(1746 Pont-à-Marc – Paris 1816)
Portrait of Etienne-Charles Loménie de Brienne
(1727 – 1794)
Total height : 62 cm, Width: 45,7 cm
Pedestal in wood painted to imitate marble
Height of pedestal : 12,5 cm
Provenance : Paris, private collection
Displaying “ecclesiastical egotism at its liveliest and the obduracy of avarice at its highest degree, joined with that of ambition… (…) “He was a philosopher, then architect…and while always a schemer, was not a bishop,” wrote Abbot Caire on the subject of the famous Loménie de Brienne, Archbishop of Toulouse, and high-flying member of Court and intimate of Queen Marie-Antoinette. Done at a pivotal moment in the history of a France in the middle of Revolution, this portrait of Brienne is all the more striking in that it has never before been published—history having recorded him only in a poor depiction painted after Jean-Baptiste Despax (Versailles, Musée National du Château, inv.: MV3001) (Fig.1) and a few engravings. To these we can now add a bust in the corpus of works by the sculptor Roland, done when the artist was at the height of his talent and executing his most brilliant work. Before entering more deeply into a description of this eminently political portrait, a few details about the life of this top-ranking civil servant will allow us to measure his importance: between the intrigues of the Court and those of the Church, his relations with philosophers, his role as Contrôleur Général des Finances following Calonne; and finally, his last, tragic years, the period when Roland executed this bust.
With no fortune but from a very old aristocratic family, Etienne-Charles Loménie de Brienne was born in Paris in 1727. As the youngest son, he was destined for the Church. After going to Harcourt School, Brienne was admitted in 1748 to the Sorbonne in the Faculty of Theology, at the same time as Turgot; there he pursued his studies with enthusiasm, contemplating the future with perfect confidence and unbridled ambition, making friends with people who could help him distinguish himself, in his call to fortune and the episcopate. Leaving the Sorbonne after defending his doctoral thesis in 1752, Brienne became Vicar General to the Archbishop of Rouen. First named Bishop of Condom in 1760, his hopes were crowned with success when three years later he acceded to the Bishopric of Toulouse, ready to be brilliant in both Church and State, and to make his voice heard. Even before this nomination, Brienne had very quickly asserted his personality, in particular at the Assemblée Générale du Clergé where he made his first appearances in 1762. In his sermon for the Holy Spirit Mass, Brienne proclaimed forcibly and majestically that the love of country is never stronger than when it is reinforced by religion. It was he who was put in charge of bringing the conclusions of the Assembly to the king at a moment when opposition between the Clergy and the parliaments was particularly problematic.
At the same time as the high-level proceedings of the Church, Brienne was sparkling on another scene, that of Parisian salons, like that of Mademoiselle de Lespinasse and even more, that of Madame du Deffand. Nephew of the latter, Brienne became a regular at her enlightened salon where high society and the sometimes bold curiosity of philosophy met. The mere presence of the bishop in this prestigious salon—where d’Alembert kept open house—is evidence of his good relations with philosophers. According to Abbot Morellet, Brienne had already met Diderot and d’Alembert in the last year of his undergraduate studies. His sympathies for the philosophical party, whose coryphaeus he knew intimately, were obvious, and d’Alembert was always anxious to please him. His reputation was not affected. On the contrary, being an aristocrat and a bishop sufficed, and armed with his connections, Brienne acceded to the Académie Française on 25 June 1770. On this occasion, Voltaire wrote to d’Alembert: “It’s said that you are giving me M. the Archbishop of Toulouse as a fellow member, who passes for a beast of your kind, very well-disciplined by you.”( Voltaire, letter du 11 June 1770)
A man of the Court, Brienne was seen at Madame de Montesson’s theater, “forgetting his synodal faces while watching Thalia and Terpsichore play… amid luxurious delicacies; surrounded by frivolous and brilliant court, occupied with parties; preparing a day hunting, a comedy, the consecration of a bishop fit for ladies.” Thanks to the support of Choiseul, our prelate succeeded in placing the Abbot of Vermont as a reader to Queen Marie-Antoinette. The latter heaped so much praise on the bishop for everything when in the company of the sovereign that she obtained the blue ribbon of the Ordre du Saint-Esprit, which he received on 2 February 1782—the very one he is wearing in Roland’s portrait. At his request, Brienne, went from being Bishop of Toulouse to that of Sens in 1783: this was much more lucrative, with profitable revenues of 678,000 livres in income, making him the most opulent prelate of the time, after the Cardinal de Rohan. (By comparison, his parents had only 15,000 livres).
