In another article, we talked about the tronie, a type of caricature portrait practiced by Dutch Golden Age painters. In the following century, it was a French artist who revived this interest in breaking away from academicism, creating some highly expressive portraits through gestures. Thus, the subjects appear laughing, asking for silence, pointing with a finger, yawning, etc. The most famous, interestingly, is the one he did of himself: Portrait de l’artiste sous les traits d’un moqueur, which means “Portrait of the Artist with the Features of a Mocking Man”. Let’s learn about this man, named Joseph Ducreux.

To begin with, it’s intriguing that he was an aristocrat, although not by birth, but through the title of baron, bestowed upon him when he was appointed premier peintre de la reine (First Painter to the Queen). He was born in Nancy in 1735, the son of a painter who introduced him to the world of art. However, the father was just a provincial artist and decided to send his son to Paris, where he could learn from someone notable. The chosen one was Maurice Quentin de La Tour, who also came from humble beginnings but had already achieved success by then.

La Tour gained enormous popularity from a portrait he made of Voltaire, precisely in the year his future pupil was born, eventually becoming a counselor to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture founded by Louis XIV in 1750. He was nicknamed the Prince of Pastelists because his specialty was pastel portraits, a technique he taught Ducreux, making him another expert. The oil painting technique, however, Ducreux learned from Jean-Baptiste Greuze, a favorite of the encyclopedist Diderot, a conventional portraitist who failed when he tried to switch to historical themes.

A typical work by Joseph Ducreux: Self-portrait as a surprised and terrified man
A typical work by Joseph Ducreux: Self-portrait as a surprised and terrified man. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Ducreux worked with them from 1760 onward and naturally focused on pastel portraits. With La Tour’s backing, his early models included notable figures such as the bookseller and art dealer Pierre-Jean Mariette, and even some from the nobility, like the financier Ange-Laurent de La Live de July (Marquis de Removille) and the antiquarian and scholar Anne-Claude-Philippe de Pestels (Count of Claylus). One theory suggests they were copies of La Tour’s works. It’s hard to know because Ducreux rarely signed his works, so they are often attributed to others.

In any case, the master must have deemed his works good enough to let his student make a significant leap forward. It happened in 1769 when he was sent to Vienna with the task of painting one of those miniature portraits exchanged by those about to enter high-society marriages. And this was not just any marriage. Ducreux had to accompany the French ambassador to Austria, Marquis de Durfort, to paint none other than Princess Marie Antoinette, whose wedding to the Dauphin of France, the future Louis XVI, had been arranged for the following year.

The portrait was sent to Louis, allowing him to see what his betrothed looked like since he hadn’t met her personally. As we mentioned earlier, this mission earned Ducreux the title of baron, and five years later, when the throne transitioned, the title of First Painter to the Queen, bypassing the regulations that reserved this role (along with the titles of Ordinary Painter and Inspector General of the Royal Factories) for members of the aforementioned Royal Academy (and he was not).

Self-portrait asking for silence
Self-portrait asking for silence. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps aware of his royal endorsement, from 1780 onward, Ducreux began to deviate from classical tradition, starting to experiment with the so-called physiognomy, a pseudoscience with roots in antiquity and prevalent in all eras, revived in the Modern Age under the scientificist lens of the Enlightenment. It was based on the belief that it was possible to discern a person’s character through their physical appearance, especially their facial features.

In his work Religio Medici, English physician and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne stated that there are certain features in our faces that carry the motto of our souls, which even an illiterate person can read to understand our natures. And indeed, Ducreux tried to capture the personality of those he painted by representing them in very different attitudes from the usual, replacing the customary elegant pose with more spontaneous and expressive ones, sometimes a bit extreme, similar to the aforementioned Dutch tronie or the type of sculptures made by his German contemporary Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.

Many had their images immortalized by Ducreux’s brushes, including such notable figures as King Louis XVI himself, Maria Theresa I of Austria (Marie Antoinette’s mother), and the military officer and writer Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (author of The Dangerous Liaisons). But artistically, the most famous might have been Ducreux himself, as he created many self-portraits, with two gaining particular fame: one where he’s yawning and another where he’s mockingly pointing at the viewer. This latter one, Autoportrait en moqueur, became viral on the internet in 2009 when it was used in memes with rap lyrics.

Self-portrait yawning
Self-portrait yawning. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

That period of glory ended abruptly in 1789 when the French Revolution erupted, forcing Ducreux to flee to London due to his acquired nobility and ties to the royal court (in fact, he was the one who painted the last portrait of Louis XVI alive before his execution). However, in 1793, he obtained permission to return, thanks to the mediation of one of the undisputed artists of the new republic, Jacques-Louis David, with whom he often collaborated thereafter. Ducreux’s home became a kind of literary salon frequented by poets, writers, and musicians, all of whom typically commissioned a portrait from their host.

Among these guests, one notable figure was Étienne Nicolas Méhul, a composer considered a pioneer of romanticism, the movement beginning to influence art as it gradually replaced neoclassicism (though the latter would endure for several more decades). Méhul had composed revolutionary patriotic songs like Chant du départ, leading to his appointment as one of five inspectors at the Paris Conservatory. What’s relevant here is that the hot-tempered Pandolfo, the protagonist of one of Méhul’s thirty operas, L’irato ou l’emporté, is inspired by Ducreux.

This is because, despite the humor Ducreux displayed in his works, he had a very bad temper, with sudden outbursts of rage that made him easily caricaturable. Indeed, L’irato ou l’emporté is a comic opera Méhul presented in 1801 in response to a challenge from Napoleon, who loved the genre and claimed that French musicians could never match the Italian ones in it. However, despite its debut under the pseudonym Il signor Forelli to keep the joke running, Méhul wrote only a quartet; almost the entire score was composed by Rose-Adélaïde Ducreux, the painter’s daughter, with lyrics by the famous librettist Benoît-Joseph Marsollier.

The surprise, self-portrait by Joseph Ducreux
The surprise, self-portrait by Joseph Ducreux. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Because Ducreux had started a family. He married Philippine-Rose Cosse, and they had many children. The firstborn, Jules, was a captain in the infantry and a historical advisor to General Charles François Dumouriez (Minister of War during the Revolution, who later renounced it and became a pariah even to Napoleon), painting battle scenes before dying against the Austrians in the Battle of Jemmapes. The second son, Léon, a soldier under his brother’s command, also painted but specialized in flowers. A third son, Adrien, died at age sixteen just as he was beginning to show potential in art.

As for the girls, we’ve already mentioned Rose-Adélaïde, the eldest, born in 1761, who, in addition to music, became a respected portrait miniaturist. Her paintings were regularly exhibited in the Louvre and other venues, but, like her father, she didn’t sign her works, leading to them often being attributed to others; the fact that these others were renowned artists like David or Le Brun indicates her quality. Her sister Antoinette-Clémence, adopted by Marie Antoinette as her goddaughter, also painted miniatures and flowers, inheriting her father’s skill with the pastel technique.

The summer of 1802 brought an unusual and tragic circumstance for the family. Rose-Adélaïde, who in February had moved to Santo Domingo to marry the colony’s maritime prefect, François Lequoy de Montgiraud, died from yellow fever on July 26… two days after her father passed away in Paris.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on May 6, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Joseph Ducreux, el pintor que se hacía los más extravagantes autorretratos de la historia

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