Born in 1700 into a prominent family of magistrates and lawyers in Aix-en-Provence, Michel François Dandré-Bardon passed his adolescence anticipating a legal career. At the age of twenty, he departed his native town for the capital intending to study law, but he entered the studio of another native Aixois, Jean Baptiste Van Loo (1684-1745), under whom he received his first training alongside Carle Van Loo (1705-1765). In his study of ancient art and anatomy, as in copying the academies of his master, Dandré-Bardon demonstrated rapid progress. Jean Baptiste's financial hardship may have constrained him to undertake the restoration of the frescoes in Fontainebleau and his pupil Dandré-Bardon to transfer to the studio of Jean François de Troy (1679-1752) in 1723. Anticipating the artistic interests of his mature career, the young painter immediately set to copying works by great Venetian masters, producing paintings of a soft and sensuous style. He soon entered the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. In the competition for the Rome Prize in 1725, he took only second place with his While Playing, the Infant Moses Makes the Crown Fall from the Head of Pharaoh (location unknown). Nevertheless, the Académie de France in Rome agreed to accept him on condition that his parents pay his expenses, and he left for the southern city, where he would stay for the next five years. A central component of his Roman years was the study of the art of antiquity as well as of Raphael (1483-1520) and the masters of the Bolognese school-Annibale Carracci (bapt. 1560-1609), Domenichino (1581-1641), and Guido Reni (1575-1642). With a marked talent for facility and gracefulness, Dandré-Bardon showed an affinity with Pietro da Cortona (1596?-1669). In 1730, he visited Venice for six months, observing the work of Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) and almost certainly meeting Sebastiano Ricci (bapt. 1659-1734), whose art inspired him throughout his career.
The young painter returned to France via Aix-en-Provence, where a second version of his Augustus Punishing the Extortioners--he had judged his first version less than successful--was in place in the Audience Room of the Chambre des Comptes, having been sent from Italy. In 1731 the artist completed five more commissions in Aix. The only one that survives is Christ on the Cross (Aix-en-Provence, Saint-Esprit). A major decorative cycle--nine compositions, all destroyed during the French Revolution--was carried out for the Hôtel de Ville in Aix. Sketches survive for two of the compositions--The Union of the Procuration of Provence at the Council of Aix and The Inhabitants of Aix Giving Aid to Marseilles Against the Aragonais (both Aix-en-Provence, Musée Granet)--in which the force of swirling masses is matched by vibrant color. The painter is also known to have produced a few portraits.
Dandré-Bardon attempted to solidify his position in the Paris art world following his return to the capital in 1734. In that year, the Archbishop Charles Vintimille (1655-1746) commissioned him to paint the pendants Death of the Virgin and The Visit to Saint Elizabeth (both, location unknown) for the Capuchin Church in the Marais. Before installation, these paintings were exhibited in the Salon of 1734. Upon the submission in 1735 of Tullia Running Her Chariot over the Body of Her Father (Montpellier, Musée Fabre), he was received into the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. Only a year later, he was made professor.
During a period when there was little demand for history painting from royal or private sources, Dandré-Bardon found patronage in the church. Through his association with the archbishop of Paris, he completed a major commission for the order of the Daughters of Saint Thomas de Villeneuve, in which he represented the founder of the order performing good works (Neuilly-sur-Seine, Daughters of Saint Thomas de Villeneuve). The paucity of commissions for historical scenes, however, led the artist to return to Aix, where he remained for the following decade, the most active of his career. Several of the large decorative schemes that he painted soon after he arrived in his birthplace--for the Société des Concerts and for the university--have been almost entirely lost. Dandré-Bardon devoted the five years between 1744 to 1749 to the decoration of the Salle des Actes at the university with four historical and two allegorical works, including another version of Christ on the Cross (lost) as well as the allegorical figure of Theology (Aix-en-Provence, Saint-Jean de Malte). During the same period, the artist completed a variety of religious commissions for the parish churches around Aix, including The Miracle of Saint Heldrad and the altarpiece Saint Crépin and Saint Crépinen (both Lambesc, Notre-Dame-du-Rosaire). Saint Jacques Interceding with the Virgin on Behalf of the Souls in Purgatory, in the same church, is one of his most lyrically beautiful works, employing a strikingly Venetian palette of pinks, yellows, and blues and demonstrates the painter's mastery in rendering different effects of light.
Over the last years of his life, Dandré-Bardon increasingly became engaged in the administration of academic organizations and in his official duties. At the same time that he accepted the post of controller of the decoration of the Royal Galleries in 1748, Dandré-Bardon was working on an Allegory of the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, known through preparatory drawings and an oil sketch (Aix-en-Provence, Musée Arnaud), but his composition apparently was never completed. Shortly thereafter, the painter returned to Paris to replace François Boucher (1703-1770) as professor in the Académie royale, resuming his life as an academician and advancing the movement to revive history painting in the grand manner. In spite of his dedication to history painting, Dandré-Bardon produced a few genre paintings for private collectors, the most notable of which is his series The Four Ages of Man (Aix-en-Provence, Musée Granet) painted in 1743-1744. His last known painting, The Death of Socrates (lost), was exhibited in the Salon of 1753 and heralded a new period of artistic seriousness. Dandré-Bardon was a founding member of the Marseille Académie, of which he became director in 1754. From this period on, he actively published a number of books and treatises, including the Traité de peinture (1765). When, ill health prevented him from painting, he continued to draw. He died in 1783.
[Frances Gage, in French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the EIghteenth Century, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue, Washington, D.C., 2009: 127.]
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: 127.