Although urged by the queen to name him to the episcopal seat of Paris, the king—mistrustful and aware of Brienne’s questionable piety—followed the opinion that his father, the Dauphin, had had of the man during his lifetime, and ruled out the idea unreservedly: “The Archbishop of Paris must still believe in God,” he is said to have answered in no uncertain terms.
No matter! Given the impossibility of resolving the chronic deficit of the finances of the State, and in the face of the intransigence of the members of parliament opposed to the smallest reform, Louis XVI found himself forced by the weight of the financial panic to fire Calonne and send Brienne to Versailles on 30 April 1787. Named Surintendant des Finances then Principal Ministre in 1787, and seeming to unite in himself alone all the powers of the country—clergy, aristocracy, magistracy, academia—Brienne believed he was equal to the task of reconciling everyone.
While he managed to obtain the right to common and civil law for Protestants thanks to a tolerance edict, the archbishop failed at the mission of reforming the kingdom. Irritated by the desperate opposition of the privileged classes, he did not manage to inflame the liberal aspirations of the Third Estate until he was able to rally support by calling for the assembly of the States General—of which he was a prime instigator—for 1792. He finally resigned on 25 August 1788.
There followed for our man a trip to Rome where, thanks to a royal recommendation and despite certain personal reservations, Pius VI obtained for him the precious biretta of a Cardinal. Brienne left Italy at the end of 1789 at the very moment that insurrection was rumbling, the Bastille had fallen, and that the fatal blow to the aristocracy had been dealt in the night of 4 August. The schism of the Civil Constitution was decreed on 12 July 1790. Brienne then attempted to disappear in Sens, abandoning the purple glory of the ecclesiastic, and accepting, in view of the circumstances of the moment, to be no more than a bishop elected by civil institutions. The thunderbolt of the Holy See was not long in striking: Pius VI pointed to all the harm caused by the example set by the cardinal—impossible to serve two masters at the same time!—and excommunicated him. On this occasion, Beaumarchais addressed the ex-cardinal in a letter dated 1 April 1791, airily observing that one must “prefer a good head with no hat to a hatless head.”
Soberly dressed in a redingote open over a knotted stock—only the blue ribbon of the Saint Esprit displayed on his breast underlines his high rank in the aristocracy—nothing at first sight here hints that this is the portrait of a bishop aside from his wig, of a style reserved for ecclesiastics. Moreover, this type of presentation—quite different from that of all the others executed in the second half of the 18th century—is probably seen here for the first time. It constitutes a perfect illustration of the exigencies that the Civil Constitution for the Clergy, voted on 12 July 1790, imposed on the Church of France, reorganizing it into a national church with a secular clergy, with bishops and priests alike named by the secular electoral assemblies in the départements. On the 27th of November of the same year, the Constituent Assembly obliged all priests to swear their loyalty to the Constitution of the Kingdom, as well as to the Civil Constitution that had been incorporated into it (the decree signed by the king in January 1791). Some resistance in the church was tolerated until May 1791, but when it became a center of counter-revolutionary opposition, the Constituent Assembly began to apply the decree concerning the internment and deportation of resistant priests.
