By Richard Hoover
I promised worried friends that I would forsake the troubling directions taken in past columns: the celebration of old wars and of hairy relics from the grave. I would relinquish boating over the Styx to Elysium, settling insurgent hash in the Philippines, and would stop recommending the company of the exhilarating dead over that of the boring living! So, to avoid lock-ups for professional observation and to make my contributions to the Daily's column on antiques more respectable, I pivoted toward American milk white glassware.
Amidst the rejoicing, however, a painting turned up that forced me to forget the milk glass, one that recalled this stirring theme: "great antiques catapult the beholder straight into the hallowed past!" This naval portrait, signed and dated -- "...Elizabeth Duchateau, 4 June 1756" -- does just that; our subject cries out his identity, invites us into his life. We can only respond by taking him up, by sifting the clues he offers, by placing him within the contexts he knew.
Details bespeak aristocratic background -- the well-hung head, the powdered hair tied in a queue, the lace at throat and cuff, and the "iron shirt" -- a cuirass with gilded collar and apron. Note the anchor insignia suspended at his left breast.
His physiognomy suggests an abundance of youthful self-assurance, possibly reflecting the exultation running through the French navy in mid-1756; in May, the French fleet landed 15,000 troops on the British-held island of Minorca. Before sailing off, it hammered the British rescue squadron under Admiral John Byng, sinking three ships and sending the survivors scurrying to Gibraltar for repairs. For failing "to do his utmost," Byng was court-martialed and shot. Indeed, our young Frenchman and his mates were riding high!
Judging from the single red band around the cuff, and the golden cord -- an "aiguelette" -- on his right shoulder, he is very junior, possibly a recent cadet. He presides over the instruments of his trade; spread on the table are a quill pen and a half-cased three-legged compass-divider. It rests atop a cased brass quadrant, shaped in the form of a quarter circle. When fixed on the Pole Star, the quadrant told the ship's latitude, thus permitting straight steering for a desired landfall, even at night or when land was out of sight -- presuming, of course, that the correct latitude of the landfall destination was known. Is our subject holding a nautical chart or, perhaps, a naval officer's commission just received? In any case, the document was rolled and held by the lace circlet discarded on the table.
Odd that this "nobleman of the sword" -- armored, laced, coiffed and dressed for war -- had his picture taken with navigational commonplaces instead of with sword, or with his hand resting on the golden breech of a King's gun. Also odd: his nobiliary cuirass is dark and largely covered by his coat. Portrait subjects "in harness" normally paraded their armor, not discounted it.
Why did our subject so conspicuously choose the prosaic over the heroic? Increasingly blamed for naval disasters and under-performance, the nobles of the sword became viewed, at worst, as ignorant, lazy and provincial. Accordingly, the 1750s brought reforms to open up the officer corps to commoners and the lower nobility. Further, the Royal Naval Academy in Toulon was founded, in 1752, to double down on serious subjects such as science, hydrography, astronomy, and mathematics. In other words, by 1756 the heat was on this young noble to eschew displays of aristocratic armored bluster and the like. Such risked ridicule. Advancement in the King's navy suddenly depended less than before upon social station, and more upon skill and professionalism, more upon the skilled handling of navigational instruments such as those displayed conspicuously on the table.
The painter, Elizabeth Duchateau, is a mystery. Internet references tie her to this particular painting. I cannot find another work by her. Perhaps (and 'perhapses' are all I have at the moment) Elizabeth was both a noblewoman and a painter who did not choose to sign her work with her titles and family name, who chose a pseudonym instead to indicate, truthfully, that she was Elizabeth who came from the chateau ("Duchateau")!
Thanks to Elizabeth's close detail work, our subject offers yet another clue to his identity -- his lace. Designs were very specific to regions, towns and workshops, possibly linking a wearer to birth place and background. As such, they can offer insights into world views and sympathies. We badly need a lace expert to tell us more about this young officer!
Richard Hoover is a retired Foreign Service officer who resides in southern Warre n County. Growing up near Cleveland, he was raised with antiques from the beginning and introduced early to shops, shows and auctions. He lectures on subjects ranging from Benjamin West and the Venetian Empire to Christian art and American Revolutionary War engravings.