A pupil of Hughes Taraval, Gauffier was awarded the Prix de Rome in 1784 for Christ and the Woman of Canaan (École des Beaux-Arts, Paris). Although he restricted himself to history painting during his early years as a pensionnaire at the French Academy in Rome, his close friendships with a tight-knit group of young French landscape painters in the city, including Nicolas-Didier Boguet, Jean-Joseph- Xavier Bidauld and François-Xavier Fabre, encouraged an interest in painting from nature.
Popular unrest in Rome following the execution of Louis XVI led to reprisals against French subjects in the city, prompting Gauffier and his wife and former student Pauline Châtillon to flee to Florence. There, he cultivated a cosmopolitan and cultured circle of English and Russian patrons, initially for his landscape paintings, but soon thereafter for a genre he had first experimented with in Rome, consisting of small-scale, full-length portraits in landscape settings, inspired by the example of the English ‘conversation piece’. Graceful, colorful, exacting in their rendering of a vivid likeness and accurate in evoking the lush countryside of Rome, Florence or Tuscany, Gauffier’s small portraits brought him rapid success and wide renown. Popular with wealthy Grand Tourists visiting Florence whose likenesses he immortalized, often presenting them standing before the city’s most recognizable sites and monuments, Gauffier adapted the format and formula to portraits of Napoleon’s officers after the French military occupied the city in 1799.
The present portrait of a handsome and dashing officer in Napoleon’s army had been misidentified in years past as General Jean-Claude Moreau. The painting, which is signed and dated ‘an 9.e’ (1801), obviously does not depict a man in his mid-40s, and a recent detailed study of the sitter’s costume established that he is, instead, Étienne Michaux (1771–1850), the 30-year-old divisional commissar under Joachim Murat in the Italian Campaign. Michaux was promoted to chief commissar of the army in 1803 and knighted with the Legion of Honor the next year. After the Emperor’s final downfall in 1815, Michaux was disgraced and died destitute in exile.
There is certainly no premonition of the sitter’s unfortunate end in Gauffier’s swaggering portrait. With all the self-confidence that accompanies youth, good looks, a fine figure and military success, Michaux directly engages the viewer with a look of amused assurance and a pose of casual elegance. Standing on a garden terrace in the southeast of Florence, the city unfolds in the distance behind him, the dome of the cathedral seen rising from the Apennines in the background. The clear light, sparkling atmosphere and mellow beauty of the landscape setting displays one of Gauffier’s principal gifts as a painter, and prefigures the great plein-air landscapists of the coming decades, notably Corot.
The portrait of Michaux is one of Gauffier’s final works; he died in October of that year in Livorno, as he was about to embark on his return journey to Paris. A tiny copy of the painting is among the eleven ricordi of his portraits made by Gauffier as a kind of liber veritatis, today preserved in the Musée Fabre, Montpellier (876.3.34).❖
Alan P. Wintermute