In the 18th century the pursuit of pleasure often went hand in hand with intellectual interests and informed connoisseurship. The pose and costume of this gentleman indicate a man of refinement who was perhaps not averse to the taste of luxury. Caught at a momentary pause in reading he adopts a posture that is both studious and elegant, lending an air of informality to the composition. His fine coat of light blue silk, unbuttoned to the waist to show as much as possible of the expensive lace shirt, contrasts with the plain background enlivened only by the props of the deep blue table cloth and the plump red silk chair.
Though elegant there is something to suggest that the simplicity of the picture is deliberate and the slim volume he is holding might be the writings of an enlightenmanet figure such as Voltaire, the sitter having a passing resemblance. To be depicted in such a manner would have been subtly indicting a liberalism of thought beneath the obvious calm and civilized life, where leisure is shown as an active pursuit.
Painted in the second half of the 18th century this oil is a version, by another artist, of a pastel portrait in the Louvre by Maurice-Quentin de La Tour. A celebrated and important pastellist La Tour studied with the Flemish artist Spoëde in Paris. Working in pastel he became renowned for his ability to catch a brilliant likeness and to suggest the character of the sitter. He was closely connected with the French court and drew many aristocratic and famous celebrities, including the king’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, and the philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Details of the sitter in the present portrait are unknown to us and we can but suppose that a local portraitist undertook this oil version at the behest of the client for possibly another family member. Certainly given the age of this portrait it must have been worked on not that long after La Tour’s pastel, probably in the 1750s.
With thanks to Neil Jeffares who kindly mentioned La Tour’s pastel as the basis for this portrait