Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Charles de Marguetel de Saint-Denis de Saint-Évremond (1614-1703) Late 1690s

Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt. (1646-1723)

Portrait of Charles de Marguetel de Saint-Denis de Saint-Évremond (1614-1703), Sir Godfrey Kneller Bt.
Oil on canvas
17th Century
Oval, 30 x 25 inches, 76.2 x 63.5 cm
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Charles de Marguetel de Saint-Denis de Saint-Évremond might today seem an unlikely candidate for burial in the hallowed ground of Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey. Born, as his name suggests, into a French aristocratic family, he was not a great poet, and not a single line of his verse was written in English. But in his lifetime he was considered one of the leading literary figures of his age. His short, witty prose was hugely popular, and reflected the exuberant and satirical nature of Restoration society. Even several spurious works, printed by publishers desperate to produce anything by his hand, sold well. On his death in 1703, therefore, Saint-Évremond was considered an adopted national figure, and his burial at Westminster Abbey, in the company of Chaucer and Spenser, was deemed wholly appropriate.

This fine portrait, hitherto unpublished, is one of two likenesses of Saint-Évremond by Godfrey Kneller. Kneller’s first portrait of Saint-Évremond is at Althorp, and, according to an engraving by R. White, shows the sitter aged 80. Saint-Évremond seems somewhat older in the present portrait work, which can be dated to the late 1690s. Since the Althorp picture was in the Earl of Sunderland’s possession by 1746 [Walpole Society 1974-6, ‘Catalogue of Pictures at Althorp’, compiled by K.J. Garlick, no.345], this picture is therefore most likely to be that sold from the collection of Thomas Hudson at Christies in London 1785.

This work is one of the Kneller’s most distinctive portraits. It is sometimes tempting to see in Kneller’s later, more colourful pictures an artist struggling to comply with all the demands of etiquette and rank in English portraits. Identikit wigs and official costumes often conspired to create an uneasy homogeneity. But in this portrait, as in the similar 1685 self-portrait [National Portrait Gallery, London], we see Kneller adhering to his Dutch training, and producing a picture that is an exercise in muted colours and blended tones reminiscent of Rembrandt, under whom it is said that Kneller studied. In Saint-Évremond, Kneller was perhaps fortunate in his subject, for he never wore a wig (only the black skull cap seen here), and nor was he interested in fashion. As a result we are simply presented with a sharp character study, and the evidence of Kneller’s intense brushwork around Saint-Évremond’s face suggests that he delighted in modeling every detail of this sitter’s extraordinary features, from the prominent wen, or cyst, at the top of his nose, to his eyes, “…blue, keen and full of fire”, according to Saint-Évremond’s friend Dr Silvestre.

Charles Saint-Évremond began his varied career as a soldier, and rose through the ranks to become a Marechal de Camp by 1652. A dueling thrust, ‘la Botte Saint-Évremond’, is named after him. He was a keen fighter, and was wounded badly at the battle of Nordlingen in 1645. It was during his military career that Saint-Évremond began to write biting satires of senior French figures such as the Grand Condé and Cardinal Mazarin. Unfortunately, Saint-Évremond’s prose was better than his discretion, and, despite writing anonymously, he managed to publicly offend his sensitive masters. He was twice imprisoned in the Bastille by Cardinal Mazarin. His real misfortune was to become too close to Fouquet, the suspiciously rich Superintendant of France, and after Fouquet’s fall in 1661 (shortly after Louis XIV had become jealously enraged by the splendours of Vaux-le-Vicomte) Saint-Évremond was himself forced into exile.

By the end of 1661 Saint-Évremond had arrived in London. He had already enjoyed good contacts there thanks to a diplomatic visit for Fouquet the previous year. But this time he was relieved to find he was just as welcome as an exile. Saint-Évremond enjoyed friendly relations with leading courtiers such as the Duke of Buckingham, and soon thereafter Charles II himself. He became the most popular Frenchman in England, and was feted for his good company, an essential asset to any party. Charles II was so fond of Saint-Évremond that he made him ‘Governor of the Ducks in St James’ Park’, as an excuse to give him a pension of £300 a year.

From the 1670s onwards, Saint-Évremond lived a life of contented enjoyment at his house in Pall Mall, surrounded by the many animals and birds from which, he claimed, he drew the vitality of life. His principal literary works were a series of satirical comedies such as “Sir Politick Would-Be”, longer historical essays such as “Reflexions sur les Divers Genies du Peuple Romain dans les divers Temps de la Republique”, and numerous short, critical essays, a format he seems to have invented. What he could be bothered to publish (he was famously lazy) sold out instantly. Nobody seemed to mind his disdain of fashion, or even, apparently, hygiene; “Old Evremond renowned for Wit and Dirt/Would change his living oftener than his Shirt.” He was also a prodigious correspondent, particularly with women, whom he adored. We find him, for example,
urging the newly arrived Madame de Kéroualle not to follow a path of sexual abstention, but to “Yield therefore to the sweets of temptations…” [John Hayward ed. ‘The Letters of Saint Evremond’, London 1930, p.147] She later became Charles II’s mistress.

After the death of Charles II, an inevitable reaction set in against the licentiousness of the Restoration society. But despite the more straight-laced attitudes under first James II and then William and Mary, Saint-Évremond continued to find favour at court. Even William III, not known for his sense of humour, renewed Saint-Évremond’s position as Governor of the Ducks. Towards the end of his life Saint-Évremond developed the large wen seen here, and which features so prominently in the contemporary popular prints. But amongst his friends at least it seems not to have caused him any unease at all. He died at his house in London in 1703, apparently repudiating all religion.

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