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Pierre Victor, baron de Besenval de Brünstatt. Etching. 27.9 x 18.7 cm. P. de Baudicour 2, Portalis-Béraldi 3; Gruyer 122; Inventaire du Fonds Français 2.
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Louis Carmontelle, a highly gifted chronicler of his times, was the son of a cobbler and, as an artist, self-taught. Although a combination of natural talent and mastery of the social graces enabled him to rise to the highest circles of French society, there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge of the early part of his artistic career. In 1763 he entered the service of the Duc d’Orléans, at whose court he distinguished himself as an organizer of festivities, playwright and portraitist up to the outbreak of the French Revolution. During this period he changed his name from Carrogis to the more mellifluous Carmontelle so as to fit better into his aristocratic milieu.
In 1757/58 Carmontelle began to draw portraits, showing great dedication and astonishing skill. By the time he went to work for the House of Orléans his portrait gallery had assumed considerable dimensions. For the rest of his life the artist was to execute portraits of personalities he encountered privately, noble patrons and visitors to the court of the duke, including such luminaries as Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin and the young Mozart. His masterly, never banal, portrait drawings convey an un- usually vivid picture of daily life in pre-Revolutionary France, offering a visual cross-section of the various social strata of the ancien régime.
Carmontelle was in the habit of presenting his friends with replicas of his portrait drawings while keeping the originals in an album. The 1807 Auction Catalogue of works left at the painter’s death records no less than 750 drawn portraits. Today an album containing some 520 portraits – including the portrait of Baron de Besenval – is to be found in the Musée Condé in Chantilly. From this enormous fund of about 750 portrait drawings only five were reproduced as etchings by Carmontelle himself and circulated in a limited edition. Our portrait belongs to this small and rare oeuvre (see F. A. Gruyer, Les portraits de Carmontelle, Paris, 1902).
Pierre Victor, baron de Besenval de Brünstatt, came from a prominent Swiss patrician family. In 1767 he was appointed commander of the Swiss Guard Regiment at the French Royal Court. Besenval moved in the highest aristocratic circles, being a friend of the Count of Artois and the Duc de Choiseul and enjoying the favour of Marie Antoinette. In 1789 Besenval was in command of the Paris garrison. On 12 July of that year he took the fateful decision to withdraw his troops from the city, thus paving the way for the storming of the Bastille. Shortly afterwards Besenval was caught trying to escape, arrested and arraigned before a revolutionary tribunal on a charge of high treason. Thanks to the efforts of his defence counsel, Raymond de Sèze, he was, however, acquitted, but died in 1794 debilitated by his long imprisonment. In his lifetime Besenval enjoyed the reputation of being an amiable, cultivated man and lover of the arts. For this reason he was appointed associé libre of the Académie royale in 1761.
A very fine, harmonious impression with wide margins. Minor ageing, otherwise in excellent condition.