By Stephanie Mann
In 1699, the celebrated French artist Nicolas de Largillière was commissioned to paint the portraits of the Marquis de Castelnau (Charles-Léonor Aubrey), who was a legal adviser to the French parliament, and his spouse, Catherine Coustard, who was depicted with their eldest son. Then, in the 1800s, the paintings went their separate ways.
Catherine’s portrait has been a star of Mia’s collection for more than four decades. And when the portrait of the Marquis came to Mia in 2018, it seemed they would finally be reunited. But they weren’t quite ready to be.
To understand the importance of these portraits — and their eventual reunion — we must first understand Largillière’s life as a painter.
During the late 1600s and the first half of the 1700s, Largillière was one of Europe’s most important portrait painters. But unlike his fellow French portrait artists, Largillière was initially trained as a still life painter, in Belgium. Largillière learned to paint directly from nature, rather than lean on historic or fantastical elements, and it gave him a uniquely differentiated style. Largillière eventually made his way to London, where his painting was further influenced by the portrait painter of the court at the time, Sir Peter Lely. He then returned to France, bringing with him his distinct craftsmanship.
But with his unique style came unique taste. Largillière wasn’t interested in painting as it was being done in Versailles. He knew that if he was a painter of the French court, he would need to paint through a historical lens — dressing the courtiers as historical figures. And so he settled in Paris, where he could be his own painter, and a very successful one at that. Throughout his career, Largillière had more than 1,500 sitters, including government officials, the high clergy, the Parisian and provincial aristocracy, and the wealthiest of the French middle class. Two of these sitters, of course, are now Mia’s own: Charles-Léonor and Catherine.
In 1704, the two portraits were exhibited at the Paris Salon, the Royal Academy Exhibition. Not only were they recognized for their beauty and exquisite craftsmanship, they also displayed a departure from portraiture of the time — even for Largillière — that relied heavily on a sitter’s stature and study. Castelnau sits casually posed with an open book amid the cultivated flowers of his garden, not in the customary robes and wigs of parliamentarians, conveying that this is a portrait of a real person, not just a symbol. It was also one of the earliest instances of his portraits being set in a garden. Catherine poses in high fashion with her son and dog, backed by a completely nondescript setting. It is in these beautifully intricate details that we find the significance of these paintings, the reason Mia sought the portrait of Catherine more than four decades ago.
But when Mia acquired the accompanying portrait of Charles-Léonor in 2018, it came with a problem. The canvas had been damaged and displayed a large tear through the middle. The original frame, presumably also damaged, had been replaced. And the replacement was not representative of the time in which the portrait was painted. Consequently, it would not match the portrait already in Mia’s collection.
Patrick Noon, the senior curator of paintings at Mia, knew he had to find a solution before reuniting husband and wife. He began researching framemakers across the globe. Would it be possible to recreate an 18th century frame? Would it match if displayed side-by-side with the portrait of Catherine?
The challenge was accepted by the eminent Paris frame makers Mason Samson. Over the course of nine months, they used the original frame housing Catherine’s portrait to carefully create a reproduction. Every step in the process was nearly exactly what would have been done in the 1600s, involving rough carving, careful carving, layers of gesso, re-carving and much more. The owner of the firm even traveled to an Italian merchant to get the right color of gold leaf. Mission accomplished, and the results are breathtaking.
Frames are often overlooked, but they can be works of art all their own. They tell a story. A story of history, a story of place, a story of stature and rank. Sometimes that story is complicated. Sometimes that story has cracks. But through high craftsmanship and in-depth research, those cracks can be mended.
Today, the portraits of Charles-Léonor Aubrey and Catherine Coustard can be viewed in gallery 308 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The painting of Charles-Léonor has been beautifully repaired. The frame, exquisitely restored. And the pair, reunited. Almost exactly as they were in 1699.