastic and Dominique Brême.
1. See D. Wakefield, French Eighteenth Century Painting, New York 1984, p. 13.
2. His portrait, The Baron de Besenval in His "Salon de Compagnie," by Henri-Pierre Danloux, now in the National Gallery, London, was sold in these rooms on 27 May 2004 , lot 35, for $2,472,000.
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