By submitting to such demands—not even wearing a skullcap as custom might have allowed—Brienne demonstrated his desire to reconcile with the revolutionary powers, through a gesture that was visible to all. But on a devastating order from the Convention on 2 August 1793, Brienne was arrested at his home and kept in custody under the authority of the police and the criminal investigations department. Freed on the 15th of August thanks to an ecclesiastic petition addressed to Danton himself—with Madame de Canissy, (Brienne’s niece) acting as an intermediary—then re-arrested precipitously after a brisk turn-around by the committee, he was only definitively freed on the 30th of August, after brilliantly defending himself to the Comité des Finances. In this atmosphere of exacerbated passions where henceforth vengeance and envy were given free reign, Loménie moved from the rank of leading citizen of the town of Sens to that of prime suspect. On 9 November 1793, he was again seized and thrown into detention in Sens. The unhappy fellow only was allowed to return to his home on 6 Nivôse Year II (26 December 1793), where he was surveyed by guards who were in charge of preventing all private communication, but escaped the physical suffering of detention and more importantly, the heavy burden of the scorn of other prisoners. While the year 1793 ended sadly, the following year saw his long and brilliant career and the grandeur of his family collapse, and his relatives pursued in justice. Of a fragile constitution, and finding refuge only in solitude and his precious books, Loménie de Brienne breathed his last on the 16th of February after a stroke, escaping the justice of man to be subject only to that of God.
What do we know about the activities of the sculptor during the period that interests us? Very little, in fact. The artist continued his activity as a portraitist, the genre in which he excelled. At the Salon of 1789, he exhibited the Portrait of Joseph-Benoît Suvée (terracotta, height: 64 cm., signed and dated: Roland .F. 1788, Paris, Musée du Louvre, inv.: N 15534), that of his future wife, Mademoiselle Thérèse Françoise Potain (terracotta, height: 78.5 cm, Washington, The National Gallery of Art, inv.: 2003.43.1; another version in plaster, Paris, Musée du Louvre, inv.: R.F.. 4284) (Fig.3), the Portraits of Rosemarie Charlotte and of Pierre Camille Rousseau (terracotta, height: 57.1 cm and 61.5 cm, signed and dated for the one Roland 1788: Christie’s sale, London, 11 Dec. 2003, no. 108, repr. Very similar in manner to the bust of Brienne, the following year Roland executed the portrait of a person presumed to be Queen Marie-Antoinette’s doctor (terracotta, height: 63 cm., Signed and dated: Roland F, Avril 1790., Sale, Paris, Palais Galliéra, 8 December 1964, no. 108, repr. , New York, private collection). At the Salon of 1791, he once again exhibited a portrait of the king (not located, and more likely, destroyed). Having largely benefited from the privilege of working for the Crown, Roland very rapidly joined the revolution underway, embracing its ideas easily since at the same time, in 1791, the sculptor made a colossal group representing The People Striking Down Federalism. In 1792, on a decision voted by the Convention, Roland was put in charge of the Monument of Simonneau, Mayor of Etampes, Fallen Victim to his Devotion to Laws, and from 1792 to 1793, of a colossal statue representing Law, placed under the peristyle of the Pantheon. Things had turned around, and without going further into his career, let us return to the bust of Brienne.
Neither signed nor dated, it is probable that the artist made this sometime in the year 1791, after the archbishop had signed the Civil Convention of the Clergy. The absence of a signature—rather common among the portraits done by the artist—is largely compensated for by the full, supple manner, in the tradition of Pajou, and very characteristic of Roland’s style, nicely summarized by Quatremère de Quincy: “Some moderate invention, joined to sound execution; a balance in the spirit of the work, always finding what should be said, and the correct way to say it; science without ostentation; a facility that is appropriate, indicating his sense of the straightforward, of always taking the shortest way: here is what nature, perfected by study, was pleased to unite in him.” “In all of his busts,” wrote David d’Angers, who studied with Roland, “stamped with singular authenticity, one remarks the expression, powerful but always contained in the solemn limits of statuary, where feelings must be indicated but without rendering them in their ultimate extension. It would be impossible to push any further the rigidity of feature, the elegant purity of contour, the sharpness and the grace: it is always, if I may so express myself, stereotypical of nature to a high degree.” Manipulating the chisel with perfectly mastered ease and suppleness, Roland’s inspiration came largely from his master, Augustin Pajou, in the way his models were presented: always in the 18th century tradition, not only by the position of the slightly turned head on the bust and the asymmetrical arrangement of the folds of clothing, but also by the non-idealized description of the features of the face with the “moderate realism” so habitual to the French portrait.