Nicolas de Largillierre, one of Europe's premier painters of portraits, history paintings, and still lifes during the late seventeenth century and the first four decades of the eighteenth, was born in Paris in 1656. He was the son of a hatmaker and merchant who moved with his family to Antwerp in 1659. As a boy of nine, he traveled for the first time to London in the company of an associate of his father. After returning to Antwerp more than a year later, his artistic gifts were recognized and his father apprenticed him to Antoni Goubau (1616-1698), a painter of bambocciate, genre scenes, and landscapes. Something of a prodigy, he was admitted to the painters' Guild of Saint Luke when he was only seventeen. In 1675 he made a second trip to London, where he was employed at Windsor Castle (possibly at the suggestion of Peter Lely [1618-1680]) and worked as a restorer under the direction of Italian painter and decorator Antonio Verrio (c. 1639-1707), who brought him to the attention of King Charles II (r. 1660-1685).
At this time Largillierre painted a number of still life paintings in the manner of such Dutch and Flemish masters as Wilhelm Seghers, Jan Davidz. De Heem (1606-c. 1683), and Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750). Thereafter he practiced this branch of painting with consummate skill, a talent that allowed him to make brilliant use of flowers, fruit, and animals in some of his most ambitious portraits and contemporary history pictures. When repressive anti-Catholic legislation was enacted by the British Parliament in 1678, Largillierre and other of Verrio's assistants may have been exempted from persecution.
In 1679 Largillierre settled in Paris, where he specialized in baroque portraiture in the grand manner of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), and Peter Lely (1618-1680). The Flemish battle painter Adam Frans van der Meulen (1631 or 1632-1690) introduced him to Charles Le Brun (1619-1690) who, as First Painter to King Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715) and director of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, was the predominant figure in France's official art establishment. Upon his acceptance as a candidate for admission to the Académie, he agreed to execute as his diploma picture a large portrait of Le Brun (completed 1686, Paris, Musée du Louvre) seated in his studio surrounded by the accoutrements of his art and an oil study for The Second Conquest of Franche-Comté, one of the large decorations for the ceiling of Galerie des Glaces at Versailles. In 1686, Largillierre made a final, brief trip to England, where he painted portraits of the newly crowned king, James II (r. 1685-1688) (Greenwich, National Maritime Museum) and his consort Mary of Modena (1658-1718). After the Glorious Revolution, James fell from power, fled to France, and took up residence near Paris at the old Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye. For many years thereafter, Largillierre was employed as one of the principal portraitists of the Jacobite court.
Between 1689 and 1722, the artist was commissioned to paint a number of events commemorating civic ceremonies in honor of royalty sponsored by the provosts and aldermen of the city of Paris: Louis XIV visiting the Hôtel de Ville following an illness in 1687, the marriage of the duc de Bourgogne and Princess Maria Adelaide of Savoy in 1697, the accession of the duc d'Anjou to the throne of Spain in 1700, and the arrival in Paris of the Infanta Mariana Victoria of Spain in 1722. He also executed an ex-voto honoring the patron of Paris, Saint Genevieve, interceding to put an end to a famine in 1694 (Paris, Église de Saint-Étienne-du-Mont). These large paintings, all but one of them destroyed, combined portraiture and allegory, and their monumentality elevated them to the status of history paintings.
In 1699, Largillierre married Marguerite Élisabeth Forest, and the couple had three children. That year he exhibited thirteen paintings at the Salon, all but one of them portraits. In 1704 he showed a considerable number of works in the Louvre, including the bold portrait of his father-in-law, the landscape painter Jean Baptiste Forest (c. 1634-1712) (Lille, Musée des Beaux-Arts). He continued to produce moving religious paintings and still lifes (vanitas pictures and decorative overdoors depicting flowers and fruit), but he acquired his enormous reputation primarily as a portraitist. In contrast to his contemporary Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659-1743), however, he was seldom patronized by the court of Versailles, and much of his clientele was made up of government officials, members of the high clergy, municipal leadership, and judiciary, the Parisian and provincial aristocracy, the wealthiest echelons of the middle class, artists, and foreign dignitaries.
In Largillierre's portraiture, subjects are elegantly integrated into indoor or outdoor settings, and the artist often relies on mythological disguises, flurries of drapery, and flamboyant poses to dramatize his characterizations of them. Much of the beauty of his painting resides in a daring exploitation of the resonant colors of his palette, for Largillierre belonged to that group of painters and theorists led by Roger de Piles (1635-1709) who championed the notion that the sensual appeal of color was equal in importance to the more intellectual emphasis on line and design in the creative act of painting. In his celebrated Belle Strasbourgeoise of 1703 (Strasbourg, Musée des Beaux-Arts), the subject of which has never been positively identified, the woman's pearlescent flesh tones and pink lips are set off by the intense blacks of her picturesque beribboned dress and bicorner hat. Largillierre's powerful depictions of René Frémin of c. 1710-1712 (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie) and Crown Prince Friedrich Augustus of Saxony of 1714-1715 (Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria) illustrate in the one case the poise and confidence of a master sculptor at work in his studio and the martial aplomb of a military leader and future head of state.
Late in his career, Largillierre's portraits became more intimate and relaxed. In his half-lengths, he concentrates on the character and psychology of his models, presenting them in static poses before minimal backgrounds that announce the work of his successors Louis Tocqué (1696-1792) and Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704-1788). His informal portrait of the young Voltaire of 1718 (Paris, private collection) and the 1734 likeness of the comte de Richebourg-le-Toureil (Cleveland Museum of Art) exemplify a less ostentatious type of representation. And his double portrait of the silversmith Thomas Germain and his wife (Lisbon, Museu Calouste Gulbenkian), painted in 1736, demonstrates that the eighty-year-old painter had lost none of his technical virtuosity or his mastery of color combinations and compositional difficulties.
Although Largillierre is known to have produced oil sketches of sitters' faces and hands and studies for his contemporary history pictures, he painted his portraits quickly and directly onto canvas with little or no preparation, relying on scumbles and transparent glazes to achieve the rich and sonorous effects he sought. His enormous output--some 1,500 portraits that are currently being catalogued by Dominique Brême--required him to maintain a workshop manned with studio assistants to whom he delegated the painting of costumes and minor accessories. In the course of his long career he amassed a large fortune and lived on a grand scale. The venerable artist, who had trained Jean Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755) and was prescient enough to appreciate the genius of Jean Siméon Chardin (1699-1779), died in 1746 at the age of ninety, having served terms as professor, rector, chancellor, and director of the Académie royale.
Very few museums can claim to possess examples of Nicolas de Largillierre's work of such supreme quality as those of the National Gallery of Art. The three portraits by him in its French rooms chronologically span a good portion of his long career, and each in its own right is a masterpiece. The relatively early Portrait of a Young Man and His Tutor (NGA 1961.9.26) was executed at approximately the time the artist applied for membership in the Académie. What is undoubtedly his finest Self-Portrait (NGA 2006.26.1) dates from his full maturity, when he was at the top of his form. Finally, the wonderfully sensitive depiction of Elizabeth Throckmorton (NGA 1964.20.1) is a work executed when the painter was over seventy years old.
[Joseph Baillio, in French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, Washington, D.C., 2009: 292-293.]