Framing miniatures in the 17th century : The Golden Age of ‘la boîte à portrait’

In 2009, the Amis du musée du Louvre helped the French museum to acquire one of the most delicate, rare and precious objects ever created : a miniature portrait in enamel depicting Louis XIV, in its original jewelled setting, also called a ‘boîte à portrait’. The acquisition of this miniature, the third in a museum worldwide, and the publication in 2015 of a study of portrait and setting, shed light on the long-vanished royal custom of bestowing as gifts these grand-luxe miniature boxes enclosing the monarch’s portrait; they were indeed truly regal, uniting diamonds, friendship and power. Céline Cachaud takes a closer look at these ‘boîtes à portraits’, and their origins and development throughout 17th century Europe.

The invention of the enamel portrait miniature

The terms ‘portrait box’ or ‘miniature box’ was already in use in Renaissance Europe to describe the setting of these portraits, since they were kept in ivory boxes or in closed medallions to protect the vellum support and the watercolour in which they were painted [see Framing Renaissance portrait miniatures in Paris and London].

However, it seems that the use of the expression ‘boîte à portrait’ is particularly linked with the taste for jewelled settings and enamelled cases. One of the earliest examples is known thanks to a marriage contract between Henri de Lorraine, Count of Harcourt, and Marguerite du Cambout, dated 1639 :

‘…une boîte à portrait d’or garneye de 3 gros diamants et 3 moyens, 12 autres moindres et 3 petits sur belliere’.

Henri Toutin, Portrait of Charles I, s.&d. 1636, enamel on gold, 6.5 x 5.5 cm., original enamelled frame, Rijksmuseum

These boîtes seem to appear alongside the invention of the technique of enamel painted on gold by goldsmith Henri Toutin, according to Félibien’s dictionary of art terminology [1].  The author assures us that this technique was invented in 1632,  whilst the artist was living between Chataudun (near Orléans) and Paris.  In the example above, the scalloped enamelled frame is so much a part of the portrait as to share with it the flowers which decorate the king’s doublet.

Jean I Petitot (1607-91), Portrait of Charles I, 1638, enamel on copper (?), 4.0 x 3.5 mm., original integral cable border, Nationalmuseum Stockholm

In her groundbreaking research on  17th century goldsmiths, Michèle Bimbenet-Privat raises the hypothesis that Toutin and Jean Petitot, the most famous Swiss enamel miniaturist of the century, might have met between 1632 and 1637 when Petitot is recorded neither in Geneva, nor in London.

Both artists had been living in London and by the 1640s both, because they worked for the French court, were living in the Louvre.  Thus they would necessarily have been in touch, and probably emulating each other. The two of them produced thousands of portrait miniatures with the help of their workshops and sons, until – by the 1710s – the genre had fallen out of fashion. These portraits were not necessarily painted ad vivum like watercolour portraits, since each colour needed to be fired individually; thus they were generally copied from a drawing, a panel or a canvas portrait.

Jean I Petitot (1607-91), Portrait of Cardinal Jules Mazarin, 1653-1661, private collection. Photo: Céline Cachaud, 2018

Philippe de Champaigne, Portrait of Cardinal Jules Mazarin, c.1653, 205 × 144 cm. (80.7 × 56.6 in), Musée Condé, Chantilly. Photo: Micheletb

Jean I Petitot (1607-91), Portrait of Louis XIV in Roman armour, c.1670, 2.8 x 2.5 cm., frame (in the style of Gilles Legaré): 4.1 x 3.2 cm., Collection of H.M. Elizabeth II, Royal Collection Trust

Pierre Mignard (after), Equestrian Portrait of Louis XIV in Roman armour, c.1675, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Reims. © MBA Reims; photo: Christian Devleeschauwer

We don’t know exactly how the process worked, as very little research has been done on these workshops. For instance, miniatures of Cardinal Mazarin were copies after portraits by Philippe de Champaigne, and those of Louis XIV after portraits first by Claude Lefebvre, and later by Pierre Mignard.

