From the Gallery
The Count of Harcourt—Firmness and Finery
For the second article in our series on the treasures of Taylor Hall, I've chosen Antoine Masson's portrait of Henri de Lorraine, comte d'Harcourt (1667), one of a number of engravings he made based on the oil paintings of the French portrait painter, Nicholas Mignard (1606-1668).
This engraving is worthy of our attention because Masson is one of the most important French engravers of the 17th century. His work in this engraving is particularly accomplished; his subject an important courtier and warrior; and his treatment of Harcourt's character invites interesting speculation.
Masson (1636-1700) began his career as an armourer, where he no doubt observed and then worked on the sometimes very intricate decorative designs on the armor. So, it was a natural transition for him to begin employing his burin (a tool for gouging) on a flat metal plate. He engraved seven religious scenes after paintings by Titian, Rubens, and others but is best remembered for his 63 portrait engravings. In 1679, he was received as a member by the Academe Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in Paris.
The Harcourt engraving is a striking portrait, not simply because of the central figure, but also because of the number of things going on in it: the fineness of detail in the clothing, the ornamental sword, the treaty symbolized by the scroll, the burning castle, the dark tents of the soldiers in the field, and the pearl earring.
In the central figure, we see firmness and finery. We see the man of action, the warrior, the hardships in the field, the success of the battle and the signed treaty. The entire figure of Harcourt is one of firmness, of body and purpose. Harcourt is as solid as the stone masonry next to him. He represents the man of peace, brave enough to risk life and limb to bring it about. At the same time, we see the profusion of plumage on the helmet, that strong wrist emerging from the delicate puff of lower sleeve, that strong face above the fine lace of a delicate collar. Like the Renaissance man, he is a man of thought, a man of action, a man of taste, the strong but feeling man, hardness rendered sensitive. All these tentative balancings are ones we associate with the Renaissance man.
Harcourt himself, Henri de Lorraine, the Count of Harcourt (1601-1666), was also known as Cadet La Perle, because he was the youngest of his family and because he always wore a pearl earring (a signature detail in other portraits of him). A French general and a distinguished veteran of many foreign wars, he fought in numerous campaigns. His most famous accomplishment was the taking of Turin after a three-month siege. When the civil wars of the Fronde broke out, he sided with the king. He even conducted the young Louis XIV to Normandy and succeeded in making the youthful king's authority recognized.
The scroll beneath the painting reads, in my very loose translation, as follows:
The honor that he acquired is so great and so just, and posterity will have for him so much esteem and love that, as the great kings take the name Augustus, the most famous heroes will take that of Harcourt.
"Finding that he was poorly rewarded for his services, Harcourt seized several towns in Alsace. Obliged to withdraw by Henri Duke de La Ferte-Senneterre, he made peace with the French court and settled down as governor of Anjou," so says the Encyclopedia Britannica.
He died in 1666, the year before Masson's engraving appeared, so he did not live to see this powerful representation of him that the brilliance of Masson brought into being.
As it turns out, our engraving has some literary associations as well. Harcourt may have been the model for the character Harcourt in William Wycherley's The Country Wife (1675), one of those bawdy Restoration comedies that attended the resumption of the monarchy with Charles II coming to the throne after the defeat of the theater- and pleasure-hating Puritans.
In the play, Harcourt is the best friend of the main character, Horner, a typical Restoration rake whose sole occupation is to put "horns" on husbands, i.e., make cuckolds of them. While Harcourt is not depicted as the most lascivious of the witty rakes in the play, he is certainly on the playing field, as it were.
Our portrait shows a still vital, strong-looking man, but on his face he wears the sadness or weariness of the veteran warrior who carries within him what he has seen. There is no exulting in victory here. He knows the costs of war. Or, instead, is his look the world-weariness of the Restoration rake whose pleasures in dissipation have begun to take their toll? Maybe it's a tinge of both. One does suspect his "audaces" were not limited to the field of battle.
It is clear that Masson was able to bring not only exquisite ornamental detail to light in his work but depth of character as well. This is amazing when you think of those rough materials out of which it was wrought, the gouging burin and the hard metal plate!
Great art keeps us intrigued. No one has quite figured out Venus de Milo's smile. Even if we cannot say with confidence the exact meaning of the depth showing in Harcourt's face, part of the joy of art is in the speculation and the ensuing discussions. Let me know what you think about that look on the Count of Harcourt's face!