The artist's family name is unknown. During his lifetime he was often called Corneille de La Haye, which combines his first name with that of The Hague, the city of his birth. The name Corneille de Lyon refers to the city where he spent most of his life. His birth date is unknown, although a date of c. 1500/1510 is usually put forward. Similarly, nothing is known about his early training, which probably took place in the Netherlands.
Corneille is first mentioned in 1533 when he was visited in Lyon by the Netherlandish poet Jean Second (1511-1536). By 1534, according to the inscription on the reverse of the portrait of Pierre Aymeric (Paris, Musée du Louvre), the artist was painter to Eleonore of Austria (1498-1558), wife of François I (r. 1515-1547). In 1541 he was painter to the dauphin, the future Henri II (r. 1547-1559). When Henri ascended the throne Corneille was made peintre et premier valet de chambre, and in the same year he became a naturalized French citizen. Some time before, perhaps around 1540, Corneille had married Marguerite Fradin, daughter of a master printer in Lyon, and the couple had two sons, Christophe and Jacques, and a daughter, Clémence. By 1551 Corneille owned three houses on the rue du Temple, an area populated by printers and artists, and by 1560 owned property in the nearby countryside of Vénisseux.
It seems virtually certain that Corneille de Lyon was exclusively a portraitist, as can be ascertained from contemporary accounts. In 1531, Giovanni Capello, the Venetian ambassador, described what is believed to be Corneille's studio in Lyon as containing many small pictures depicting with great naturalism all the members of the French court. In a similar manner, Pierre de Bourdeille Brantôme (1540-1614) recounts the visit of Catherine de' Medici (1519-1589) and Charles IX (r. 1560-1574) to Corneille in 1564, when they were shown a large room containing portraits of all the grand lords and ladies, princes and princesses, and other members of the court. A portrait of Catherine is described and praised. In what might be a related event, Corneille received a present of money from Charles IX on December 25, 1564.
The Protestant Reformation had a strong effect in Lyon. Many inhabitants espoused the new religion, and in 1562/1563 several churches suffered attacks of iconoclasm. In 1569 the artist, along with his family and assistants, disavowed Protestantism and were permitted to take Mass. Both Corneille de Lyon and his wife died in 1575; Marguerite was buried on August 28 and Corneille on November 8.
About two hundred small bust-length portraits set against green or sometimes blue backgrounds have been associated with Corneille de Lyon, but until recently there was no extant documented work by this artist. In 1976, however, the Musée du Louvre acquired a portrait of Pierre Aymeric. The inscription on the reverse, written by Aymeric himself, identifies the sitter as about twenty-six years old and a native of St. Flour living in Lyon; the artist is "Corneille de La Haye," painter to Eleonore, queen of France, and the picture was completed on April 11, 1534. From this starting point, Anne Dubois de Groër has undertaken the monumental task of preparing a catalogue raisonné of Corneille's works and considers at least 158 paintings to be autograph. Corneille had an active workshop that, given Lyon's location as a mercantile crossroads, could well have contained artists of different nationalities. We know, for example, that Jan van der Straet (Stradanus) (1523-1605) of Bruges spent six months in Corneille's studio while on his way to Italy. Corneille's two sons, his daughter, and his son-in-law Jean Maignan were painters and presumably assisted him. His daughter was described in Antoine Verdier's Divers leçons (1577) as painting "divinement bien."
Dubois de Groër believes that a drawing (Vienna, Albertina), identified as Corneille by a later inscription, is probably a self-portrait. Apart from this example there are no drawings that can be given to Corneille de Lyon, suggesting a working method different from that of other portraitists, such as Jean and François Clouet. The small size of Corneille's paintings could allow them to have been done from life. Capello and Brantôme seem to indicate that Corneille maintained a stock of painted portraits that could be replicated on demand. There is no way of knowing whether the artist kept the original and presented the client with the first, possibly autograph, replica or vice versa.
Based on style, biography, and costume, Corneille de Lyon's portraits can be dated from c. 1534 to the mid-1560s, with a few works, such as the portrait of François Guerrier, Sieur de Combelande (Paris, Musée du Louvre), possibly done c. 1570. The format remains constant, but his later works are marked by a greater suppleness of brushwork and lighter shadows. The portraits of Corneille de Lyon are at once an important record of the nobility and bourgeoisie of sixteenth-century France and also paintings of great technical assurance and vivid characterization.
[John Oliver Hand, in French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue, Washington, D.C., 2009: 123.]
Conisbee, Philip, et al. French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2009: 123.