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The arrival of a royal baby was the subject of a massive painting exhibited in Paris in 1827 by a young and then little-known painter, Eugène Devéria (1805-1865). The subject was the birth of the future king Henri IV of Navarre and France (1553-1610), an event which occurred in the castle of Pau in the French Pyrenees. Henri’s mother was Jeanne d’Albret, Queen of Navarre, and his father Antoine de Bourbon, King of Navarre.
The 1827 painting by Devéria, which measures 4.84 x 3.92 metres, was presented by the artist to the Musée du Louvre in that year or in 1828. A related version, fortunately not so large (approx. 73 x 59 cm.) is in the Wellcome Library (above), and other versions are in the Angers Museum and elsewhere. The painting, its setting, its history, and its role in Devéria’s life touch on many themes which cannot be dealt with here but which were explored at Pau in an exhibition on the 200th anniversary of the artist’s birth in 2005 (for which there is a website).
Devéria’s choice of subject is said to have been suggested to him by a short story describing the event, written in 1820 by Abel Hugo (1798–1855, the brother of Victor Hugo). Hugo’s account had in turn been suggested by the birth of a French royal baby (named Henri) in 1820.
However, in addition to that literary source there was also a notable iconographic precedent for Devéria’s portrayal: Peter Paul Rubens had included the birth of Louis XIII (the son of Henri IV and of Marie de Medicis) in his cycle of paintings (1621-1625) of episodes in the life of Marie de Medicis. The painting was in the French royal collection, and those who had no access to it there might glimpse engravings of it, such as this one (above) by Benoit Audran (1698-1772). Rubens’s painting measures 3.94 by 2.95 metres and was far too big for Audran to engrave on a relatively small copper sheet (50.3 x 34.9 cm.). Audran therefore worked from a reduced drawing of the painting by Jean-Marc Nattier (1685-1766). The Wellcome Library painting may have had the same relation to Devéria’s painting as Nattier’s drawing had for Rubens’s: serving as a halfway house between the enormous original and copies suitable for a domestic interior.
Other artists had also painted the birth of Henri IV. An artist called Michel Honoré Bounieu had published a mezzotint of it in 1779, and a very different depiction is credited to Louis Lafitte (1770-1828). Lafitte’s work is known through an engraving by Jean-Baptiste Pfitzer (below).
According to some sources, Devéria’s brother Achille, who also became a well-known artist, was a pupil of Louis Lafitte. Was it a coincidence that Lafitte also painted a picture of the birth of Henri IV? Comparing Lafitte’s sedate depiction of the dignified scene with the agitated and colourful crowds of Devéria’s painting enables us to see why Devéria’s work caused such a sensation. There is an impression of Pfitzer’s print in the Musée national du château de Pau, where the subject is identified as the birth of Henri IV and the work is dated 1829. So was the painting which it publishes painted before Eugène Devéria’s masterpiece of 1827 or after?
Devéria’s painting became so well-known in France that it could be used to represent the birth or origin of anything whatever. Here are two examples.
In 1831, when the memory of the 1827 salon was still fresh, J.J. Grandville published in La caricature an elaborate parody of the painting (above) to represent the introduction of the idea of the Juste Milieu, a kind of “Third Way” designed to fudge the distinction between democracy and monarchy. Everything in the print is deliberately the wrong way round. The figures are all identified as well-known politicians of the day: in the foreground, the small man next to the cockerel, who stands in for the court dwarf in Devéria’s picture, is the young Adolphe Thiers (1797–1877).
Much later, in 1872, André Gill published in L’Eclipse a version in which the baby is swaddled in papers inscribed “41 milliards”, the sum to be restituted by France to Germany after the Franco-Prussian war. Here the elderly man with spectacles is the same Adolphe Thiers, by now a veteran politician and head of the government after the chaos of the war and the Commune. No doubt there are other parodies of the painting, in addition to these two from each end of Thiers’ career.
Gill’s parody of Deveria appeared on the front cover of L’Eclipse on 4 August 1872. The previous week (28 July 1872) he had published an earlier episode in the same narrative, in which a physician holding a pulse-watch takes the pulse of a young woman (La France) who is in an “interesting situation”.
Is this also a parody of a pre-existing painting, or did Gill compose it himself?
There were no banks of photographers outside the Château de Pau in 1553, but there was still a demand for a visual record of a royal birth, which lasted for centuries – on both sides of the Channel and elsewhere. Today we have received a bookseller’s list from Paris (Librairie Les Amazones) offering 21 antiquarian books on the themes of childbirth and maternity, entitled “Un peu de lecture en attendant le “Royal Baby” (“Pour vous aider à supporter l’insoutenable suspense”) — long after the annulment of the French crown. And next week’s issue of the popular French weekly Point de Vue will no doubt regale its 900,000 readers with every available detail of the current British royal accouchement.
Author: William Schupbach