In his Historia Caroli IX. francorum regis, Jean Papire Masson, historian and librarian to the Chancellor of Cheverny, recounts that a few days before his death, King Charles IX asked for a portrait of his brother and successor Henri to be brought to his bedside as the prince, who had recently been elected King of Poland, was unable to attend him in person, being then in Krakow.[1] Masson regrets never having seen this portrait, but assures us that it was painted before the departure of Henri by Decourt (Curtius) and was painted by a very skilful hand (scientissimus).

Who was this Decourt (or De Court) whose work Charles IX preferred on his deathbed, to that of François Clouet? Although Clouet had died two years earlier in 1572, he seems to have remained very active in the early 1570s and had often painted members of the Valois family, including Henri, then Duke of Anjou. Clouet is credited with the drawing...

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In his Historia Caroli IX. francorum regis, Jean Papire Masson, historian and librarian to the Chancellor of Cheverny, recounts that a few days before his death, King Charles IX asked for a portrait of his brother and successor Henri to be brought to his bedside as the prince, who had recently been elected King of Poland, was unable to attend him in person, being then in Krakow.[1] Masson regrets never having seen this portrait, but assures us that it was painted before the departure of Henri by Decourt (Curtius) and was painted by a very skilful hand (scientissimus).

Who was this Decourt (or De Court) whose work Charles IX preferred on his deathbed, to that of François Clouet? Although Clouet had died two years earlier in 1572, he seems to have remained very active in the early 1570s and had often painted members of the Valois family, including Henri, then Duke of Anjou. Clouet is credited with the drawing in the Bibliothèque nationale de France which shows Henri full length, dressed in a superb, delicately worked armour. The scholars Louis Dimier and Jean Adhémar identified this work as one of the two drawings by Clouet – one showing Henri’s face, the other indicating his height – sent by Catherine de’ Medici to Queen Elizabeth I in July 1571.[2] However, in analysing the evolution of Henri III’s iconography, it seems that the BnF drawing dates from after his accession to the throne in 1574 and therefore necessarily belongs to an artist other than Clouet, but still at the king’s service.[3] The most plausible candidate is Jean Decourt, who in 1572 succeeded Clouet as the king’s first portraitist.

Clouet’s well-deserved fame eventually eclipsed the other portraitists of the Valois. Jean Decourt’s personality and the place he occupied at the French court are only now beginning to emerge, thanks in particular to the research undertaken by the author of this catalogue entry.[4] Probably a native of Paris, Decourt may have been related to a certain Jacques Court, a painter in Paris in 1552. He seems to have first been in the service of Charles de Bourbon, Prince of La Roche-surYon, while “suyvant la court”.[5] Unfortunately, the records of the Royal Houses are incomplete for this period and make it impossible to retrace the artist’s career accurately. Decourt seems to have entered the service of Mary Queen of Scots as an ordinary painter as early as before 1558, however, he did not accompany the queen to Scotland and remained in Paris. His annual wage, 240 livres tournois, the same as that of Clouet, was paid out of the income of the dower of Mary.[6] Towards the end of the 1560s, the painter cumulated his position with that in the House of King Charles IX, as “painter and valet in ordinary”, with 100 livres tournois of pledge.[7]

It was during this period that the name Decourt appears several times in the State Papers concerning diplomatic relations between England and France. Thanks to the correspondence of Sir Henry Norris[8] and two letters addressed by Jean Decourt himself to William Cecil on 10 July 1570 and 11 February 1571,[9] we learn that he made several trips to England, including one in 1565 and another probably at the end of 1566, on the occasion of the baptism of the future James VI. The list of people he painted is impressive: King Charles IX, Mary Stuart and English sitters including Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and Queen Elizabeth I.[10]

On the death of François Clouet, Decourt became the king’s official portrait painter, relinquishing his previous position of court painter to his son, Charles Decourt. Jean Decourt appeared on the royal accounts until 1584 with a pledge of 240 pounds, but this was much lower than the salaries of his colleagues who worked for both Henri III and Catherine de’ Medici: Etienne Dumonstier and Benjamin Foulon (Clouet’s nephew) received 400 pounds and Cosme Dumonstier received 300 pounds.[11] The relative little that Decourt was paid in comparison to artists such as Dumonstier and Foulon reflects his declining favour with the king, who preferred younger painters. Decourt died around 1585.[12]

Although until the marvellous discovery of the present miniature no signed work by Decourt has been known to exist, recent research by the author of this catalogue entry has uncovered his oeuvre from the mass of sixteenth century French portraits.[13] It is not only considerable, but coherent, in contrast to the meagre corpus (seven drawings, nine paintings and one miniature) attributed to Decourt by Dimier and Adhémar, who relied almost entirely on the portraits of Henri III and Mary, Queen of Scots. It is now possible fully to attribute some twenty paintings, several miniatures and more than 150 drawings to Decourt, including the corpus of works ascribed by Dimier to an artist he termed the “Anonyme Lécurieux”.

The present portrait of Henri III, the only signed work by Decourt known to date, fits perfectly into this corpus. It contains everything that makes up the charm and originality of the artist, namely the extraordinary meticulousness of the details, the particular attention paid to the clothing, the jewels treated in volume with their cast shadows, the plastic modelling of the face which is slightly pale and the little “tic” of placing the highlight in the pupil and not the iris, as was Clouet’s preference. The reconstruction of Decourt’s oeuvre allows us to better understand his career and to complete the little information we have at our disposal.