Jean I Petitot (1607-91), Self-portrait, 1674, enamel on gold, Fondation Custodia, Collection Fritz Lugt

Several miniature are said, however, to have been painted ad vivum. One of the most likely examples is Petitot’s self-portrait, now at the Fondation Custodia, where it was recently on exhibition. A copy of this miniature, mounted on a snuffbox, is in the Royal Collection.  Petitot’s son, Jean II Petitot, also painted his own portrait (1679; now at the Victoria & Albert Museum). The close-up framing and audacious pose of the artist makes it look like a portrait drawn from life.

When miniatures began to be produced which were less fragile in structure, the need for closed miniature cases became unnecessary. At that point miniature portraits could be openly displayed, enclosed in jewelled settings for which new models appeared.

A glimpse of the goldsmiths’ maestria of the Grand Siècle: the example of Gilles Legaré

Jean I Petitot & Gilles Legaré (?), Portrait of Catherine-Henriette d’Angennes, comtesse d’Olonne, as Diana, c.1680, 1 1/2 x 1 1/4 ins (3.8 x 3.2 cm.), framed: 2 1/2 x 1 7/8 ins (6.3 x 4.8 cm.), Philadelphia Museum of Art , Mrs. Lessing J. Rosenwald collection, 1961

The 17th century produced a great number of engraved publications by French goldsmiths: in the early years books by Daniel Mignot (1616), Nicolas Rouillard, Jean Toutin, and Etienne Carteron, and then later, during the reign of Louis XIV, works by François Lefebvre (1657), Gilles Legaré (1663) and Thomas le Juge (1676). Gilles Legaré’s Livre des ouvrages d’orfèvrerie is the most important of these, as he epitomizes the style of European goldsmithing in the middle of the 17th century with the use of naturalistic flower patterns, colours, precious stones and enamel. The contemporary decorative vocabulary is composed of rich garlands of flowers and fruits, as was seen in other French decorative arts and frames of the period. In the example above, on the portrait of the Comtesse d’Olonne, the relief modelling of the flowers and their botanical accuracy within such a small compass is startlingly realistic; this realism is highlighted by the tension brought by the tiny gems which stud the centres and stamens of the flowers. These include tulips, narcissi, passion flowers, and – at the centre bottom (unusually) – a snake’s head fritillary. All are spring flowers, and must have been chosen to enhance a sense of the sitter’s youth and beauty.

Gilles Legaré & Louis Cossin, Livre d’Ouvrages d’Orfèvrerie, plate 7  & detail, 1663, Victoria & Albert Museum, London (E. 5749-1908)

Jean I Petitot (1607-91) & Gilles Legaré (?), Portrait of Marguerite de Lorraine, duchesse d’Orléans, undated, Musée du Louvre. © RMN-Grand Palais; photo: M. Beck Coppola

Legaré was in the service of the Duchess of Orléans and then of the king. Consequently, many of the surviving portraits of the highest aristocracy in the French court are set in Legaré’s style; here, a portrait presumed to be of the duchess is surrounded by a wreath of daffodils and narcissi. Flowers still carried a symbolic resonance at this point; daffodils would remind the classically-educated observer of the story of Persephone, gathering asphodel when she was abducted for her beauty by Hades, god of the underworld.

Jean I Petitot (1607-91) & Gilles Legaré ? (c.1610-post 1685), Portrait of Catherine-Henriette d’Angennes, comtesse d’Olonne, as Diana, c.1680, reverse, Philadelphia Museum of Art

All these settings depend upon an expert deployment of enamel to highlight the very naturalistic flowers woven into garlands, to set off oval or circular miniature portraits. They can be richly enamelled with several colours, as in the Philadelphia portrait, or simply painted in white, as in the Louvre miniature. The reverse may also be enamelled – here, in a characteristic blue for the Philadelphia portrait; a feature which we will also see in  the Louis XIV ‘boîtes à portrait‘ – and painted with a monochrome garland of mixed flowers, notable for its fluid composition and sense of movement.

Pierre Signac (1623-1684), Portrait of Queen Christine of Sweden, Nationalmuseum Stockholm

Alexander Cooper (1605-1660), Portrait of Carl X Gustav of Sweden, Nationalmuseum Stockholm

Such models travelled as far as Sweden, where a number of French miniature painters and goldsmiths were hired by the court. The portraits they executed, of Carl X and Christine of Sweden, are mounted into settings in Legaré’s style.

