Joseph Ducreux: Biography Of The “painter Of Grimaces”


In a painting dated 1790 we see Joseph Ducreux who looks at us with surprise, as if we had scared him. The canvas is called Surprise and Terror; Painted on a neutral background and the painter dressed in very neutral tones, it inevitably reminds us of Caravaggio’s Medusa.

But this is not the only painting by Ducreux that can surprise us. In fact, This French artist, contemporary of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, has countless works in which he portrays himself with an exaggerated gesture on his face, which we could perfectly call a “grimace.”. Whether because of their expression of terror, surprise or mockery, these self-portraits leave no one indifferent. Today we investigate the life and work of the “painter of grimaces”, Joseph Ducreux.

Brief biography of Joseph Ducreux, the artist who self-portraited his own grimaces

In reality, and although it may seem somewhat curious, Joseph Ducreux did nothing that had not been done before. Specifically, in Holland, where, since the 16th century, the famous tronies existed, close-up portraits of a person’s face (in fact, the word derives from a word that was used in Old Dutch to refer to a person’s face. ). Most of these tronies specifically showed people deforming their faces into funny grimaces.

We could trace the origins of this tradition in the fascination that deformations and the “dark” reflection of things have always exerted on human beings.. Take for example the singerie, where the protagonists were monkeys who interpreted the lowest instincts and vices of human beings and who, in this way, served as a moralizing vehicle. But let’s look more closely at when Ducreux began to paint his extravagant gestures.

From refined gentleman to burlesque jester

Although Joseph Ducreux’s family did not belong to the high elites, it cannot be said that they were not more or less well-off people. In fact, In one of the first self-portraits he made, we can see a young Joseph very upright, well dressed, elegant and with a serious but pleasant face..

You may be interested:  William Petty: Biography of This Philosopher and Economist

Very different would be the self-portraits that he would execute in the final decades of the 18th century, where we see a prematurely aged Ducreux who gives us each more comical and burlesque attitudes. In fact, sometimes, it seems to us that what the painter is actually trying to do is make fun of us…

It seems that the first steps in the art of painting were learned by young Joseph from his father Charles, who was also a painter.. Later, however, and once the family settled in Paris, the teenager began to take lessons from Maurice Quentin de la Tour (1704-1788), a very famous pastel painter who was also an excellent portrait painter.


The forging of a great portraitist

Take, for example, one of the self-portraits that De la Tour made, the so-called Self-Portrait with a Lace Jacket (1751) and preserved in the Museum of Picardy. We see the painter elegantly dressed in a blue frock coat that harmonizes perfectly with the soft colors of the background, which range from light blue to the darkest blue. Only the face stands out on the canvas, which moves away from the cold palette to enter the warm ocher and pink tones..

But let’s go to what matters most to us: the face of Quentin de la Tour. The master has been portrayed with a relaxed expression, with a slight smile (which we can see in the corner of his lips rising) and with an intense shine in his eyes. That is to say, although his gesture is not at all theatrical, we already see that De la Tour is, in addition to being a wonderful draftsman, an excellent capturer of emotions, something fundamental in a portrait painter.

Joseph Ducreux will follow in his footsteps and imbibe this taste for facial expression, which he will take to the extreme.. But, for now, the young student makes “formal” portraits, executed with brilliance, of course, for various personalities in Paris at the time. Portraits such as that of Madame Clotilde of Sardinia, executed in 1768, or, more especially, the extraordinary pastel portrait of the French writer Pierre Choderlos De Laclos, offer us an idea of ​​Ducreux’s high abilities as a portraitist.

You may be interested:  Johann Gottlieb Fichte: Biography of This German Philosopher

A non-academic painter at court? What a scandal…!

But Ducreux’s big commission would come in 1769, when, after rejecting other renowned artists (probably because they were too expensive), the crown placed in the hands of the young painter the responsibility of capturing the face of the future Dauphine of France, Antonia , the teenage daughter of Empress Maria Theresa of Habsburg. In this way, our character leaves for Vienna and manages to capture the angelic beauty of the girl (although, with much more adult features than those she possessed, surely to please the king of France). This girl, captured on the canvas in the pompous costume of official portraits, is none other than the future Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI..

The portrait of his fiancée greatly pleases the Dauphin, and also the king, Louis XV. From then on, Ducreux’s fame grew unstoppable; much more so, after Marie Antoinette, upon her arrival in France, named him her personal painter and offered him the title of baron. The young girl also loved the portrait and, to the general scandal (only painters linked to the Academy could aspire to such a position) she commissioned Ducreux to create official portraits of her.

While ascending the steps of fame, Ducreux marries and has several children; among them, Rose-Adelaïde, who will follow in her father’s footsteps and become an extraordinary portrait painter. Sadly, she died of yellow fever in 1802, at only forty years old.


Faced with the Revolution… grimaces

In parallel with the official portraits (not only of the Dauphine and future queen, but also of key figures in French society at the time), Ducreux made what, without a doubt, would be his best-known works: his famous self-portraits depicting very expressive faces and gestures.. One of the most famous is his Portrait de l’artiste sous les traits d’un moqueur (Portrait of the artist with the features of a mocker), where we see the painter, dressed in revolutionary fashion, pointing at us shamelessly, looking at us in the eyes and laughs openly… with us or at us, it depends on how you look at it.

You may be interested:  Gordon Allport: Biography of This Personality Psychologist

Ducreux had previously executed some works that reflected the same theme. But we not only find him playing the role of a mocker, but also that of a surprised man (in the aforementioned Surprise and Terror), that of a man stretching (Self-Portrait Yawning, 1783) and also that of a cautious man, in the well-known self-portrait called The discreet (c. 1790), where Ducreux asks us for silence from the canvas, putting a finger to his lips.

While the artist was creating these comic works, France was plunged into the Revolution and, later, into the Terror led by Robespierre. It seems that this maelstrom did not affect Ducreux who, after a brief stay in London (1791-1792) returned to Paris and, together with the famous Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), once again touched the sky of artistic glory with the hands. How was he able to escape the guillotine, having been the official portraitist of the executed queen herself? Who knows. Surely, David’s connections with Marat and company acted as safe conduct.

Joseph Ducreux died in 1802 in Paris, in the midst of the Napoleonic era. Not long ago one of his drawings, made in the 1790s, was identified, showing the tired and sad face of a prematurely aged Louis XVI. Ducreux had the prudence to make the portrait of him during his exile in England. This is the last known drawing of the monarch; On January 21, 1793, his head rolled and France became a Republic.