Inscribed in pen and ink on the inside front cover: ‘prix convenu à
5 fr. 50 c / pour M. de Mirepoix, rue de la Planche, no 17, f[au]b[our]g S[ain]t G[ermain]. / lundi 21 à 10 h’. A label on the inside of the album cover indicates a Paris stationery shop, but its name and other information appear to have been scraped away.
GOYA AND THE FRENCH AMBASSADOR
From the court of Madrid around 1815, to the splendid château de Montigny in France in 1831… then fast forward to the early 21st century: new heirs inspecting the family property pull a large, nondescript volume from the back of a library shelf, full of splendid bindings. It is a nineteenth-century ledger, with printed columns and headings, onto which close on 100 lithographs bearing the signature H. Bellangé have been pasted: brightly watercoloured prints of uniformed French military personnel, most on foot but with dashing officers on fiery steeds. Neatly applied to both sides of some fifty folios, they are followed by two blank facing pages, and then the start of another series of prints, this time in monochrome, a warm, dark umber ink on freshly textured, handmade paper whose luminosity creates extraordinarily varied and subtle contrasts with fine or powerful etched lines, and with delicate or intensely rich tones of aquatint. These are no hack productions, although their subject matter – bullfighting – is also a “popular” one. These are the work of an inspired master printmaker whose name is Goya.
The thirty-three prints are immediately recognisable, from the quality of the materials and the fresh and perfect condition of their technique, as virtually flawless examples of the first and only contemporary edition that was printed for Goya from large copperplates etched and aquatinted by him in 1815-1816. These prints have evidently lain undisturbed within the register – perhaps chosen because its format fitted the uncut sheets so well – ever since each one was carefully tipped, with touches of glue at the four corners, sideways onto the pages, an operation that appears to have been carried out in the 1840s, following the death of the original owner in 1837. Many more prints and press cuttings were added later to the volume, providing an indication of the family’s interest in political matters in the France of the 1870s and 1880s, following which the volume ends with an assortment of much earlier costume and genre scenes, and delightfully silly caricatures from the 1830s, perhaps found loose among family effects, and included in the volume at a later date.
What is the connection between this noble French family, a ‘scrapbook’ volume of prints, and Goya? The answer lies in the presence in Madrid of the original owner of this set of Goya’s Tauromaquia. Anne Adrien Pierre de Montmorency Laval (1768-1837) was a second son, destined for the church until the death of his elder brother in 1786, when his inheritance of the family title of marquis de Laval led him to attend the court at Versailles. He joined the French army, but fled to England as an émigré during the French Revolution. Back in France after 1800, he came to prominence following the defeat of Napoleon and the return of the Bourbon monarchy. The reign of Louis XVIII coincided with the return to Spain of Ferdinand VII: both Bourbon kings were re-established on their thrones in May 1814, and in August Anne Adrien, now known as prince de Montmorency Laval, was appointed ambassador to the Court of Madrid, where he would have arrived while Goya was still working on his heroic images of the Second and Third of May 1808, intended for the royal palace.
The situation was initially complicated by Napoleon’s return from Elba, but the French ambassador decided to remain in Madrid during this difficult period, and in February 1816 he was richly rewarded by Ferdinand VII who conferred on him the title of duque de San Fernando Luis with the rank of Spanish grandee, and the Order of the Golden Fleece.
These events coincided with the exercise by Ferdinand of absolute, anti-constitutional power, and Goya was subjected, as were all palace officials, to a purge. He was cleared of collaboration with the Bonaparte régime, but abandoned all hope of publishing his etchings of the horrors of the recent war, while secretly adding savagely anti-authoritarian images to that series. The artist embarked instead on a new and publicly acceptable project to illustrate the origins, development and contemporary state of the art of bullfighting. Three of the earliest etchings of contemporary bullfights (with which the numbered series ends) are signed and dated 1815, and the set of thirty-three prints was advertised for sale in October and December 1816. By this time the French ambassador had been resident in Madrid for two years, and had been signally honoured by the king. Although we know nothing, as yet, of the extent of his contacts in the Spanish capital, he was married, with three children, frequented the court and nobility, and undoubtedly knew his way around in Madrid. He remained in place until 1823, when French military intervention restored Ferdinand to absolute power after a brief period of revolution and constitutional rule. The ambassador would no doubt have been too close to the throne for Goya’s comfort, and we have no idea whether they ever met. The fine, early set of the bullfight prints that have come to be known as La Tauromaquia, together with several of Goya’s much earlier etchings after paintings by Velázquez, may have been purchases by the new duque de San Fernando Luis, or another gift from the crown, as is also the case with a full-length portrait of Ferdinand VII that testifies, as do those of other heads of state, to the ambassador’s career, and are part of the family collection.
Anne Adrien de Montmorency Laval, who inherited his father’s titles in 1817, went on to other ambassadorial posts in Rome and Austria, and at the Court of St James in London. But his career ended with the revolution of July 1830, and his refusal to swear allegiance to Louis-Philippe d’Orléans who succeeded as king of France. In 1831 he acquired the spectacular château de Montigny, where he built a major extension for the display and enjoyment of the many acquisitions made in the course of his diplomatic career. On his death in 1837, all his properties were inherited by his daughter and her husband, Athanase de Lévis, marquis de Mirepoix, who assumed the family titles including that of second duque de San Fernando Luis. It is his name and Paris address that are inscribed in the register, probably in connection with the mounting of the Bellangé and Goya prints in the volume which was placed in the library at Montigny. It remained there, eventually forgotten by succeeding generations, until its recent rediscovery, when images celebrating the splendour and variety of French military uniforms, from élite officers to foot soldiers, were found together with a masterpiece of Spanish printmaking that celebrates Goya’s unique understanding of the art of bullfighting. Initiated by the Moors in centuries past, it became the exclusive sport of kings and aristocrats until finally appropriated by the common people, men and even women, whose courage and skill upheld and developed a proud Spanish tradition as it flourished in Goya’s day.
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