Decourt seems to have been a pupil of François Clouet, evidenced by the intimate knowledge of Clouet’s manner and by the fact that Decourt often takes up the outlines of his master’s portraits in his own works. Some of Clouet’s paintings dating from the late 1550s and 1560s almost certainly include the hand of Decourt in the drapery, while Clouet was mainly concerned with the faces. Decourt’s first success at the French court came in 1563, when he painted François d’Alençon,[14] and was cemented on Clouet’s death when he became responsible for the official image of Charles IX. The natural progression for Decourt was to become responsible for the image of Henri de France, the future Henri III. The first portrait he composed of him is a drawing housed at the BnF, dating from around 1572–1573. In keeping with the French tradition that the contours of the face remain consistent from one portrait to the next, Decourt reused the contours established by Clouet, but aged his model slightly. It was perhaps this drawing, or a painting based on it, that was brought to Charles IX’s bedside in 1574. It was also used as a basis when Decourt was commissioned to create the coronation portrait of Henri III in 1575. While retaining the contours, the painter modified the scope of the image by turning the king’s gaze towards the spectator and giving it a royal assurance and attitude.

Unfortunately, the iconography of Henri III is very incomplete, mainly due to the Wars of Religion, which led to the destruction of many portraits. What may be Decourt’s coronation portrait and the versions he took of it, representing the bare-headed king in particular, are only known from replicas of varying quality.[15] However, a certain number of constants can be found which allow us to imagine the lost original: Henri looking straight out at the viewer, the almond-shaped brown eyes, the left eye slightly higher than the right, the scar on the right eyebrow, a slight smile, short beard and moustache, curly and high hairdressing, two earrings, sumptuous garments, and small toque worn high on the head. This miniature enlarges the ruff to match the fashion of 1578, with which other aspects of the king’s attire are entirely in keeping and makes the king’s features very slightly heavier as he was now in his late twenties. However, it disregards King Henri’s new tendency to wear mostly black, which was noticed by foreign ambassadors and became a habit. The ribbon of the Order of the Holy Spirit, established on 31 December 1578, is also logically absent here. It appears in the new portrait, which was widely distributed from 1579 onwards and whose preparatory drawing, entirely in black chalk, is housed at Chantilly.[16] Although the essential outlines are still preserved in the Chantilly work, it is no longer considered a work by Decourt, but by Etienne Dumonstier, who now had the full confidence of Henri III.

It is therefore one of the last, if not the last, portrait of the king by Decourt, and one of the last images of Henri III before his taste for rich ornaments and large ruffs was supplanted by a preference for black silks and folded collars. It is also an important milestone in the reconstruction of Decourt’s work as a miniaturist, which is more difficult to define than his painted and drawn corpus. We know of two large miniatures in the Wallace Collection[17] whose preparatory drawings are housed at the BnF and several smaller miniatures, generally oval with a blue background, sometimes of uncertain attribution. This signed miniature therefore provides a solid basis for the attribution of other works in little to Decourt. It is a delicate and sensitive work, a precious little jewel, an unpublished image of a misunderstood king and confirmation of Jean Decourt’s great talent.

[1] Masson, J. P. (1638) ‘Historia Caroli IX. francorum regis’, Cl. Viri Io. Papirii Massonis in senatu Paris & in Regiâ Advocati, Elogiorum, Pars Prima. Paris: Sébastien Hure. p. 529.

[2] de La Férrière, H. and Baguenault de Puchesse, G. (eds.), (2010) Lettres de Catherine de Médicis. Paris: Nabu Press, Vol. IV, pp. 52-53; Purton-Cooper, Ch. (ed). (1838–1840) Correspondance diplomatique de Bertrand de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénelon, ambassadeur de France en Angleterre de 1568 à 1575. Vol. IV. London & Paris. p. 184; Dimier, L. (1924–1926) Histoire de la peinture de portrait en France au XVIe siècle. Vol. II, No 473. Paris & Brussels. Adhémar, J. (1970) De François Ier à Henri IV. Les Clouet & la cour des rois de France. Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France.

[3] Zvereva, A. (2006) ‘La genèse du portrait de Henri III’, in de Conihout, I., Maillard, J.-F. and Poirier, G. (eds.), Henri III mécène des arts, des sciences et des lettres. Paris: PUPS, pp. 56-65.

[4] For the latest and most complete biography of Jean Decourt see Zvereva, A. (2011) Portraits dessinés de la cour des Valois, Paris, Arthéna, pp. 399-400.

[5] Zvereva, A. (2011), pp. 399-400.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Goldring, E. (2014). Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and the World of Elizabethan Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press p. 74.

[9] London, National Archives, SP 70/113 et 70/116.

[10] In a letter to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, dated 1568, Sir Henry Norris, the English ambassador in France advises Leicester that his four portraits by Decourt are on their way to England. These are portraits of Catherine de Medici, Charles IX and two of Leicester himself. See: Goldring, E (2014) Dudley p. 74

[11] Zvereva, (2011) Les Portraits dessinés, pp. 399-400.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Alexandra Zvereva is preparing Jean Decourt’s catalogue raisonné.

[14] Royal Collection, inv. 403434. At the time of writing, the Royal Collection describe this work as being by François Clouet. In the view of the present author, it is by Jean Decourt.

[15] Vienna, KHM, inv. GG 4747; Florence, Uffizi, Valois tapestries; Chantilly, musée Condé, inv. 66; Château de Chenonceau; Private Collections.

[16] Chantilly, musée Condé, inv. MN 347.

[17] Inv. M262 and M263. At the time of writing, the Wallace Collection describe these works as being by the Circle of François Clouet. In the view of the present author, they are both by Jean Decourt.

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