The present work, which was previously known only from an engraving by Gérard Edelinck (fig. 1), is an important addition to Coypel’s oeuvre, in terms of both its artistic conception and for its connection to Louis XIV and the French court. Dating from the artist’s early period, it is one of only two or three remaining paintings from a project commissioned by Charles Perrault, a great literary figure and art theorist as well as an aide to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s chief minister. Although ostensibly an Allegory of Music, elements in the composition itself, as well as literary and external pictorial evidence, allow us to identify it as a Portrait of Mme. de Maintenon with the Natural Children of Louis XIV.
The picture was originally part of a complex ceiling design depicting the Arts and Sciences commissioned by Perrault for his house in the rue Neuve des Bon-Enfants, Paris. The program was intended for the Cabinet des Beaux-Arts, a relatively modest sized room, about 8.5 by 4.5 meters, within the house. There were eleven separate compositions executed by some of the most popular painters in France in the 1680s, mainly pupils of Charles Le Brun, including, among others Charles de la Fosse, Jean-Baptiste Corneille, Louis de Boulogne, Claude Audran II and Antoine Coypel, and must have been executed between 1681 and 1684 given the activities of the various artists involved.1 Although Coypel was still at the beginning of his career, he had already completed a number of important commissions and had been received in the Académie Royale for his painting of Louis XIV Reposing in Glory after the Peace of Nijmegen, now in the Musée Fabre, Montpelier. In 1683 Colbert died and Perrault had fallen somewhat out of favor with the King. He left his house in September 1683 and by 1685 the Hôtel Perrault had been demolished to make way for the construction of the Places des Victoires, one of the four royal squares built under Louis XIV. The fate of the ceiling paintings is not recorded. To our knowledge only two or possibly three compositions have survived: Eloquence by René-Antoine Houasse, now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Brest and the present work, which has just recently come into public view; the third painting Apollo and the Muses by de la Fosse, now in the former Hôtel Hottinguer, Paris, is in very poor condition, so it is not clear whether this was the central motif from his original painting for the Cabinet des Beaux-Arts, now cut down to a circle, or a second version of the composition.2
We know the subjects of the paintings and their actual compositions from a small book Perrault had published in 1690 explaining the program of the ceiling and its larger meaning.3 It is illustrated with eleven engravings of the individual paintings, all in reverse, by various prominent printmakers. In addition there is a larger engraving by Jean Dolivart of the entire program, apparently showing their actual disposition on the ceiling (fig. 2). In the engraving, the three gods who inspire the Arts are arranged along the central axis of the ceiling, Apollo and the Muses in an upright rectangle, flanked by two roundels depicting Minerva and Mercury. Along the sides of the ceiling are eight oval designs illustrating the arts and sciences – Music, Eloquence, Poetry, Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Optics and Mechanics – interspersed with putti and other decorative elements However, there is some question as to whether the paintings were actually ever installed on the ceiling, at least in the way illustrated by Dolivart, for a number of preliminary drawings by Claude Audran II suggest a bolder overall design, much more in the style of the decoration of Versailles, with which Perrault was very much involved.4
This more modern approach would have been in accord with Perrault’s philosophy and indeed his life as whole. He was a highly accomplished and many talented figure crossing from literature to architecture and artistic theory. He was a barrister, an assistant to his brother Pierre who was receiver-general of Paris, Colbert’s main assistant in the Surindendence des Bâtiments, and thus very much a part of the main architectural and decorative projects in France from the mid-1660s to the mid-1680s. In 1671 he was elected to the Académie Française and later initiated the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns, firmly espousing the side of the Moderns. He was also the man who brought the fairy tale into popularity, helping to establish it as an independent literary genre.
