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Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Sablet Brothers, Francois and Jacques

Blind Man's Bluff, 1790, Jacques Henri Sablet.
Over the years I've written several times on how hard it is to be an "art expert." In fact, I've experienced the discomfort of being labeled that more than a few times (which I'm not). I can't tell you the number of times readers have sent me photos seeking my help in authenticating a painting by an artist I've written about. In each case the photo comes with the hope they've stumbled upon a rare masterpiece worth far more than they paid. I've yet to make anyone rich (not that I could if I wanted to). I tell people I know a little about a lot of artists and a lot about a few artists, none of whom ever show up in garage sales.
Le Romain, 1778, Jean Francois Sablet
Jean Francois Sablet self-portrait
For those who really are art experts (and whom seldom write blogs) nothing is more challenging than authenticating the work of obscure artists who happen to be blood relatives. Jacques Henri Sablet and Jean Francois Sablet were brothers, the latter being the older of the two. Now, here's where it gets tricky. They were born within four years of one another--1745 and 1749. The came from Lausanne, (western) Switzer-land. They both had the same father, Jacob Sablet, who was a gilder (as in gold leaf), and a picture dealer. He trained both his sons to be painters. Once he'd taught them all he knew about painting (which was probably precious little), he sent each one off to Paris to study at the Academie of Painting and Sculpture. There they both studied under the same instructor, Joseph-Marie Vien.

Portrait of Jacques Henri Sablet,
possibly by his brother.
When Vien was named the director of the French Academy in Rome, both the Sablet brothers followed him there. They each hoped to become a history painters (the highest calling in art at the time). However, lacking the years of training many other French painters could boast, especially in competition with the likes of Jacques Louis David and Pierre Peyron, neither brother could land a single commission. So, both took up painting portraits, genre, and landscapes. Needless to say, this is the stuff that makes art experts go bald (from ripping out their hair). Some even resort to an attitude of "what the held difference does it make) and simply lump the paintings of both artists into one oeuvre.

Roman Elegy, 1791, Jacques Sablet
That was not the case with the Sablet brothers. There are enough quite subtle differences in their work to tell them apart (though not without occasional errors down through the centuries). Jacques Sablet tended to paint more intellectual content such as Roman Elegy, (above), from 1791. Francois Sablet preferred to paint portraits of middle-class clients and their children as seen in the Crucy children (below). He was modestly more successful than his younger brother in that his prices were likely as middle-class as his clients.

Letizia Bonaparte
Jacques Sablet
Around 1793, both Sablet brothers left Rome to return to Paris where they became entwined in the political intricacies of the French Revolution. They wisely aligned themselves with the Bonaparte family. The younger brother, Jacques even managed to land the plum commission of painting Latizia Bonaparte, Napoleon's mother (left). The best Jean Francois could do was a portrait of an unknown (and much prettier) female art student (below, right).

Portrait of an Artist,
Jean Francois Sablet

The younger brother, Jacques, died in 1803 at the age of fifty-two. Jean Francois died in 1819 at the age of seventy-four. I guess that's one way to tell the two apart.


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