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French School

circa 1578

Portrait of Jacques de Lévis, comte de Caylus. Etching. 11.6 x 9.7 cm. Circa 1578. Hennin 712.

Jacques de Lévis, comte de Caylus (1554–1578), was Sénéchal of Rouergue and one of the mignons or favourites of King Henry III of France. The mignons were mostly members of the lower aris­tocracy whom the king appointed to high state offices in order to minimise the power wielded by the higher ranks of French nobility. This group of mostly young men regularly caused a public stir either because of their ill-mannered or offensive behav­iour or because of their deliberately feminine appearance, including elaborate hairstyles, powdered faces and conspicuous clothing with flamboyant ruffs.

Jacques de Lévis achieved tragic fame due to his involvement in the so-called ‘duel of the mignons’ staged on 27 April 1578 at the Marché aux Chevaux in Paris, during which he was mortally wounded. The dispute which preceded the duel was sparked by a gibe Lévis made at the expense of one of the female acquaintances of Charles de Balzac, Baron d’Entragues, whom he described as “a lady who is more attractive than she is chaste”. Balzac promptly challenged him to a duel the next day, for which Lévis and Balzac appeared each in the accompaniment of two seconds. A fierce duel was fought with swords and daggers and, unusually, it also included the seconds. Ultimately, only two of the six adversaries survived the bloody conflict. Two men died during the duel itself and a third the next day, while the 24-year-old Jacques de Lévis succumbed to his serious injuries thirty-three days later despite the desperate efforts of the king who summoned the best doctors in the profession to save his life.

The present etching by an anonymous French master showing the comte in profile from the left with a fashionable hairstyle, ruff and elegant feathered hat probably dates to around 1578 and was probably issued as a memorial print to mark the favourite’s premature death. The light, agitated etching style gives the portrait an elegance and sleekness fully in keeping with the courtly aesthetic of the time. The print is of the utmost rarity. Impressions are to be found in the collection of the Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon (inv. no. LP13.23.5) and the collection of Edmond de Rothschild in the Louvre (Collection Edmond de Rothschild 13882 LR/ Recto).

A very fine, rich impression with numerous wiping marks, most with thread margins. Minor con­dition problems, otherwise in excellent preservation. From the collection of Alexandre-Pierre-François Robert-Dumesnil, author of Peintre-Graveur Français (Lugt 2200).

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