Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Pierre Mignard
A French painter, born at Troyes, 7 November, 1612; died at Paris, 30 May, 1695. Though destined for the medical profession, Pierre gave early signs of his true vocation. For one year he studied at Bourges, under a teacher of the name of Boucher, then for two years at Fontainebleau, where, thanks to the works of Primatice and Rosso, and the collections formed there by Francis I, there had been for sixty years a sort of national school. The Marshal of Vitry, after Mignard had painted the chapel of his country seat at Coubert, took him to Paris and obtained for him admission to the most celebrated atelier of the time, that of Simon Vouet. But the one place which more than all others attracted painters was Rome, where a throng of foreign artists were at that time living, among them Poussin and Claude Lorrain, who had settled there for life. Mignard was a member of this colony for twenty-two years. Here he found Dufresnoy (1611-65), who had been his comrade at Vouet's and with whom he formed a close friendship, and together they copied Caracci's famous frescoes in the Farnese Palace. But Dufresnoy was before all things a critic, and his best known work is not a painting, but a book, "De arte graphica", a manual written in extremely elegant Latin verse, published after his death with notes by De Piles, and reprinted for a hundred years as a masterpiece. This rare amateur wielded a great educational influence over Mignard, and made him acquainted with Venice and its incomparable school, which our classic art had professed to despise. Mignard was above all an adroit, industrious workman, who knew well how to flatter public taste and thus secure his own advancement. He soon made for himself a position as portrait-painter unique in Roman society; his patrons were princes, cardinals, and three successive popes — Urban VIII, Innocent X, and Alexander VII.
At the same time he produced many religious works, countless oratory pictures, chiefly those Madonnas which came to be known as "mignardes". That name, intended at the time to be eulogistic, seems to us the best possible criticism of a type of work marked by a certain conscious grace and preciosity. One feels a delicacy about saying positively that these Madonnas are not devotional, since they satisfied the pious instincts of whole generations of devout persons; but it is impossible in our time not to perceive in them a singular meanness, artificiality, and puerility of feeling. But in the midst of all these labours, the artist found time for such large compositions as the frescoes in the church of S. Carlo alle quattro fontane. He thus attained an unquestionable eminence in fresco painting, that pre-eminently Italian medium so little employed by French painters.
Under these three forms his works were widely exhibited in Rome, where he was compared to Guido and to Pietro of Cortona. During his travels through Upper Italy (1654) he was everywhere received with the greatest distinction, and painted Cardinal Sforza's portrait and those of the Princesses Isabella and Maria of Modena. On his return to Rome (1655) he married Anna Avolara, an architect's daughter, whose beauty was perfect and who posed for his Madonnas. The reputation of "Mignard the Roman", as he was called, to distinguish him from his brother "Mignard of Avignon", had spread to France, where Louis XIV was beginning his personal reign, inaugurating that system which relied upon the glory of the arts no less than the glory of arms for the exaltation of the monarchy. Mignard was summoned back to France, and reached Paris (1658), where he met Molière, and formed his famous friendship with that poet.
He found awaiting him in France the same exceptional position that he had enjoyed in Italy. Hardly had he arrived when he executed portraits of Louis XIV and other members of the royal family. His reply to detractors, who questioned his talent for great works, was the decoration of the Hôtel d'Epernon, soon followed by that of the cupola of the Val-de-Grâce. The latter, said to be the largest frescoed surface in the world, comprising two hundred colossal figures, represents Paradise. In pursuance of a formula dear to the Roman decorator, the throng of celestial personages is here displayed around the Blessed Trinity — the Virgin, the Apostles, the Evangelists, virgins, and confessors, founders of orders, holy kings like Constantine, Charlemagne, and St. Louis, and, finally, Anne of Austria, kneeling, offering the model of the church dedicated by her to Jesu Nascenti Virginique Matri. This style of apotheosis, already trite in Italy, still possessed the merit of novelty in France. The immense composition, having cost its author only eight months' work, suffers the penalty of its hurried creation. The composition lacks inspiration, the colouring is feeble and neutral rather than bright, yet it was a very celebrated work in its time, because it flattered the megalomania and the chauvinism of the public; France no longer need envy Italy; Rome was no longer at Rome, it was in Paris. In this way Mignard's cupola took on the character of a national victory, as Molière said in his famous poem "La Gloire du Val de Grâce"; thus this very mediocre, though ambitious, piece of painting was honoured at its birth by the most popular and "national" of French writers. Whether from policy or from inclination, Mignard belonged to the social circle of Racine, Boileau, and La Fontaine, at a time when artists in France associated but little with any but their professional brethren. Thanks to these connections, he is the artist of whom seventeenth-century literature has most to say. Scarron and La Bruyère acclaimed his greatness, and as he had the knack of turning his literary friendships to good account, he was able to maintain for thirty years his curious squabble with the Academy. This body, after a series of difficulties, had been definitely organized by Colbert under the presidency of Le Brun, whose authority Mignard would not recognize. The whole of the court faction which opposed Colbert naturally took sides with Mignard, who, without any official position, was clever enough to keep up his reputation as "premier painter", and to add to it that spicy opposition which in France always serves to carry an artist's reputation farthest. The list of portraits executed by Mignard in the second period of his life includes all French society of that time. The young queen, the Duc d'Enghien, the Princess Palatine, Chancellor Séguier, the Duc de Beaufort, Bossuet, le Tellier, Turenne, Villacerf, la Reynie, the Comtesse de Grignan, the Duchesse de Châtillon, Molière, the famous Ninon de Lenclos, all sat to him. He painted Louis XIV ten times, and on the last occasion the king said to him, "Mignard, you find me changed". "True, sire", said the painter; "I see a few more campaigns on Your Majesty's brow". He used for his women models a rather gaudy style, in which the draperies were somewhat overdrawn, and a system of half-mythological emblems and allusions which faithfully reflect the ideals of the court of Louis XIV. Hence these portraits have the same historical value as those of Lely or Kneller at the court of James II, while some of them possess an unquestionable attractiveness. But this was only one part of Mignard's work. He decorated many residences, public buildings, and churches, but all that remains of these works is the "Apollo" ceiling in the castle of Balleroy (Manche). However, we know by engravings that these works were good, according to the taste of the period, imitated from Caraceio and from Guido's mythologies, artificial, pleasing, facile somewhat heavy and weak in style. The best of his religious pictures is the "Visitation" in the Museum at Orleans.
At last, Le Brun having died (1691), Mignard, at the age of eighty, succeeded to all his offices, was solemnly received into the Academy, and in one session elected to all its degrees, including that of president. Louvois having consulted him on the project of decorating the cupola of the Invalides, the veteran painter saw an opportunity of crowning his career with an exceptional performance, but Louvois died, the work was delayed, and the artist lost all hope of realizing his last dream. He died, it may almost be said, with his brushes in his hand, at the age of eighty-four. His last work is a picture in which he himself appears as "St. Luke painting the Blessed Virgin".
DE MONVILLE, Vie de M. Mignard (Amsterdam, 1731;) LEPICIÉ, Notice in Mémoires inédits sur les Membres de l'Académie de Peinture, II (Paris, 1854); HULST, Mémoires sur l'Académie de Peinture (Paris, 1853); COURTALON-DELAISTRE, Eloge de Mignard (Troyes, 1781); BLANC, Histoire des Peintres, Ecole française, I (Paris); LE BRUN-DALBAUNE, Etude sur P. Mignard (Paris, 1878); COURAJOD, Le Buste de P. Mignard au Louvre (Paris, 1884).