Anonymous, after Vélasquez & Edmé Burnet, watch box with portraits of Philippe IV of Spain & Marie-Louise of Austria, Brussels, 1660, Musée International de l’Horlogierie, La Chaud-de-Fonds.

A further example is the watch in a box, also in Legaré’s style and adorned with enamel portraits of both Philip IV of Spain and his wife Marie-Louise of Austria, which is in the collection of the International Museum of Horology at La Chaux-de-Fonds (see bibliography: Scarisbrick 2011). In both French and Swedish examples, we are conscious of the rich garlands of enamelled flowers surrounding the portrait, echoed (in the case of the watch box) by a further garland on the border. The main garland here is studded with morning glories at the sight edge, echoing the stones in Philip’s chain and the colour of his eyes.

These new settings after Gilles Legaré’s models were to set the fashion for portrait miniatures in France and Europe from the middle of the 17th century to the 1680s,  when – under Louis XIV – a new kind of frame for royal portraiture diffused throughout Europe, thanks to the king’s diplomatic gifts, and also to the spread of engraved patterns.

The French diplomatic gift : Louis XIV ‘boîtes à portraits

Louis XIV had a taste for gems, and consequently led the fashion in jewelled ornaments. Most contemporary avant-garde jewellery was in fact worn first by the king and then by his nobles. and only later adapted for the use of women. The idea of the ‘boîte à portrait’ arrived in the 1660s, when the king was searching for a diplomatic gift to encapsulate ideas of friendship, wealth, prestige and beauty.

Thomas Lejuge (1648-17??), Modèles pour la joaillerie et l’orfèvrerie, plate 6, 1676, Bibliothèque de l’Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art

He took a personal interest in such commissions, as his letters and reports of his council meetings confirm. He was as pleased with a well-executed item as he was angry when it did not satisfy his expectations. A series of these jewels were produced from the 1680s onwards: the king commissioning a goldsmith to execute the entire jewel. He was able to choose from several models, which were then published at the same time, such as this one (above) by Thomas Lejuge.

The ‘boîte à portrait’ is basically a pendant with the king’s portrait at its centre, adorned with diamonds of different sizes and shapes, and sometimes with other precious stones around it, and with a jewelled crown sitting at the crest.  The boîte would also have a blue ribbon at the very top, hiding a clasp which pinned the pendant to the doublet. These models used the same ornamental vocabulary as that of Gilles Legaré, with abundant garlands of flowers on the reverse, and the monogram of Louis XIV. The king used almost exclusively diamonds from the royal collection, which were then entrusted to the goldsmith.

Nicolas de Largillierre (1656-1746), Portrait of Konrad Detlef, Graf von Dehn; detail, 1724, o/c, 92 x 73.5 cm., Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Braunschweig

When he had been given the king’s instructions and also the necessary raw materials, the goldsmith would ask a miniature painter – usually, in this case, a member of the Petitot family – for a picture of the king, painted after the official portrait. When completed, the pendant would be presented at a grand ceremony to the recipient, nestled in a leather box, which gave rise to the expression ‘boîte à portrait‘. Such precious possessions would be candidates for inclusion in full-scale portraits of their owners, and Largillierre’s painting of the Graf von Dehn provides valuable evidence of a complete miniature in its presentation box.

Nicolas de Largillierre (1656-1746), Portrait of Charles le Brun, the king’s painter, 1683-86, Musée du Louvre

This type of portrait was not only given to ambassadors and foreign dignitaries, but also to the most deserving of Louis XIV’s subjects. For instance, the king’s first painter, Charles Le Brun, received one around 1677, as its appearance in his portrait by Nicolas de Largillierre bears witness. One of Le Brun’s biographers, Claude Nivelon, reports the words spoken by the king to his minister Colbert, who was entrusted with presenting it :

‘Il avait eu dessein de le lui donner lui-même en venant voir ses ouvrages, mais, partant sans y aller, qu’il le reçut comme de sa main’.

