|This fine 19th century pastel portrait of the philosopher Rousseau is directly drawn from the original by La Tour now in the Musee Antoine Lecuyer, Saint Quentin, France. As the art historian Neil Jeffares observes, “a good many repetitions of La Tour’s works were made in his lifetime: some are evidently autograph…Others may be contemporary copies by unrelated artists. A substantial proportion however were probably made by pupils working under his guidance…unlike most pastellists La Tour evidently has a substantial studio and the practices and names of those involved have yet to be fully uncovered.” Certainly the skilful observation and the apparent spontaneity mark this out as an accomplished work and by an artist well aware of the techniques of La Tour.
Finished pastels emerged as a format for portraiture in France in the late 17th century and by the middle of the 18th century Maurice-Quentin de La Tour was among the most celebrated and accomplished portraitists in the medium. His considerable success led to commissions from the royal family, the court, the rich bourgeoisie and from literary, artistic and theatrical circles. Given this popularity and that of the philosopher Rousseau it is unsurprising that a keen follower of La Tour’s work created this striking version of the famous portrait, capturing as it does, the nuances of character that make it one of La Tour’s finest images.
French writer and political theorist of the Enlightenment, Rousseau’s work inspired the leaders of the French Revolution and the romantic generation. Born in Geneva in June 1712 Rousseau was initially brought up by his father, a watchmaker. He left Geneva aged 16 and travelled around France, where he met his benefactress, the Baronnesse de Warens, who gave him the education that turned him into a philosopher.Reaching Paris in 1742 he soon met Denis Diderot, another provincial man seeking literary fame. They formed the core of the intellectual group, the ‘Philosophes’. Eschewing an easy life as a popular composer, in 1750 he published his first important work ‘A Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts’ (1750). Its central theme was that man had become corrupted by society and civilisation. In 1755, he published ‘Discourse on the Origin of Inequality’. He claimed that original man, while solitary, was happy, good and free. The vices dated from the formation of societies, which brought comparisons and, with that, pride. ‘The Social Contract’ of 1762 suggested how man might recover his freedom in the future. It argued that a state based on a genuine social contract would give men real freedom in exchange for their obedience to a self-imposed law. Rousseau described his civil society as united by a general will, furthering the common interest while occasionally clashing with personal interest.
Increasingly unhappy in Paris, Rousseau travelled to Montmorency. While there, he produced ‘Èmile’, a treatise on education and ‘The New Eloise’ (1761). This novel escaped the censors and was the most widely read of all his works. Its freedom with emotion was in tune with developing romanticism and won him many important fans. But it scandalised the French authorities, who burned it and ordered Rousseau’s arrest. He travelled to England, a guest of the Scottish philosopher David Hume, but grew unhappy and secretly returned to France.In his last 10 years, Rousseau wrote his ‘Confessions’, justifying himself against his opponents and died on 2 July 1778 in Ermenonville, the estate of the Marquis de Girardin, who had given him refuge.