Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait enamel of Michelle Guesnon de Bonneuil (née Sentuary) (1748-1829), wearing white gown with pink roses draped across her shoulder, her hair curled and powdered and decorated with pearls, c.1773 

Attributed to Pierre Pasquier (1731-1806)

Portrait enamel of Michelle Guesnon de Bonneuil (née Sentuary) (1748-1829), wearing white gown with pink roses draped across her shoulder, her hair curled and powdered and decorated with pearls, c.1773, Attributed to Pierre Pasquier
Enamel on gold
18th Century
Oval, 37mm (1 1/2 in) high
Eleonore Francesca Augustine Regnaud de Saint-Jean Angely (nee Guesnon Bonneuil) (1776-1857), daughter of the sitter; Thence by descent
To view portrait miniatures currently for sale at Philip Mould & Co, please go to www.philipmould.com.

Michelle Guesnon de Bonneuil was born Michelle de Sentuary on the island of Île Bourbon (now Réunion) in 1748, where her father had a plantation. She was educated both on Réunion and later in Bordeaux, where, in 1768, she met and married Nicolas Cyrille Guesnon de Bonneuil (1732-1803). Her husband was well connected and worked initially for the Countess d’Artois, moving to the household of the Count de Provence (the future Louis XVIII). This new post necessitated a move for the couple to Paris, where Michelle was courted by wealthy aristocrats and welcomed into the highest intellectual and cultural circles of the capital.

Painted in the early years of the 1770s, this portrait may have been commissioned by her husband during the early years of their marriage, after the couple’s move to Paris. Bonneuil’s beauty is apparent despite the small scale of the vibrant enamel portrait, painted on a gold ground. She was a talented flower painter, later exhibiting her work at the Paris Salon, and the garland of roses strung across her shoulder may allude to this artistic aptitude.

Bonneuil also belonged to the exclusive circle of poets known as ‘la Caserne’, a literary group that included Évariste de Parny, Antoine Bertin and Michel de Cubières. She was painted by many of the leading artists of the day, including Alexander Roslin and was sculpted by Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne. When this portrait of Bonneuil by Pasquier was painted, he was one of the leading portraitists of the day, having recently exhibited a portrait miniature of Voltaire at the Salon in 1771 (he also produced a portrait in enamel of the great writer and philosopher).

Bonnueil’s great beauty attracted powerful men and she became the mistress to the rich financier Nicolas Beaujon (who left her 100,000 francs in his will) and to the Swiss banker Jean-Fréderic Perrégaux. Her intellect was stimulated by others also interested in mysteries of Cagliostro, the rites of Egyptian Freemasonry and Sophism. During the Reign of Terror, in which she lost both her sister and brother-in-law, she narrowly escaped the guillotine herself, being arrested in 1793 and held in the prison of Sainte-Pelagie.

After the revolution, Bonneuil used her contacts to become a double-agent. She carried out missions in Spain, Germany and Russia (from where she was banished), travelling to London in 1802. From London she travelled to Edinburgh, where she met the Comte d’Artois. In 1803 she was paid £1000 by a senior British Cabinet minister (Lord Castlereagh), implicating her in the plot to murder Napoleon. Bonneuil had multiple identities and due to her youthful looks was able to fake her age.

After such a thrilling career, the still-youthful Bonneuil settled into a quieter life and from around 1810 spent time with her family and grandchildren. The writer Charles Brifaut (1781-1857) recounted meeting Bonneuil in 1808, when she was sixty years old but still looked a good twenty years younger.

Described as a “diplomatic beauty”, Bonneuil led an unconventional, adventurous and dramatic life. Often in great danger, she took extensive risks for both Britain and France, travelling alone to dangerous places. Her contacts extended to great artists, writers, nobles, royals and politicians, enriching her intellectual and private life as well as aiding her secret missions.

In 1814, Bonneuil was finally revealed as a spy by Jacques Barthelemy Salgues (1760-1830). Somewhat surprisingly, however, she became one of the first individuals to be given a pension by Louis XVIII in the following year. Under Charles X, Bonneuil lived relatively quietly in Paris with her daughters, including the previous owner of this enamel, Eleonore Francesca Augustine Regnaud de Saint-Jean Angely. The same daughter also destroyed all of her mother’s papers when she died peacefully in Paris on the 30th December 1829, but not, it seems, this enamel portrait of her.

Pierre Pasquier would have been a natural choice for the artist of this portrait enamel for Bonneuil. In 1768, the year of Bonneuil’s marriage, Pasquier became a member of the Academie Royale. He painted high profile members of the aristocracy, scientists and writers – typical associates within the Bonneuil’s circle of acquaintances. He was also comfortable working in the medium of pastel, reflected here in the soft application of enamel paint. Schidlof described him as an ‘excellent artist’.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.