A Portrait of a Gentleman, wearing a black Hat and Costume, with a Glove in his right Hand
Signed and dated on the right below window ledge: Louis Vallée/1651
Oil on canvas, 48¾ x 44 ins. (124 x 112 cm)
With Boussod, Valadin et Cie, Paris
With Eugene Glaenzer & Co., Paris and New York, 1922
Anderson Sale, The American Art Association, New York, 16 February, 1922, lot 79 (Property of Eugene Glaenzer & Co., of Paris and New York in liquidation), where sold for $3,300
Emma Rockefeller McAlpin (1884-1934)
Sale, The American Art Association, New York, 1 November 1935, lot 50 (the Property of the Estate of the late Emma Rockefeller McAlpin)
With Spink & Sons, London, 1959
With Duits Limited, London, 1964
Eustace Gibbs, 3rd Baron Wraxall, KCVO, CMG (1929-2017), Oakley House, Suffolk, until 2019
Les Arts, No. 112, April 1911, pp. 16-17 (reproduced)
Der Cicerone No. 14, 1922, pp. 313-314
Duits Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 4, Summer 1964, p. 14-16, (reproduced p.15)
This handsome portrait is by the enigmatic painter Louis Vallée. Besides a document recording his burial in Amsterdam on 28 May 1653, the only evidence of his existence is a small group of signed and dated paintings spanning the years from 1646 to 1653. The name of his teacher is not recorded, but the style of his few known paintings suggests that Vallée received his artistic training in Amsterdam. His history paintings show the influence of the Amsterdam painter Jacob Backer (1608-1651), whose pupil he could very possibly have been, and there are also stylistic similarities with the work of Abraham van den Tempel (1622/23-1672), another of Backer’s pupils, and that of Jacob van Loo (1614-1670). His portraits reflect the marked influence of the leading Amsterdam portraitist Bartholomeus van der Helst (1613-1670).
The present work portrays a man of about forty years old, posed before an architectural backdrop. The unknown sitter is shown seated, his right gloved hand, holding the other glove, propped jauntily on his hip, and his left arm resting on a carpet-covered table. His slightly parted lips and taut cheek give him a lively and natural appearance. He wears an expensive black doublet and breeches, set off by a simple white collar and voluminous cuffs: a black velvet cloak is draped over one arm. His strong face, framed by shoulder-length brown hair, is crowned by a broad-brimmed, black felt hat. The wall behind is embellished with a neo-classical pilaster and mouldings: a cut-out window on the right affords a vista of a lofty, vaulted portico and a gatehouse beyond. A somewhat unusual backdrop for a portrait, it nevertheless serves a similar purpose to that of the more commonly used column and balustrade, providing a strong framework of vertical and horizontal lines anchoring the figure firmly in space. Although the identity of the sitter is not known, his fashionable attire and supremely self-assured manner bear witness to his affluence and status.
The portrait owes an obvious debt to Bartholomeus van der Helst not only in the elegance of the pose, but also in the clarity of form and in the smooth manner of painting. Here the figure, evenly illuminated by light falling from the left, assumes a monumental character. Vallée has rendered the details of the sumptuous costume superbly, using fluid brushstrokes in the subtlest shades of grey to suggest the sheen on the black fabrics, the little wrinkles and folds in the garments, and the buttons down the front of the doublet. Also beautifully realised are the starched white cuffs, the collar and the tasselled bandstrings. Apart from the warm flesh tones, the only accent of colour in the otherwise restrained palette is to be found in the richly textured Turkey carpet. The treatment of hand, with its long tapering fingers, gives a nod to the fashionable van Dyckian mode, yet the sitter’s strongly individualised features are not in any way idealised. Indeed, it is a very real face, and were it not for the seventeenth-century costume and shoulder-length hair, one could almost imagine meeting the modern counterpart of this wealthy burgher walking down a street in Amsterdam today.
With only a handful of paintings to his name, and those that there are known confined to a period of only about seven years, it is difficult to deduce much about Vallée’s development. However, despite the lack of documentary evidence, it seems more than probable that his artistic origins lie in Amsterdam and in the circle of artists surrounding Jacob Backer. Although the art of portraiture no doubt provided him with a more secure livelihood than history painting, his impressive painting of Silvio with the wounded Dorinda, in the National Gallery in Washington (i), demonstrates that Vallée had not only the ability to work on a large scale, but also the ambition to compete with the leading history painters of the day.
When the present portrait appeared on the market in 1911, it attracted considerable attention in the press. Auguste Marguillier writing in the April edition of Les Arts (ii) waxed lyrical about the quality of the portrait, describing it as “in every way worthy of our richest museums…”, but expressing puzzlement that so little was known about such an obviously accomplished painter. “Who is this new-comer?”, he enquired, “Who is Louis Vallée?” More than a century on, many of these questions remain unanswered, but perhaps most surprising of all is that of his few known paintings all appear to the work of a fully formed painter. That his life was extinguished prematurely seems highly probable, but where he came from and what path he took to becoming a mature artist remain largely shrouded in mystery. Perhaps in the future more of his paintings, which are currently masquerading under the names of other better known painters, will come to light.
Virtually nothing is known about the painter Louis Vallée. The one and only document that refers to him specifically is the register recording his burial in the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam on 28 May 1653. Prior to his death, he had been living in the Warmoesstraat in Amsterdam, but he does not seem to have owned property there. The only other evidence of his existence is a small group of signed and dated paintings spanning the years from 1646 to 1653. Such a brief period of activity has led to speculation that he died prematurely and it is indeed possible that he was carried off by an outbreak of the plague that swept through Amsterdam in 1653.
Vallée’s family name suggests that he was of French origin, but it is not known whether he was related to Simon de la Vallée (c. 1590-1642), a French architect who worked for Prince Frederik Hendrik from 1633 to 1637 at the palace at Honselaarsdijk, near The Hague. Equally nothing is known of the artist’s training, or where he mainly practised his profession, although documents indicate that he worked for clients in Leiden, Haarlem, and Amsterdam (iii). The few known works by the artist, which consist primarily of history paintings and portraits, have stylistic affinities with the works of the Amsterdam portrait and history painter Jacob Backer (1608-1651), whose pupil he may have been, and the Amsterdam portraitist Bartholomeus van der Helst (c. 1613-1670).
i Louis Vallée, Silvio with the wounded Dorinda, indistinctly signed and dated 165(1)?, oil on canvas,
105.1 x 175.2 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, art object 80803.
ii See Literature above.
iii See: Maarten Wurfbain, M. L. Wurfbain Fine Art B.V., IV (Oegstgeest, 1992, 187-187), quoted in Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Louis Vallée/Silvio with the wounded Dorinda/165(1)?”, Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, https://purl.org.nga/collection/artobject/80803 .
(? - Amsterdam 1653)
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