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Maurice Quentin
de La Tour


Biography and information


At the age of nineteen, La Tour left his hometown, Saint-Quentin, and came to Paris, where he studied under a mediocre painter Dupouch and some other artists. A few years later he went to Reims and Cambrai. The first two works of La Tour (portraits of himself and the wife of the painter Boucher) were exhibited in the Paris salon in 1737 and earned him the title of a member of the Academy of Arts; in 1746 he was elected to its full membership, and in 1750 he received the title of royal painter, which he retained for 23 years. In 1780, he retired to his hometown.

La Tour is a French pastel artist. In all the official documents of Saint-Quentin, his name is spelled Delatour. However, the artist himself wrote his name separately, and this spelling version became generally accepted. Even in his early youth, he showed a penchant for drawing and copied prints. In 1723, perhaps as a result of his unsuccessful love affair with his cousin, he went to Paris, where he met the engraver Tardieu and entered the apprenticeship of Spuda, an average artist. He also received advice from Louis de Boulogne and Jean Restoux. He independently studied pastel painting, reintroduced into fashion by Vivienne and Rosalba Carriera. “He was a portrait painter,” wrote Mariette. He painted portraits in pastels, as it took little time and did not tire the models at all. His portraits were found similar, they were not expensive. The first dated portrait by La Tour is a portrait of Voltaire, only known from the engraving by Langlois of 1731. Later there would appear more information about his art.

“Assigned” to the Royal Academy in 1737, thanks to the Portrait of Restoux the Painter (Paris, Louvre), he became its member in 1746 as a “painter of pastel portraits”. He took part in the Louvre exhibitions, resumed after a 13-year hiatus by the director of the Royal Buildings, Orry de Vignory. In 1741, he created a large full-length portrait of President de Rieu (Pregny, Rothschild collection), in 1742, a portrait of President de Rieu’s wife in a ball gown (Paris, Musée Cognacq-Jay) and a very similar portrait of his friend Abbot Hubert, reading at candlelight (Saint-Quentin, La Tour Museum). In 1743, the artist began a series of official portraits: the portrait of the Duke de Villard, Governor-General of Provence (Aix-en-Provence, Granet Museum). In 1745, he showed a portrait of Duval de Lepinois (Lisbon, Gulbenkian Foundation) at the Salon. The number of pastels he sent to the Salon in 1748 reached 14, of which eight are now kept in the Louvre (portraits of the king, queen, dauphin, Marshal Maurice of Saxony, etc.). In 1750, La Tour was appointed advisor to the Royal Academy; in the same year, the artist, whom many critics opposed to La Tour, Jean-Baptiste Perronneau, was “assigned” to the Academy. In the same years (1751) La Tour created his most “competed” Self-Portrait (Amiens, Picardy Museum). The artist’s style lost its softness and charm, but gained energy and vitality. In the Salon in 1753, he exhibited portraits of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Geneva, Museum of Art and History) and D’Alembert (Paris, Louvre). In the Salon of 1755, a large portrait of the Marquise Pompadour was shown (ibid; three sketches in pastel, in pearl tones, one of which conveys the old age of the model amazingly — Saint-Quentin, La Tour Museum); a thousand louis were paid for it. Among the portraits exhibited at the Salon in 1757 were those of the Capuchin Father Emmanuel and the opera singer Mademoiselle Fel (Saint-Quentin, La Tour Museum); Fel was one of the many actresses whose portraits La Tour painted and who became his companion for almost his entire life. In those years, Diderot admired portraits by La Tour.

In 1761, the artist exhibited a portrait of the Dauphin’s wife, Maria Josepha of Saxony (Paris, Louvre). From that time on, due to his thoroughness, he began to re-paint his works, which often made them dry and heavy. Critics talked less and less about him. He was last exhibited at the Salon in 1773.

Passionate about chemistry, geology, astronomy, supporting the philanthropic movement of the encyclopaedists, he created humanitarian projects, especially for his native city, where he returned in 1784 with his brother. He founded two foundations in Saint-Quentin, for women in labour and for old and feeble artisans, and also a free drawing school with a long perspective. This school still exists today in an 18th-century building erected by Paul Bigot in 1928—1931; 93 La Tour’s pastels, sketches and finished works are also kept here. The artist founded three prizes, one of which was intended for the Academy of Sciences in Amiens, and the other, for the best half-length portrait, is awarded to this day. The large payments he requested from his clients enriched him significantly. His independent, domineering and hot-tempered character deteriorated in the last years of his life; soon he lost his mind. The artist died without making a will; his brother gave all of the artist’s paintings and sketches to the city of Saint-Quentin, they formed the basis of the city museum. His most successful portraits not only convey the resemblance to the model: the psychology of the model appears in her look, smile, or displeased grimace. The colour scheme is dominated by blue and pearl grey tones, often pink, red and yellow. All details are carefully painted, and the background is successfully nuanced in half-tones. La Tour invented a fixative for his pastels, the secret of its composition knew no one but him.

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