‘He had had the intention of presenting it himself, when he came to see [Largillierre’s] studio, but – having had to leave without being able to visit him – he asked that [the artist] receive it as if from his own hand’.  [2]

In fact, the king was currently engaged with leading the army in the war with the Netherlands. Receiving such a portrait was, of course, token of personal friendship and recognition, but also an important source of money in hard times, these boxes being estimated as worth from a few thousand to more than 40,000 livres.

Jean I Petitot (1607-91), Boîte à portrait of Louis XIV, 1678, Museo della Storia di Bologna, Palazzo Pepoli, & Santuario di Santa Maria della Vita

Today, only three ‘boîtes à portrait’ survive. The first one was presented to the conte Carlo Cesare Malvasia, and is now in the city museum of Bologna. It is ornamented with 74 diamonds and cost 2616 livres. Its leather box has disappeared, but the jewel remains in pristine condition. The king’s portrait is almost dwarfed by the size of the gemstones surrounding it in a frieze within the garland of acanthus leaves.

Pierre Le Tessier de Montarsy (fl.1676-1714) & Jean I Petitot (1607-91), Boîte à portrait of Louis XIV, 1683,  Gemeentemuseum, The Hague

The second belongs to the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. It was commissioned from the king’s jeweller, Le Tessier de Montarsy, and presented by the king to Antoine Hensius, Great-Pensionary of the Netherlands; it cost 2648 livres. The jewel still survives in its leather box, but most of the diamonds have been extracted and sold. It makes a sad comparison with the miniature in Bologna; the design of both is very similar, but the miniature in The Hague lacks the outer foliate garland.

Jean I Petitot (1607-91), Boîte à portrait of Louis XIV, c.1680-1690, & reverse; 7.2 cm x 4.6 cm., Musée du Louvre. © RMN-Grand Palais

Finally, the third and probably the most beautiful surviving example was acquired by the Louvre in 2009. We have no evidence of its provenance, and therefore do not know who was presented with this jewel, which survives in its entirety with the enamel still freshly preserved. The portrait was previously in the collection of Yves Saint-Laurent (Pierre Bergé).

We have evidence from various documentary sources of dozens of these boxes, not commissioned solely by the king, but also in the collections of other eminent members of the French court, as recorded in inventories. Henrietta of England, Louis XIV’s sister-in-law,  owned at least five boxes at her death in 1670, of which one – depicting the French king – was adorned with topazes, rubies, emeralds and diamonds. This fashion rapidly diffused beyond the borders of France.

The ‘boîte à portrait’ in Europe:  the English court

From Spain to Siam, every major kingdom and notable visitor received one of these precious gifts. A marriage, a treatise, an embassy, a service: each and every event was occasion for the French king to display his wealth and prestige to his subjects, friends and foes. In return, the recipients had to send back a suitably comparable present, frequently imitating him by ordering similar boîtes à portraits. Several examples are known in museums and collections worldwide.

Diplomatic relations between France and England were strong at this time, Charles II and later James II being welcome at the French court. Both kings and court received many gifts from Louis XIV. Despite the Nine Years’ War, the two nations tried to reassert peace, eventually signing the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697. The Duke of Portland received a ‘boîte à portrait‘ worth 4,0510 livres for his rôle in advancing this treaty, as ambassador to William III of Orange, the new king of Britain.

British school, Portrait of William III of Orange, king of Great Britain, c.1690, gold, enamel, silver & rock crystal, 10.4 x 6.9 x 2.0 cm. overall, reverse and obverse; Collection of H.M. Elizabeth II / Royal Collection Trust

In return, William III is one the first monarchs to commission some of these boxes in the French style. However, the example above demonstrates that William chose not to imitate the style of the French king too faithfully. Here, the portrait miniature appears on the reverse of the piece, which is decorated with enamelled petals bearing foliate and floral motifs in pink and black, whilst the front is covered entirely with diamonds; the king’s monogram is absent.  It is well-known that William III – unlike Louis XIV – had little interest in his official portraits, leaving Godfrey Kneller to paint a likeness which would be copied  over and over again in large canvases, prints, miniatures, and so on. This surviving miniature portrait of the king is the only one to have retained its original case amongst the late 17th century miniatures in the Royal Collections.

