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Title Portrait of an Unknown Man
Collection Victoria and Albert Museum
Artist attributed toBelle, Alexis-Simon (French painter, 1674–1734)
Date Earliest about 1707
Date Latest about 1716

This is a fine example of court portrait fashionable during the first half of the seventeenth century. The sitter has not been identified but, to judge from his lavish outfit, he was probably an important figure of the exiled Stuart court in France or of the French court. He wears a rich embroidered silk waistcoat trimmed with gold fringes, which provides a good example of the French fashion during the first quarter of the seventeenth century.

Simon-Alexis Belle was born in Paris, the son of the painter Jean Belle (died 1703). He became an apprentice of the portrait painter François de Troy (1645-1730) and succeeded him as the official painter of the exiled Stuart court in St Germain-en-Laye. He married the miniaturist painter Anne Chéron (1649-before 1718) and also painted numerous portraits of members of the French court. He exhibited at the Salon in 1704 and 1725.

Museum Number P.12-1978
Subject figure; portrait
Measurements 134.5 × 102 cm (estimate)
Material oil on canvas
Acquisition Details Purchased 1978.
Provenance Sotheby's sale, London, 19 July 1978, lot 33, purchased by the museum.
Publications Thornton, P. K, Baroque and Rococo Silks, London, 1965, pl. 496; Camus, F., 'Alexis-Simon Belle portraitiste de cour (1674-1734)' in Bulletin de la Société de l'Histoire de l'Art français (Année 1990), Paris, 1991, p. 33, fig. 18 and cat. 30, p. 60.
Notes This painting was once thought to be a portrait of Matthew Prior, the English poet, diplomat and politician, but comparison with another attested portrait of Prior by Belle in St John's College, Cambridge, excludes this identification. Belle, like most of the portrait painters of his generation such as Nicolas de Largilière (1656-1746) and Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659-1743), was a master in rendering precious textures and materials in his portrait paintings. The garment worn by the sitter in this painting is particularly remarkable from this point of view and is the reason why the painting was acquired by the V&A at the instigation of the Textiles section. It is an accurate representation of the magnificent woven silk waistcoat with gold fringes, made from an identifiable French silk that can be dated 1710-1712 by comparison with designs by James Leman (1688-1745). It would have been very expensive, perhaps equivalent to two years wages for a skilled artisan. Although the sitter cannot be identified, it has been suggested that he may have been a diplomat who attended the negotiations which led to the Treaty of Utrecht at the end of the Wars of the Spanish Succession. Belle was working in Paris at this time, when he also painted the portrait of Matthew Prior now in Cambridge. Similar precious silk dress can be seen in other portraits by Belle including Louis XV and the Infante Marie-Anne-Victoire, Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Versailles (Inv. 9380), executed between 1722 and 1725, and Portrait of Captain Hercules Baker (1689-1744), Christie's London, 26 Nov 2002, lot 11.
Rights Owner © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Author Ana Debenedetti



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