The Marquise de Seignelay and Two of her Children by Pierre Mignard

The Marquise de Seignelay and Two of her Children by Pierre Mignard (1691)

Pierre and Nicolas Mignard were brothers and as aspiring artists.  Both studied under the French painter Simon Vouet in his Paris atelier.  Today, I am looking at the work of the younger brother Pierre who was born in Troyes in 1612.  He remained a pupil of Vouet until 1630 at which time he travelled to Italy and remained there for twenty-two years, residing, in the main,  in Rome although he did visit Venice and some of the northern Italian towns.  For this reason he was known as Mignard le Romain differentiating him from his older brother Nicolas, who was known as Mignard of Avignon.  Whilst there he built up his reputation as an artist and his fame spread.  Many of his works were exhibited in Rome.   In 1655 he married Anna Avolara, the beautiful daughter of an architect who subsequently posed for his Madonnas.  In 1658 he returned to France at the behest of Louis XIV who had inaugurated a system that relied upon the glory of arts for the exaltation of the monarchy and it was thought that Mignard could help with this royal scheme.

Mignard, now back in Paris, set about completing portraits of Louis and his family.  He was awarded the commission to decorate the Hôtel d’Eperon and the cupola of the Val-de-Grâce, the latter, said to be the largest frescoed surface in the world, comprising of two hundred colossal figures, representing Paradise.  However Mignard spent most of his time painting portraits and among his sitters were Molière and Descartes.   In 1690 his great rival Charles le Brun, the French painter and art theorist died and Mignard, at the age of eighty, succeeded to all his offices, and was solemnly received into the Academy, and in one session elected to all its degrees, including that of president.   The French Secretary of War, the Marquis de Louvers consulted him on the project of decorating the cupola of the Invalides.  The veteran painter saw an opportunity of crowning his career with an exceptional performance, but Louvois died, the work was delayed, and the artist lost all hope of realizing his last dream.   Mignard died, it may almost be said, with his brushes in his hand, at the age of eighty-two.   His last work is a picture in which he himself appears as “St. Luke painting the Blessed Virgin“.

My Daily Art Display today is Pierre Mignard’s oil on canvas portrait of Catherine-Thérèse de Matignon, the widow of statesman Jean-Baptiste Colbert de Seignelay and her two sons entitled The Marquise de Seignelay and Two of her Children, which he completed in 1691at the age of 79 and can be found in London’s National Gallery.

Catherine-Thérèse had been widowed a year when Mignard was commissioned to paint her portrait.  Her late husband had been head of the French Admiralty and this could have been  the reason for the aquatic mythology of this painting.  Mignard had little to do with the setting of the painting.  Catherine-Thérèse, the bereaving widow, instructed Mignard on how the painting should be and how she and her sons should be portrayed.  Neil McGregor the art history offers another theory about the aquatic nature of the portrait saying that it has little to do with her late husband’s employment but that she wanted to be depicted as the sea-nymph Thetis.   

The Marquise de Seignelay, of old Norman nobility,  had something else in common with sea-nymph Thetis, as she,  like the Greek goddess, was married off against her will to a “social inferior” as her husband was the son of a lowly draper.  Thesis was married off to the mortal Peleus against her wishes and he had to rape her to “beget” on her the great Achilles.   The story of Thetis tells how she descended into the crater of the volcano, Etna, which can be seen in the background of the painting, to obtain the armour made by the blacksmith and God of fire, Vulcan.   Catherine-Thérèse’s eldest son, the eight year old Marie-Jean-Baptiste de Seignelay, who stands on the right of the painting can be seen wearing this armour.  This was also close to the time that his mother had bought a military commission for her son.   Like Thetis and her beloved son Achilles, maybe this portrait is an affirmation that Catherine-Thérèse would go to any length to protect and help her son succeed.   We may also interpret this portrait as her wish to have it known that she was the power behind the throne (the marriage) and now that her husband was dead her loyalty and support would be transferred to her eldest son.  Was she thinking about the passage in Ovid’s Metamorphoses which said of Thetis:

“..O goddess of the waves, conceive: thou shalt be the mother of a youth who, when to manhood grown, shall outdo his father’s deeds and shall be called greater than he..”

On the left of the painting we have a small cupid offering the woman a valuable nautilus shell on a gold stem, which is overflowing with jewels and pearls.  It is thought that the cupid could be Catherine-Thérèse’s one-year old infant Théodore-Alexandre.  There is a quirkiness about this flamboyant portrait which spurns the dull reality of everyday life and supplants it with a dream-like fantasy.  The Marquise de Seignelay dominates the painting.  She stands looking directly at us.  She is adorned in an ultra-marine cloak and gold chemise.  It should be noted that the pigment ultramarine at the time was very expensive, more so than gold and for this reason it was seldom used in paintings and certainly not in such quantities.  The fact that it has been used in this portrait may be to confound rumours that the noble widow, Catherine-Thérèse, was almost bankrupt.  This combination of colours lends a sense of divinity to her figure.  She is clutching a locket on a string of pearls.  Her hair is decorated with pearls, seaweed and red coral, which contrast vividly with the colour of her cloak and which almost look like tiara fit for a monarch.  The painting has immediately transported her from the misery of widowhood in Paris to that of a mythical goddess in southern Italy.

A half century later, William Hogarth the English painter, who had an aversion for all things French said on being arrested as a suspected spy in Calais, said the French displayed:

“…….. their insolence with an affectation of politeness….”

Maybe Hogarth’s thought could be levelled at the Roman-trained Mignard’s depiction of a mother and her two sons but one should remember it was the widow dictated what she wanted the artist to portray.