Richard Gibson (1615-90), Portrait of Lady Anne Hyde, before 1671, private collection (previously with D.S. Lavender)

Other miniatures of important members of the English court use a similar pattern to this ‘boîte à portrait‘ for their own images, such as this picture of Anne Hyde, first wife of James II before his accession to the throne. The miniature was painted by Richard Gibson, and the setting has been described by Diana Scarisbrick as characteristic of the Restoration period (see bibliography: Scarisbrick 2011). Like the much more elaborate frame on the miniature of William III, it uses enamelled petals, decorated in a foliate design of black and pink, below a small crown.

With the appearance of less fragile techniques of producing miniature paintings, these boîtes à portrait were not the only setting used to display one’s love or fidelity to another. Indeed, the 17th century can be described as a period of experimentation, when miniatures begin to adorn many kinds of jewellery, such as rings and bracelets. Watercolour miniatures were still produced and were protected by the use of materials such as diamonds; Marie de’ Medici was one of the first to commission this type of jewel as early as 1613, and the fashion diffused rapidly throughout the whole of Europe.  The diversity of such objects looked forward to the fashions of the 18th century, when portrait miniatures were used in every type of decorative art, and especially to adorn boxes. Miniature painting became linked more closely with the art of the goldsmith than ever.

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Bibliography

Michèle Bimbenet Privat, Les orfèvres et lorfèvrerie de Paris au XVIIe siècle, tome 2 Les Œuvres, Commission des travaux historiques de la ville de Paris, Paris, Editions des musées de la ville de Paris, 2002, p. 401 – 420

Michèle Bimbenet-Privat, ‘Thomas Lejuge : orfèvre de métier, graveur par nécessité’, L’Estampe au Grand Siècle, 2010

Michèle Bimbenet-Privat et François Farges, La boîte à portrait de Louis XIV, Paris, Louvre éditions et Somogy éditions d’art, collection Solo, 2015

Henri Clouzot, Dictionnaire des miniaturistes sur émail, Paris, A. Morancé, 1924

Joan Evans, A history of jewellery 1100-1870, London, Faber and Faber, 1953

Claude  Nivelon & Lorenzo Pericolo (ed.), ‘Vie de Charles Le Brun et Description détaillée de ses ouvrages’, Hautes Études Médiévales et Modernes, n° 86, École Pratique des Hautes Études, Sciences historiques et philologiques, Paris, Droz, 2004

Diana Scarisbrick, Bijoux à portrait : Camées, médailles et miniatures des Médicis aux Romanov, London, Thames & Hudson, 2011

‘Il gioiello del Re Sole: quando Luigi XIV omaggio il Malvasia’, Genus Bononiae, Musei nella città [online], consulted April 30th

Biography

Céline Cachaud is an independent consultant in art, specializing in 16th and 17th century portrait miniatures in Paris. She graduated from the École du Louvre in 2015 and the École Pratique des Hautes Études in 2017. Her master’s thesis deals with Nicholas Hilliard’s trip to France (1576-1579) and its consequences both for his art, and for the renewal in the production of portrait miniatures in France at the end of the 16th century. She is preparing a PhD thesis project on this particular subject, and on the theory of painting miniatures in Paris and London during the Renaissance. She has published articles in, for example, Connaissance des Arts; she also founded and runs the online resources, Hillyarde & Co, and Un Art Anglais ? for the promotion of the study of British Art in France.

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[1]  André Félibien, Des principes de l’architecture, de la sculpture, de la peinture, et des autres arts qui en dépendent avec un dictionnaire des termes propres à chacun des arts, Paris, Veuve & Jean-Baptiste Coignard, 1697 (third edition), p. 307-312

[2] Claude  Nivelon & Lorenzo Pericolo (eds), ‘Vie de Charles Le Brun et description détaillée de ses ouvrages’, Hautes Études Médiévales et Modernes, n° 86, Paris, Droz, 2004, p. 329-330