Pair of Italian Rococo Pastel Portraits by Joseph De Saint Michel, 1769
Joseph Comte de Saint Michel
(Turin, news between 1756 and 1790;
between 1756 and 1776 active at the court of the King of Sardinia in Turin)
Portrait of a Gentleman – Portrait of a Lady
Both signed and dated “de St Michel 1769”
Each measure 19.29 x 14.96 in (49 x 38 cm)
with frame 28.34 x 19.68 in (72 x 50 cm)
State of conservation: some additions to the painting.
The first portrait depicts a gentleman in a red velvet jacket trimmed with gold embroidery and decorated with the double honor of the order of San Gennaro and that of Santiago; the second, on the other hand, is a young lady in a pink silk brocade dress and fur appliques. The man regards the spectator absently, hinting at a benevolent smile suited to the circumstance, while the lady smiles primly with a relaxed mien. Some physiognomic details suggest that the painter was accustomed to portraiture and the signature affixed to both paintings confirms their authorship: both are signed and dated “de St Michel 1769”.
The cream and gold frames are original, as are the glasses.
The information we have about the painter is scarce and fragmentary: Giuseppe Saint Michel was active from 1756 to 1790, known as “Knight” or “Count de Saint-Michel”, the painter of the King of Sardinia (Carlo Emanuele III of Savoia). He appears for the first time in Turin in 1756, when a documented payment was made by the royal house for a portrait of Giuseppina di Savoia (the future Countess of Provence) along with her nurse.
The works certainly ascribable to his hand and known to this date are portraits that he almost always had the tendency to sign and date: this habit of his, together with the news he himself provided in the promotional announcements he published, gives us a detailed picture of his shifts through all the courts of Europe as an itinerant portrait painter.
A study of his works prior to 1764 revealed the influence of the French pastellist Alexis Grimou (Argenteuil, 1678 – Paris, 1733) and a technique still to be perfected. Saint-Michel worked in a very small format, perhaps for the convenience of his itinerant practice, but the results, with homogeneous poses, marked folds of fabric and a typical palette of southern heat, are easily recognizable even without his signature.
In the various works there is a considerable variation in the quality of the execution. Some of the smaller examples show the intensity of a technical miniaturist; the male portraits are generally more naturalistic than the female ones, which sometimes exhibit forced poses. The folds and the yield in the fabrics are also characteristic, as Ratouis de Limay (Ratouis de Limay, Le Pastel en France au XVIIIe siècle, Paris, éd. Baudinière, 1946) tells us when analyzing one of his works preserved in the Gunnar Lundberg collection.
The oldest portrait known so far is that of Mme de L’Espi and dates back to 1761.
In 1769, according to the autograph inscriptions placed on our pastels, the painter was already defined as “le comte de St Michel”.
We are aware of the fact that two of his landscape watercolors were exhibited at the Salon de Toulouse in 1768. The news is taken from a long note in Avant-Coureur of 29.VIII.1768 (p. 547f) in which the painter is defined as follows: “M. de Saint-Michel, gentilhomme piémontais, residing in Toulouse, known for a large number of portraits “of great resemblance to the truth” and for his pastel technique “such as to give the figures the depth of the oil technique””. In this period he, in order to allow everyone to benefit from his technique, tried to publish a work in which he explained a method of pastel painting with the title “Abrégé de la Peinture”. The technical tests would have been carried out in the presence of several members of the Parliament of Capitoulate and of the Academy of Painting in Toulouse, called by de Saint-Michel as judges of their own experiments. The text, available only by subscription, would have been published upon reaching an adequate number of bookings. Unfortunately, since no such publication has ever come down to us, it can be deduced that the required number of subscribers was not reached. Two years later, several pastel portraits belonging to the Marquis de Mirepoix confirm the presence of the painter in France, while in 1771 he was certainly in Orleans. From the Annonces, affiches, nouvelles et avis divers de l’Orléanais of 22.XI.1771, we know in fact that “M. de St. Michel, Painter of the King of Sardinia, who alone found the secret of fixing the crayon in such a way as to last forever, he arrived in Orleans, where he intended to do only a short stay and then to go to Paris […] “
In 1772 he resided in Paris, where he was likely to have painted the imposing pastel of the Sardinian ambassador Ferrero della Marmora. He again boasted of having invented, – but perhaps he only used one of the inventions of the Prince of Sansevero – a method for fixing pastels, which he submitted to the Academy for approval on 7.VI.1772. The report by Bachelier and Roslin, regarding this fact, was not published. However, in a note that appeared in the Journal encyclopédique in.IX.1772, pp. 476-78, under the title “Arts utiles & agréables” and in other newspapers, the same painter announced the beauty of the pastel technique and the fact that he managed to make it endure through time: “M. de Saint-Michel, Piedmontese gentleman, painter of the King of Sardinia, and of the Bishop Prince and Princess of Carignano, found the secret to making pastel images solid, resistant as the oil technique and able to be retouched by the painter even after being fixed. The images have nothing to fear, nor the jolts of the carriages on longer journeys, nor the friction nor the temperature of the seasons. He also invented the composition of a pastel superior to all that is known in this technique, of a very pleasant delicacy and in all colors; presented both the discoveries and the tests at the “Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture” in Paris, which issued him with a very favorable certificate […] “.
Giuseppe di St. Michel therefore, to contribute to the progress of the arts, tried again to share his discovery with the public, and tried again to publish his secrets by subscription: the validity of the technique was evidenced by the certificate of the Parisian Academy dated 7 August 1772. Several years later, in a note by a contemporary author, Paul-Romain Chaperon in the Traité de la peinture au pastel of 1788, we learn of a negative judgment concerning the Saint-Michel subscription project.
From a portrait dated 1773 we deduce that the painter must have been in St. Petersburg: the portrait is that of the Austrian ambassador, Fürst Lobkowicz, whose weekly reports in Kaunitz show that he was in service in the Russian city during that year.
Nothing is known about the movements of Saint-Michel in the following years: he must have transited from Metz to Lorraine, where he offered private lessons in the “Affiches, annonces et avis divers pour les Trois Evêchés et la Lorraine for .VI.1777”; then in Caen in the same year, where he made an unusual pastel portrait of the wife of the Count of Perrochel, “capitaine de dragons dans le régiment de Monsieur”. Saint-Michel later arrived in London, where he exhibited six portraits – of which we have no details – at the Royal Academy in 1785. The only surviving crayon which we know of from this journey is “inscribed in florid calligraphy and uncertain English” (Joshua James FOSTER, ed., “French art from Watteau to Prudhon”, London, 1905-07).
After this stay in London there were no more signs for five years until, in 1790, Giuseppe de Saint Michel painted a portrait of a two-year-old boy in Liège. We have no more news after this portrait.
Cover Photo: Giorgio Maino
Alessandro, Count BAUDI DI VESME, Schede Vesme: Art in Piedmont from the 16th to the 18th century, Turin, 1963-68, p. 961; Bénézit; Busch 1817, p. 101, which cites the Supplem. zu Vollbedings Archiv. 200 & 201; Jean CHATELUS, Peindre à Paris au XVIIIe siècle, Nîmes, 1991, p. 73; Ulrich Thieme & Felix Becker, Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler, 1929; Gérard VOREAUX, Les Peintres lorrains du dix-huitième siècle, Paris, 1998; Waterhouse, The Dictionary of British 18th century painters in oils and crayons, Woodbridge, 1981.