Sunday, July 24, 2011

Joseph Ducreux (1735-1802)

A student of Maurice-Quentin de La Tour and Jean-Baptiste Greuze, French portrait painter Joseph Ducreux became a favorite of Louis XVI, who made him a Baron. The king dispatched him to Vienna to paint Marie-Antoinette, a typical practice of royals so they could see their brides in advance (Hans Holbein was similarly dispatched by Henry VIII to paint his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, but when they met in the flesh, Henry thought her ugly and history has dubbed her the "Flanders Mare".), and was later made First Painter to the Queen. He also painted the last portrait of the king before his execution during the French Revolution.

Despite being securely in the mainstream of portraiture, the irascible Ducreux was excluded from the French Royal Academy, standard for any establishment painter and thus very unusual for a painter of such status in the royal court to not be a member. Ducreux was undeterred and exhibited in alternative salons, showing his unorthodox self-portraits to largely unenthusiastic audiences. He painted himself in a rather unpainterly manner, in a series of unusual facial expressions and poses. One of the more famous is of him stretched in an yawn, prompting a critic to call it a "yawn-inducing Ducreux". Self-portraits had always been a medium for exploration or unusual self-expression (perhaps most notoriously, Durer's self-portrait as Jesus), but Ducreux's self-portraits were more quirky and intimate than bold, or perhaps bold because of their quirky intimacy. In this he is ahead of his time, more suited for an age of confession and self-expression. In retrospect, it is no surprise that he was enthusiastically embraced by the Internet in 2009. His dandyish self-portrait, where he turns and points and laughs at the viewer, was turned into a meme where the painting was superimposed with rap lyrics translated into faux-archaic English.

Ducreux died on the road from St. Denis to Paris on July 24, 1802 at the age of 67.

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