Object Description

Trained in his home city of Geneva, Firmin Massot was the son of André, a watchmaker. He was a pupil of Pernette Massot, his elder sister, prior to his enrolment at the drawing school of the Société des arts. Here, his interest in miniature painting may have been furthered by Arlaud and Liotard.

Unlike many artists of his generation, Massot did not travel widely – his one sojourn to Italy lasted barely a year (1788/89), when he travelled to Naples passing Rome on the way. His career was under additional pressure after the death of his father in 1790, when Massot was required to support the family financially. This entailed teaching at the drawing school where he himself had learned his craft, as well as embarking on his first paid commissions.

Massot’s most important patron was arguably Anne Louise Germaine Necker, baronne de Staël (1766-1817), usually known as Mme de Staël. De Staël was a fierce opponent of Napoleon and a celebrated writer. She housed Massot during the Revolution, offering him protection at Coppet.

Although Massot himself was not well travelled, many British citizens journeyed to Geneva and the exchange of artistic practices between Switzerland and England led to his portrait style being influenced by these links. In 1792, Massot’s fellow student Jacques-Laurent Agasse (1767-1849) went to London and returned with new artistic notions that he passed on.[1] Massot did not visit Britain until 1828 but he painted many British sitters in his Geneva studio, passing through on their Grand Tour.

The present portrait was painted in the early 19th century, when drawings were a valuable addition to an artist’s oeuvre. This was also the case in England, where artists such as Richard Cosway and John Smart had been offering drawings alongside their miniatures to their clientele. Perhaps a more significant influence (and certainly one closer to home) may have been the work of Jean-Baptiste Isabey (1767-1855), who refined the manière noire (or ‘mezzotint’) style of drawing to technical perfection. He was one of the first artists in the eighteenth century to use the technique, which mimicked the dark, textured shading of English mezzotints, with their careful and soft observation of shadows. Many of Massot’s drawings were in fact published as mezzotints, for example the portrait of George Marsham by William Say, published by Edward Orme, after Firmin Massot (NPG D38275).

[1] For further discussion on this see: The works of Firmin Massot (1766-1849) in British collections Author(s): Valérie Louzier-Gentaz Source: The British Art Journal, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Autumn 2006), pp. 92-100 Published by: British Art Journal Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41614696

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