Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683)

By Robert Geilfuss


Title: Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683)
Artist: Philippe de Champaigne (French, Brussels 1602–1674 Paris)
Date: 1655
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 36 1/4 x 28 1/2 in.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Credit Line: Gift of The Wildenstein Foundation Inc., 1951
MMA Accession Number: 51.34

Philippe de Champaigne’s presumed Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Colbert was painted in 1655. The painting emerged into the public sphere after the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired it as a gift from the Wildenstein Foundation in 1951. Like Colbert himself – the architect of an early modern intelligence network – both the portrait and the figure depicted keep their secrets.[1] The folded paper reads “A o 1655” (in abbreviation of Anno, the Latin word for “year”), disclosing nothing but the date. Despite the absence of a signature, scholars agree that Champaigne was the painter, but the identity of the sitter has never been definitively established. By contrast, two related prints by Robert Nanteuil (MMA 2001.647.15 and MMA 2001.647.16) are certainly portraits of Colbert, perhaps modified renditions of Champaigne’s prototype that disseminated the image of this rising governmental star more widely.

The Met is correct, on the balance of evidence, to identify the painting with Colbert. However, the eminent historian of French art Anthony Blunt (another secret keeper) challenged this identification in a review of Bernard Dorival’s 1977 monograph on Champaigne. Before proceeding further, it is prudent to consider his case: “M. Dorival writes: ‘Signalé par Guillet de Saint-Georges et authentifié par la gravure de Nanteuil’; but in fact Guillet only says that Champaigne painted a portrait of Colbert and there is no reason to associate his statement with the Metropolitan portrait, and Nanteuil’s engraving is certainly not after the picture and in my opinion does not represent the same man. Incidentally the engraving, which is dated 1660, appears to show a younger man than the portrait which is dated 1655.”[2]

Blunt’s observation seems accurate with regards to the respective apparent ages of the sitters in the painting and print, but in a manually drawn medium like painting or printmaking this evidence counts for less than it would in photography, where one can usually depend on a true likeness. It seems Blunt got carried away in his unremittingly negative review and presented his actual reasoning as a merely “incidental” consideration. The figures in the Champaigne painting and the Nanteuil print, though different, are very close, and could easily represent the same man. Even certain details correspond, among them the dimpled, slightly double chin and the crease of the cheek, suggesting that the Champaigne painting was indeed the prototype for Nanteuil’s print, as the Met maintains. One can imagine multiple reasons for the differences between the images: the translation from one medium to another, different artistic styles or levels of competency, different audiences, and so on. Perhaps Colbert, as he rose in prominence, wished to project a public image of greater youth and vigor. Incidentally, there is no sign of aging between Nanteuil’s prints of 1660 and 1662.

Colbert’s raised hand, the beguiling expression on his face, and the three-quarters view combine to give an air of instantaneity, almost informality, to this image. With his occluded thumb and two forefingers he gingerly holds a folded leaf of white paper, slightly grayed in tone, which matches that of his collar and sleeve. Together with the exposed flesh of his hand and face these areas of lightness create a stark contrast that structures this colorless painting. Subtle tinting in the area of his right shoulder models the figure in three dimensions, with a few lines to represent the folds of soft fabric as it forms around his body, creating an impressive sense of volume where otherwise there would be just a dark silhouette. The distinction between figure and background is clear but muted. The shoulder length curls of his hair sandwich his collar against this dark gown, with the dark beads of a rosary (just visible in reproduction) tucked aside like a garnish.

Champaigne’s painting belongs to an innovative body of late portraiture. Blunt, in his Art and Architecture in France 1500-1700, praises these portraits as “the most important works of this later period…in which Champaigne attains to real originality.”[3] Half-length in format, the portraits are distinguished by a “severe naturalism” and “restrained color” that Blunt relates to Champaigne’s conversion around 1640 to Jansenism, a Catholic sect of great austerity.[4] These works recall the early Netherlandish tradition of Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, and Hans Memling. But whereas such portraits are generally bust-length images that depict the sitter in a devout or at least highly serious, straight-faced attitude, Champaigne (who was born in Brussels) developed the half-length portrait, and, in this case, allows the sitter to smile. We read a certain cleverness and self-satisfied confidence on Colbert’s face, as though he is aloof, yet his gaze engages us directly. For all Champaigne’s typical late severity and directness, which perhaps explains the older appearance of Colbert here than in other images, it is the artifice of the image that is most remarkable. Paradoxically, his arm suggests motion but his body seems firmly planted. A riddle in grisaille, its combination of the worldly attitude of the figure and the blank austerity of the setting is difficult to imagine encountering in reality.

After the death of Cardinal Mazarin – who had governed France during Louis XIV’s minority – in 1661, the king broke with precedent by deciding not to appoint a new chancellor and to rule instead on his own. Nonetheless, as secretary of state, Colbert developed a bureaucratic machine that allowed him to exercise more concentrated power than any previous minister, albeit from a subordinate position. A virtuoso of paperwork and a man of the utmost discretion and loyalty, Colbert exactly suited the king’s requirements. Despite his preference that Louis XIV would continue to govern from the Louvre in Paris, Colbert’s position as effective dictator of French art and architecture (both as surintendant des Bâtiments du roi and as Charles Le Brun’s supervisor during the latter’s directorship of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture) gave him a position of crucial responsibility as coordinator of Versailles’ construction and decoration, second only to that of the king.

In any kind of seminar or exhibition on Versailles, it would be appropriate to include images of Colbert, even from the period before the great expansion of the old hunting lodge beginning in the early 1660s. Indeed it was Colbert’s scheming against royal finance minister Nicolas Fouquet that set the stage for the development of the grand château. In the period of civil war known as the Fronde, Mazarin hired Colbert as his accountant and tasked him with raising desperately needed funds for the war effort. Colbert’s stellar rise from a relatively undistinguished bourgeois background to the center of the French state was an effect of the Fronde, which both demonstrated his loyalty to the Crown and destroyed the political power of the aristocracy.

By the time Champaigne painted this portrait in 1655, the rebellion had been crushed, and, as Mazarin’s most valued employee, Colbert’s position in French society and at court was secure. Two years earlier, he had been put in charge of the Royal Library, and had already developed what Jacob Soll calls “a philosophy of state secrecy.”[5] Humanist learning was no idle affair, and before long the librarian would in effect become the minister or “master” of information, building a global intelligence network that served his mercantile system of zero-sum competition in a race for national supremacy. We can guess why he smiles then, but the contents of the note he carries will remain a secret.

[1. See Jacob Soll, The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s Secret State Intelligence System (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2011).]
[2. Anthony Blunt, “A New Book on Philippe de Champaigne,” The Burlington Magazine 119, no. 893 (August 1977): 576.]
[3. Anthony Blunt, Art and Architecture in France 1500-1700, revised by Richard Beresford (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999), 165.]
[4. Blunt, Art and Architecture in France 1500-1700, 165.]
[5.  Jacob Soll, The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s Secret State Intelligence System (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2011), 41. In a footnote to this comment on page 195, Soll quotes a letter to Mazarin dated June 9, 1651: “Je ne fais aucune difficulté de vous écrire toutes ces choses qui regardent la disposition de vos affaires, avec une sincérité toute entière, croyant bien que Vostre Éminence me fera la grâce de tenir la chose très-secrète et que qui que ce soit n’aura connoissance de ce que je luy écris, soit en cette occasion, soit en tout autre.” On the evidence of Champaigne’s painting, we might speculate that Colbert’s belief in secrecy was no secret.]

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