The Duc d'Antin, the Royal Administration of Pictures, and the Painting Competition of 1727

By Clements, Candace | The Art Bulletin, December 1996 | Go to article overview

The Duc d'Antin, the Royal Administration of Pictures, and the Painting Competition of 1727


Clements, Candace, The Art Bulletin


Given the imprecision of some of these ancien regime institutions, they were often only worth the worth of their incumbents, who fashioned them to their characters and drew from them absolutely unexpected consequences. -Roger Guillemet, Essai sur la Surintendance des Batiments du roi. . .1

Studies of eighteenth-century French painting as practiced before the secure establishment of regular Salon exhibitions from 1737 on have traditionally stressed its private, unofficial face, enshrined especially in the career and work of Antoine Watteau. Yet all members of the Paris Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, including Watteau, worked under and quite often for a royal department, the Direction des Batiments et Jardins du Roy, Arts, Manufactures et Academies Royales, usually called simply Batiments. From 1708 to 1736 Batiments was headed by a single man, Louis-Antoine de Pardaillan de Gondrin, marquis, then duc d'Antin (1665-1736; Fig. 1 ).2 He was probably the first court noble ever to be appointed to this essentially administrative post, and certainly the first since its thorough transformation at the hands of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, himself of bourgeois birth. D'Antin's term in office opened with the completion of the chapel of the palace of Versailles, a culmination of grand patronage in the service of Louis XIV, and closed with the decoration of the Salon of Hercules in the same palace, a conscious renewal of that tradition (Fig. 2).

His long interim administration of Batiments, however, has generally been characterized as incompetent, uncaring, corrupt, or all three. It was, his critics say, nearly completely lacking in official exhibitions, and relatively unproductive of major or interesting new art.3 An indisputable if rare interruption of this lackluster record came in 1726, when d'Antin proposed a contest between history painters of the academy. This event, which lasted into 1727, occasioned twelve large history paintings, a public exhibition, and considerable controversy. Yet the competition of 1727, too, has been termed a retrograde curiosity in a period repeatedly (and justifiably) studied as that of the erosion of state support for la grande peinture, and the consecration of private taste for the sensual, heterogeneous Rococo.4 Thomas Crow, however, in his study of the public for painting in eighteenthcentury Paris, found the competition of 1727 revealing in a different way. It was, he recognized, an exceptional event, both in its time and in d'Antin's administration. It is, he argued, best understood as the result of gathering oppositional forces pressuring even a hidebound aristocrat to seek public ratification for his decisions.5

Such forces and pressures existed, but they should be resituated, I propose, in a complicated and unpredictable exchange among the institutions and individuals most directly involved. The competition event itself, although structurally unprecedented, was less isolated than it at first seems in d'Antin's history, and responded partly to conditions intrinsic to his institutional and personal position after the death of Louis XIV in 1715. This article will present other episodes from d'Antin's early administration in order to elucidate that position. My concern is not only with biographical and institutional history, however. I want also to characterize, if only partially, the official uses of pictorial art at a volatile juncture between two rules (Louis XIV's and Louis XV's) and two administrative ideologies (court performance and civic service) bridged by d'Antin's term in office.

By uses I mean not only the patronage of new work in the service of the crown, but the deployment of old, and the production of explicit or implicit rhetorical structures justifying both. In my reading of his story, the circumstantial and ephemeral aspects of d'Antin's administrative practices counted for at least as much as its concrete and lasting products. The last part of the article will examine the best case in point, d'Antin's proposal of the competition of 1727, the timing and form of which were for him probably the real initiatives. …

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