Your Collection Around the World: Charles-Nicolas (the Younger) Cochin

By NGC Magazine Staff on February 20, 2017


Charles-Nicolas (the Younger) Cochin, Marquise de Pompadour in a Scene from "Acis et Galatée", 1749, gouache over graphite with traces of pen and brown ink on ivory laid paper, with gold-leaf paper borders, 16.5 x 41 cm; image: 14.5 x 38.8 cm. NGC

Fireworks, balls, hunting parties, concerts and theatre. What more could a fashionable European court desire during the 17th and 18th centuries? In an exhibition now on view at the Château de Versailles, just outside of Paris, the pleasures of the courts of Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI are explored through a series of objects, paintings, works on paper, evocative environments and audiovisual elements.

One of the works in Festivities and Entertainment at Court is on loan from the National Gallery of Canada (NGC). Featuring Madame de Pompadour, official mistress to Louis XV, the exceptional gouache by Charles-Nicolas Cochin the Younger (1715–1790) depicts what is surely one of the most elaborate amateur theatricals ever presented.

“In this true gem of a work, Cochin captured a private performance of a pastoral opera by Jean-Baptiste Lully,” says Sonia Del Re, Associate Curator of European, American and Asian Prints and Drawings at the NGC. “The opera was organized for the King and his retinue in a now-destroyed hall in the Palais de Versailles on February 10, 1749, using a portable stage that could be assembled in twenty-four hours. This is not only an exquisite drawing, but also a meticulously detailed historical record commissioned from Cochin by Mme de Pompadour’s brother, the Marquis de Marigny.”

Cochin was born into an extended family of artists and engravers. In addition to learning art, Cochin was something of a polymath, teaching himself Latin, English and Italian, while also studying political and philosophical works.

His family gave him entrée into the Paris art world, and by 1737, Cochin was already employed by Louis XV to produce engravings commemorating every major birth, marriage or death at court. Two years later, he was appointed a designer and engraver to the Menus-Plaisirs du Roi, a body responsible for producing all royal ceremonies and entertainments, and in 1752 became keeper of the king’s drawings.  




Charles-Nicolas (the Younger) Cochin, Marquise de Pompadour in a Scene from "Acis et Galatée" (detail), 1749, gouache over graphite with traces of pen and brown ink on ivory laid paper, with gold-leaf paper borders, 16.5 x 41 cm; image: 14.5 x 38.8 cm. NGC

The fifteen years between 1755 and 1770 would prove Cochin’s glory days. Louis XV made him administrator of the arts, allowing Cochin to commission work from other artists, along with the interior decoration of the king’s various palaces.

In the exhibition, entertainments such as those planned by Cochin are on dazzling display. Divided into rooms, each evoking a different aspect of royal pleasures, Festivities and Entertainment at Court features evocative environments and soundscapes designed to give visitors a you-are-there sense of court life from Louis XIV to the French Revolution.

The work on loan from the NGC is part of a section devoted to theatrical entertainment. Full-sized stage sets — including an actual set that has survived from the 18th century, along with numerous careful reconstructions — are enhanced by paintings by such luminaries as Antoine Watteau and François Boucher, as well as programmes, engravings and artifacts.

“This exhibition,” notes the Château de Versailles, “presents the infinite variety and ingenuity of entertainment at Court. This included all types of public shows, comedies, operas, concerts and fireworks, as well as private performances in which Lords and Ladies of the Court took to the stage themselves.” Adds Del Re, “It’s thrilling for the NGC to have this famous Versailles scene return to the Château for the length of the exhibition.”

Depicting the performance from an unusual angle, in what could possibly be the only known gouache by him, Cochin has essentially bisected the theatrical space. Built within a grand staircase, the stage and audience occupied the ground floor as well as an upper landing. While normally such scenes are shown from the audience’s point of view, Cochin has used a side-on perspective, allowing him to give the stage a little more than half of the image.

Onstage, Mme de Pompadour plays Galatea, a sea nymph immortalized in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In the story, Galatea, although in love with the shepherd Acis, is constantly forced to fend off the advances of the Cyclops Polyphemus. Galatea agrees to marry Acis, but Polyphemus, consumed by jealous rage, kills Acis by crushing him with a boulder.



Charles-Nicolas (the Younger) Cochin, Marquise de Pompadour in a Scene from "Acis et Galatée" (detail), 1749, gouache over graphite with traces of pen and brown ink on ivory laid paper, with gold-leaf paper borders, 16.5 x 41 cm; image: 14.5 x 38.8 cm. NGC

In Marquise de Pompadour in a Scene from “Acis et Galatée”, Galatea is about to embrace Acis. On a cliff above the pair, Polyphemus prepares to toss a large rock. The audience is variously enrapt by the action, reading, gossiping, or simply in attendance to see and be seen. Cochin’s composition allows for most of the audience to be shown, including depictions of actual individuals. The King, his wife Marie Leszczynska, and three of their daughters, for instance, are identifiable at the far right, in the most prominent seats on the balcony.

Although no longer a household name, during the mid-18th century, Cochin was one of France’s primary tastemakers. A popular guest at aristocratic parties and salons, he was a brilliant speaker, often holding forth on painting, engraving and philosophy. He was also known for his public criticism of both rococo excess and the severity of the early Neoclassical style.  

As a favourite of Louis XV, Cochin was made a member of the Order of Saint Michael, and was presented with both a patent of nobility and a pension. Following Louis XV’s death in 1774, however, Cochin fell out of fashion, and spent the rest of his days in relative poverty.

During his lifetime, Cochin was a prodigious artist. More than 1,500 of his works have been identified to date, including book illustrations, drawings, engravings, painted portraits, and numerous designs for paintings and sculptures. His name has also been enshrined in the typeface Cochin, said to have been inspired by his engravings. 


Charles-Nicolas (the Younger) Cochin, Marquise de Pompadour in a Scene from "Acis et Galatée" (detail), 1749, gouache over graphite with traces of pen and brown ink on ivory laid paper, with gold-leaf paper borders, 16.5 x 41 cm; image: 14.5 x 38.8 cm. NGC

The reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV, along with the early reign of Louis XVI, were a dizzying round of bals masqués, hunting parties, outdoor sports such as croquet and boating, equestrian demonstrations, fireworks, and even winter activities such as sledding and skating. Cochin fit perfectly into this social whirl, often orchestrating entertainments, even as he recorded them for posterity. In this exhibition at the Château de Versailles, a bygone world has been revived for a new generation, bringing figures of the past back to life, along with their extravagant divertissements. 

“In positioning himself at the edge of the stage,” says Del Re, “Cochin gave viewers an extraordinary view of the royal audience. On the one hand, there is a quintessential Rococo décor. On the other, we have the fetching Mme de Pompadour in her embroidered taffeta dress, decorated with seaweed, shells and pearls, performing with the Vicomte de Rohan in an extravagant red costume and tall hat, and the Marquis de La Salle in warrior’s garb as a one-eyed monster. It doesn’t get any more regal than this!” 

Festivities and Entertainment at Court is on view at the Château de Versailles near Paris, France, until March 26, 2017.


By NGC Magazine Staff| February 20, 2017
Categories:  Exhibitions

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