Master Works on Paper from Five Centuries

Master Works on Paper from Five Centuries

View full screen - View 1 of Lot 52. The women artists offering their jewelry on the Altar of the Nation, 7 September 1789.

Guillaume Guillon, called Lethière

The women artists offering their jewelry on the Altar of the Nation, 7 September 1789

Auction Closed

January 26, 04:31 PM GMT


25,000 - 35,000 USD

Lot Details


Guillaume Guillon, called Lethière

Guadeloupe 1760 - 1832 Paris

The women artists offering their jewelry on the Altar of the Nation, 7 September 1789

Red and black chalk, with touches of modified black chalk or charcoal, heightened with white;

inscribed: à Mon ami Drolling / Léthière

360 by 609 mm; 14⅛ by 24 in.

Born in Guadeloupe, the illegitimate son of a white government official and a freed black slave, Guillaume Guillon, called Lethière, travelled back to France with his father in 1774, and embarked on a glittering artistic career that would see him become a leading figure in the artistic life of France for decades to come, and the first French artist of mixed race to achieve status and recognition comparable to that accorded to his white contemporaries. 

Lethière’s first training was in the Rouen studio of Jean-Baptiste Descamps, after which he enrolled, in 1777, at the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, Paris, as a pupil of Gabriel-François Doyen. Lethière came second in the 1784 Prix de Rome, but was still awarded a pension by the academy to study in Rome, where he remained from 1786 until 1790. Upon his return to Paris in 1791, he opened a teaching studio in competition with Jacques-Louis David, and for the next four decades he was a regular exhibitor at the Paris Salon. However, following an altercation that resulted in the death of one soldier and the injury of another, the French government shut down Lethière’s studio, forcing him to leave Paris. In 1807, thanks to the intervention of his patron Lucian Bonaparte, Lethière was appointed director of the Académie Française, in Rome. By 1816 he was back in Paris, resuming his position at the heart of cultural life: from 1819 he taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and in the following years he was also honored with election to the Institut de France, and received the Légion d’honneur.

The grand and unusual drawing offered here represents a famous event that took place on 7 September 1789, barely two months after the official beginning of the French Revolution. On that day, twenty-one wives or daughters of Parisian artists decided to donate their own jewelry to the cause of the Revolution, and a group of eleven of them went the Assemblée Constituante (Assemblée Nationale), then assembled in Versailles, to formalize the donation. The Assemblée had already by then abolished most feudal privileges and taxes, and was in dire need of money. The women’s gesture was widely described as a Patriotic offering made at the Altar of the Nation, and was thought reminiscent of the culture of ancient Greece. Indeed, the deputation came dressed in plain white robes, just wearing the revolutionary cockade “without ornament, without pomp, but adorned with that beautiful simplicity which characterizes virtue,” as a journal of the period described them.

The group was lead by Mme. Moitte and included amongst others Mmes. Vien, Lagrenée, Suvée, Duvivier, Fragonard, Vestier, Peyron, David and Vernet. They delivered a speech, read for them by a member of the Assemblée, before returning to Paris amid roaring crowds. The donation was quite meagre, but it was the first of many such gifts, so numerous that the Assemblée was forced to cut short debate, and open a register. Soon enough all the nation, including the aristocrats and even King Louis XVI, made important donations to the Assemblée.

The event became symbolic of the support of the French citizenry for the Revolution, and was much represented in paintings, drawings and prints. Lethière was himself in Rome at this time, and it is not clear whether he made this imposing drawing, seemingly conceived as a work in its own right, immediately he heard of the events in Paris, or later, following his return. Stylistically, this dashing, freely executed drawing in trois crayons is extremely unusual for Lethière, whose drawing style, at least in his compositional drawings, is almost without exception highly linear and neoclassical –very much in the Davidian revolutionary idiom. As Louis-Antoine Prat has, though, pointed out, Lethière’s figure studies and first sketches for compositions can be extremely varied in style, and do include much looser, more rapidly executed studies in a variety of media, examples of which are in the Louvre and elsewhere.1

Finally, the dedication inscribed in the lower left corner adds another interesting aspect to this exceptional drawing. Lethière has dedicated the drawing, for reasons that remain unknown, to fellow artist Martin Drölling, a native of Alsace who made his career in Paris, working for some years as an assistant to Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun.

1.  L.-A. Prat, Le Dessin Français au XVIIIe Siècle, Paris 2017, p. 634, fig. 1316