The Duke of Choiseul, from the top of the State to disgrace
Born in 1719, Étienne François de Choiseul-Beaupré Stainville first had a military career, rising to the rank of lieutenant general of the king's armies. He was ambassador to the Holy See between 1754 and 1757 and then to Vienna in 1758. That same year, he received the title of Duke of Choiseul-Amboise and was appointed Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and then, in 1761, for the Navy and for War.
The Duke of Choiseul pursued a policy of revenge against England; to do this, he relied on the alliance with Austria and the Bourbons of Spain, Parma and Naples through the Pacte de Famille signed in 1761. He also negotiated the marriage of the Duke of Berry, future Louis XVI, with the archduchess of Austria, Marie-Antoinette.
Under his government, the borders of France widened, with the inclusion of Lorraine in 1766 and the acquisition of Corsica in 1768.
A friend of the Encyclopaedists and Madame de Pompadour, he was interested in the art and philosophy of his time; his Voltairean spirit distanced him from Rousseau, whose Social Contract (1762) he rejected.
At the beginning of 1770, Choiseul acted more and more without the king's consent, often even against his will. Madame Du Barry, to whom he had spoken undiplomatically, played a role in his eviction from the court at the end of 1770. His exile, to his estate of Chanteloup, near Amboise, was a triumph: everyone flocked to the Duke of Choiseul. He died in 1785, leaving behind him a disastrous personal financial situation.
The portrait of the Duke of Choiseul, a signed reproduction by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749-1803)
The painting, commissioned during Choiseul's lifetime, was completed the year after his death, in 1786, as attested by the artist's signature on the version of the portrait conserved at Waddesdon Manor, in England. In 1785, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, who had been admitted to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture two years earlier, exhibited her work for the second time at the Salon du Louvre. There she presented her famous Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This recognition by her contemporaries led to her being chosen by the Duke of Choiseul to create his own effigy. Adélaïde Labille-Guiard was invited a few years later to execute the effigies of Mesdames, the daughters of Louis XV.
The painting acquired by the Palace of Versailles is an identical reproduction of the composition conserved at Waddesdon Manor. Yet, a slight variation in the colour of the Moroccan leather of the desk, green in one and blue in the other, can be distinguished. The practice of signed replication was common at the time; it was used on several occasions by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, as shown by the different versions of the portraits of Mesdames.
A major artist of the 18th century
Adelaide Labille-Guiard, an expert in pastels, oil painting and miniatures, established herself as a competitor to Madame Vigée Le Brun. Initially a member of the Academy of Saint Luc, from 1783 she had an official career at the Royal Academy and regularly exhibited her works at the Salon du Louvre. She was very successful at court, painting the portraits of Madame Elisabeth, the sister of Louis XVI, and the Count of Provence.
Unlike her rival Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, she devoted herself to the pursuit of truthful reproduction, producing realistic effigies, without compromise, and capturing the psychology of the models. This intimate portrait of the Duke of Choiseul, depicted not in his official capacity, but far from the affairs of the kingdom, is characteristic of her art.