By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. You are about to be taken inside a world of finesse, exquisite manners, bon ton, a world where la douceur de la vie was perfected in every particular and where every moment away was quite simply unbearable. I am talking, of course, of eighteenth century Europe and more precisely of its monarchs and the aristocracy that provided the rapt audience for majesty’s every move. As Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord said, “Those who had not known the Ancien régime would never be able to know how sweet life had been”, and he was most assuredly in a position to know.
So while we cannot reconstruct this moment of heaven on Earth, we can at least revive a moment of its essence, rather like the fine perfume that lingers on a packet of love letters and so evokes the whole in an instant of rich remembrance. That is why I advise you to play Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) before continuing with this article. Yes, Rameau whose sophisticated notes wafted from the salons of Versailles to all the chateaux of Europe, the music for love affaires without end.
Listen to La Orquesta de Luis XV Concierto de Jordi Savall. You will easily find it any search engine, and you will soon savor it, especially if there is a drop of blue blood in your veins, as you have always surmised… and hoped.
An emperor dies, a cornucopia of possibilities.
This chapter of our story begins with a death; but not just any death; the death of God’s vicegerent on Earth, Charles VI, ruler of the conglomerate that was neither (according to Voltaire) Holy… nor Roman… nor an Empire. He was a man with a problem; a problem he died (1740) believing he had solved. He had sired only daughters (two) but according to the rules of succession, these daughters could not rule; only sons might… and there were no imperial sons to be had. Charles kept trying to remedy the deficiency, but could not. He then decided that the rules could be changed, if he bribed his fellow monarchs sufficiently.
He called his solution the Pragmatic Sanction… and it cost him a pretty penny. What’s more, the minute he died, the princes of Europe (particularly Frederick II of Prussia) abjured their oaths… each believing they could get more through outright theft, an art perfected by sovereigns thereafter called “Great”, like Frederick. And so war with all its delicious possibilities came again to Europe, this particular dust-up called “The War of the Austrian Succession” (1740-1748).
Of the many kings and princes involved (including Maria Theresa, the archducal beneficiary of the Pragmatic Sanction), only one need detain us here, Charles Albert, Prince-elector of Bavaria from 1726. He was the candidate Louis XV of France selected to break the Habsburgs unbreakable hold on the imperial title and emoluments. It seemed like a fine idea when raised… and so enough electors were bribed to make him “Charles VII, by the grace of God elected Holy Roman Emperor, forever August, King in Germany and of Bohemia, Duke in…etc., etc.” How could mere mortal turn it all down?
Thus was Europe divided into the Habsburg party and those who saw more spoils by adhering to the only non-Habsburg emperor since the 15th century, Charles VII Albert of the giddy House of Wittelsbach, cock-a-hoop, but not for long.
“Uneasy lies the head…”
Soon enough Charles Albert had reason to regret. His imperial coronation on 12 February 1742 was followed by his Austrian adversaries overrunning his home territories and Munich his capital. He had an imperial title but no substance whatsoever. Deriding wags mocked him, “et Caesar et nihil,” meaning “as well Emperor, as nothing.” Just a year later,1743, this impecunious, hapless princeling died, of gout, obese, despairing. And so he returned to Munich in a super sized coffin, a failure, an embarrassment, a man best forgotten, not painted.
Bildnis des Kurfursten Karl Albrecht von Bayern, Jan Kupetzky (Bosing/Pressburg 1667- 1740 Nurnberg), zugeschrieben, Ol auf Leinwand, 92 x 74,3 cm.
I am a close reader of “Alte Meister” (“Old Master”) catalogs produced by the Austrian auction house Dorotheum (founded in 1707). I open these catalogs with a mixture of dread and white-hot enthusiasm; afraid of what I’ll find that will crush my every good intention to “budget” and “save”… painstaking in reviewing every page. The portrait of the Emperor Carl VII Albert, Lot 8, 11 June, 2012 was tailer-made to catch my eye. It was love at first sight; I could only hope that my long-time conservator Simon Gillespie would find the irremediable flaws that would save my money and negate any thought of purchase. Otherwise I was well and truly doomed, since I am an assiduous collector of Austrian imperial pictures and this one was rare indeed; no wonder, given the fact that the subject had other things to do than sit for his portrait during his brief reign so filled with woe and catastrophe. I awaited Simon’s report with impatience.
Dull to look at, layers of dirt and discolored varnishes, what the trained eye sees, what it means.
If you mean to collect good art, particularly good art down on its luck, dirty, damaged, desolate, you need an eye that sees not only what is but what was and what can be. This is the masterful, deep seeing eye Simon Gillespie, wizard of Cleveland Street London, has developed over decades and which I, mere acolyte, have spent many years improving. The entire business is predicated on what the master’s eye sees and what his deft hand must then effect to return the disconsolate image to the radiance its artist intended.
This is all easily said but needs the study and experience of a lifetime to render. I invariably retain Simon Gillespie because he remains constant in his objective; to restore, not to invent; to go where the artist went but no further, and so return to life in its pristine form each work he touches with his nimble fingers, the fingers it has taken a lifetime to train and execute their crucial work.
Given the dull appearance of this picture, its layers of disfiguring dirt and degraded varnishes, writing it off might have made perfect sense, especially given a plethora of other problems, including a plain and ordinary wooden frame. There was absolutely nothing imperial about it. But here is where Gillespie’s masterful eye came into play, for beneath every dismal aspect there was quality, the quality imparted by its creator, Jan Kupetzky (1667-1740).
Kupetzky’s talent manifested itself early and to the right people. Just 20 years old, after studying with the Swiss painter Benedikt Klaus, Kupetzky went on an extended Italian study trip. In Rome, Prince Aleksander Benedykt Sobieski, the son of Polish King John III Sobieski, helped him become famous… and so for the rest of his long life he was. This fame got him the plum commissions; the striking pictures that resulted got him more; Prince Eugene of Savoy, aristocrats needing a careful touch with their eternal images, even Russian Tsar Peter I and his hapless heir, Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich. Influenced by Caravaggio and Rembrandt he painted splendid pictures of himself, his family, friends. He was a master and used his great gifts to great effect. In due course, with assiduity and brilliance he became the most significant German portrait painter of his day; just the man Charles VII Albert required to portray him as he wished to be, very definitely not as he was.
Gillespie looked deep and saw enough evidence of masterful Kupetzky to justify proceeding to the next level. And on this basis I acquired the work at auction for the low estimate; I believe I was the only bidder. That’s how little appeal this picture then possessed and how nearly a very different fate had been avoided.
Ah, but look at it now… its splendor enhanced by the best carver and gilder in London who replicated an original frame design and delivered the high tone of gilding as would have been at the time. And so the saddest Holy Roman Emperor, the man who gambled all and lost all, sails forth into perpetuity looking exactly like a king should look, signed by Kupetzky, conserved by Gillespie, hung here in Cambridge for me.
About the Author
Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc., providing a wide range of online services for small and-home based businesses. Services include home business training, affiliate marketing training, earn-at-home programs, traffic tools, advertising, webcasting, hosting, design, WordPress Blogs and more. Find out why Worldprofit is considered the # 1 online Home Business Training program by getting a free Associate Membership today.