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Louis Carmontelle

(or Carrogis, 1717–1806, Paris)

Portrait of Marie Louise Petit, at the age of 105. Pencil, black and red chalk, watercolour. 27.2 x 19.9 cm. Inscribed and dated on the original mount: Marie Louise Petit, Agée de 105 Ans. Dessinée à Villiers-Coterest le 6 juillet 1765.

In this drawing Carmontelle has given us a sensitive and thoughtful study of old age. A gaunt old woman sits on an easy chair in the sparsely appointed room of a hospice. White curtains screen off the sleeping places of the other residents of the home, whose living space is evidently cramped. The subject of the portrait, a certain Madame Petit, wears a long, blue dress and a lace bonnet and looks us directly in the eye. Her posture, with her hands folded on her lap, symbolizes the long wait for death, while a book evidently provides her sole distraction. With masterful subtlety Carmontelle has brought out the contrast between the aged woman (who was born when Rembrandt and Poussin were still alive!) and the young nun, who is in the bloom of her youth. Her fresh, full face is largely concealed by a white bonnet, and she looks at the beholder shyly, but with curiosity and almost coquettishly. The result is a striking contrast between the vigour of youth and the resignation of old age.

Louis Carmontelle, a highly gifted chronicler of his epoch, was the son of a cobbler and self-taught as an artist. Although his natural talent gained him access to the highest circles of French society, the beginnings of his artistic career are only very fragmentarily documented. In the years 1757–58 Carmontelle began to draw portraits with great intensity and extraordinary facility. In 1763, when he entered the service of the House of Orléans, his portrait gallery had assumed considerable dimensions. By the time he died the artist had painted portraits of the personalities in his private circle, noble patrons and visitors to the court of Orléans, including such renowned guests as Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin and the young Mozart. His masterly and never banal portrait drawings convey an unusually vivid picture of daily life in pre-revolutionary France, offering a visual cross-section of the various social strata of the Ancien Régime.

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