Writers on the subject of art history are often accused of dwelling on the misfortunes of the artists they write about; or accentuating their personal negative traits while at the same time glorifying their art. It's as if to say, despite what this man (or woman) went through, look what he (or she) produced. We hold up what passes for perfection and ponder in amazement how such greatness could have come from such an imperfect, downtrodden, demoralised, desperately distressed soul. And, I'm probably as guilty as anyone of doing this; and probably more often than I realise. A reader once asked me if there were never any successful artists achieving greatness and happiness in the same lifetime. Of course there were, I told her, it's just that they're no fun to write about. Okay, in the interest of fairness, I propose to write about one such artist now. His name was Hyacinthe Rigaud.
Hyacinthe? What kind of name is that for a man? Moreover, what kind of father would name their son after a flower? Had to be name chosen by his mother, no doubt. Well, history doesn't record who chose the boy's name; only that his father was an artist, and apparently a pretty good one. He taught his son how to paint portraits. He was his only teacher in fact. Born in 1659, in 1682, at the age of 23, the young man won the Royal Academy's prestigious "Prix de Rome," a fully expense paid year to study in the great Italian centre of art and culture. Apparently deciding he already knew all he needed to know about his chosen profession, young Hyacinthe said thanks, but no thanks, rejecting the highly coveted prize; and instead set up a portrait studio in Paris. Don't you just love a man who knows his own heart?
It was a smart move on his part. His stylishly dressed figures enhancing insightful faces won him a steady stream of commissions from the start. In 1688 he painted a portrait of Louis XIV's brother and quickly became a favourite of the king himself. This led, in 1694, to a portrait of the king in military dress elegantly showing off the monarch's proudest possession, his legs. This in turn led to the much more famous 1701 portrait now in the Louvre, a gigantic canvas once more displaying the magnificent royal legs but this time with an equally magnificent royal robe, lined in white ermine, resplendent with gold fleur-de-lis, all framed in scarlet drapery, a black wig that would do Dolly Parton proud, and a pose just like that of the earlier portrait. Today, we would view the whole thing as laughably foppish. But Rigaud excelled at work like this. He had a whole factory of well-paid assistants churning out up to forty portraits a year like this. The master of course, overseeing every detail, but in fact he himself only painted in the faces. I'm happy to say he lived a long, full, productive life, dying in 1743, in his sleep, 84 years old, a very wealthy, highly respected, happy man. There, that wasn't so hard. But Caravaggio is a lot more fun.