The iconography of the ceiling was itself a departure from the more traditional depictions of the Seven Liberal Arts as they were known from antiquity onward: Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy. In his commentary in the Cabinet des Beaux-Arts, Perrault specifically notes that he wishes to glorify the achievements of his own century, not the past, thus reinforcing his view of the moderns versus the ancients.5
The Allegory of Music follows the general scheme of the other seven paintings of the arts and sciences. It was conceived in an oval format and in the center of the composition is an attractive woman playing a lyre surrounded by five children, one playing a flute, another a lute and a third a harpsichord. Behind them is a curtain, which is lifted at the left to reveal an actual stage set with figures in antique armor and an orchestra below. But this is not simply an allegory of music, although music occupied an important place in the plan for the ceiling and in Perrault’s writings. In his commentary on the picture he refers to the portrait-like nature of the painting of the figures: "it is noticeable that the face of the woman who represents Music and those of the children who play the lute, the flute and the harpsichord are strong likenesses and that they nonetheless are also in keeping with the figures and attitudes in which they are posed as if they are of the imagination and fantasy."6 An earlier interpretation identified them as Mme. Perrault and her children but all the circumstantial evidence points to this being a portrait of Mme. de Maintenon with the natural children of Louis XIV.7 The first clue is that the while the children are all playing modern instruments, the woman is playing a lyre of the type found in antiquity, seemingly incompatible with Perrault’s modernist viewpoint. At the top center of the instrument is the head of Phoebus Apollo from which rays of the sun stream forth; this clear portrayal of the Sun God is clearly a reference to the Louis XIV, the Sun King. The King had had five children with his mistress Mme. de Montespan but beginning in 1679 their relationship had begun to deteriorate. By 1680 she was in disgrace. Louis then gave the children into the care of Mme. de Maintenon, his new favorite. They would have been about the same ages as the children depicted here, and Mme. de Maintenon would have overseen their education, musical as well as literary. Given the long tradition for the making of music to signify emotional harmony, including them all in an Allegory of Music would have made iconographic as well as historical sense. The final piece of the puzzle is an engraving by Simon Gribelin (fig. 3) that is based on Edelinck’s print but includes only the woman with the lyre and the boy with the lute. This has traditionally been described as Mme. de Maintenon with the Duc du Maine, and is catalogued as such on the website of the Bibliothèque Nationale.8 This flattering combination of allegory and portraiture would have been to the advantage of both Perrault, who in the early 1680s was still very much in favor with the King, and Coypel, who was an ambitious young artist seeking royal commissions. In the painting, Coypel is careful to maintain the balance between allegorical figure and portrait. While the general facial type, with the narrow long nose and bow lips are similar to those of Mme de Maintenon, she would have been about 50 years old at this time, so the depiction is perforce quite idealized. The children, too, though distinct from each other, are not so specific as to be real portraits.
The remainder of the composition enlarges on the virtues of modern music. In the left corner is a stack of large volumes with the names of contemporary composers or librettists on the spines: Charpentier, Moliere, Oudot and Jean-Baptiste Lully. The last was a particular hero of Perrault’s who specifically cites him in his description of the Allegory of Music.9 Although he refers to opera by Lully, there is very little in the action on the stage seen at the far left that allows us to identify a specific work. It is perhaps more likely that Coypel was inspired by the contemporary livrets that included more generic illustrations of the operas in question (fig. 4).
How much the design was dictated by Perrault and how much was the invention of Coypel is difficult to say, but compared to the Allegory of Eloquence, in the Musée de Brest, the present work creates a sense of life and vivacity absent from Houasse’s painting. While all eight allegories are similarly structured, the Allegory of Music seems most like a stage set, with the main action in the foreground and the background largely closed off. Coypel arranges the figures into a pyramid, with Mme. de Maintenon at its apex. The grouping of the figures around her is balanced but also dynamic, so we have a real sense of form and volume. However it is in the view at the left that the artist enjoys the greatest freedom, sketching in the scene from an opera with broad bold strokes. Silhouetted against the edge of the stage are the conductor and tops of some of the stringed instruments, while the paler singers are less distinct. It is a strikingly modern conception, which calls to mind the works of Degas more than a century later.
1. Most commentators have dated the ceiling between 1680 and 1683, the latter being the date that Perrault left the rue des Bon-enfants. However, A.P. Miramonde (see Literature) and following him, A. Schnapper, Jean Jouvenet 1644-1717 et la peinture d'histoire à Paris, Paris 1974, p. 69 and note 4, extend the time period to 1684, noting that Poetry could only have been painted after the death of Corneille in September of that year. This also suggests that the paintings were never installed on the ceiling.
2. M. Stuffmann, “Charles de La Fosse et sa position dans la peinture française à la fin du XVIIe siècle,” in Gazette des Beaux-Arts, July-August 1964, p. 105, cat. no. 36 and Schnapper (see Literature), p. 241.
3. C. Perrault, see Literature.
4. Schnapper, op. cit., pp. 241-242.
5. Perrault, op. cit., p. 3
6. “Il est à remarquer que le visage de la femme qui représente la Musique et ceux des enfants qui jouent du lut, de la flute et du clavecin sont des portraits forts ressemblant et que néanmoins ils s’accordent aussi bien aux figures et aux attitudes dans lesquelles elles sont posées que s’ils étaienet d’imagination et de fantaisie.” Perrault, op. cit. p. 22.
7. See N. Garnier, op. cit.
8. See Miramonde, op. cit., pp. 83-84 and reproductions p. 80.
9. Perrault, op. cit. p. 21
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