…an enigmatic expression that is almost sphinxlike in its Gallic reserve and projection of intellectual superiority..."
The picture I am presenting today is one of the four or five greatest portraits by Baron Gérard, the artist who, together with his former teacher, Jacques-Louis David, was the preeminent portraitist under Napoleon. Its sitter is one of the greatest political figures of modern times, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, known to posterity simply as Talleyrand. It was painted in 1808, a crucial moment in the life of the sitter, who the previous year had resigned his position as Napoleon's foreign minister. Talleyrand is seated in his study. His lambswool-lined hat has been discarded on an Empire-style sofa in the background, but the desk and chair are from the era of Louis XVI; he is at home at his favorite desk.
Gérard, who was personally acquainted with Talleyrand, gives us an acute character analysis: the great diplomat—head held erect above a high collar—has an enigmatic expression that is almost sphinxlike in its Gallic reserve and projection of intellectual superiority.
When displayed in the Salon of 1808, the picture was singled out in a letter to Napoleon by no less a person than Dominique Vivant Denon, the director of the national museums. At the Met, it will rank just after Jacques-Louis David's great portrait Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and His Wife (1788). When taken together with David's Death of Socrates (1787)—the greatest Neoclassical painting in America—and two other portraits acquired through the generosity of Jayne Wrightsman, it will establish the Museum's collection of Neoclassical painting as the finest outside the Louvre.
John Pope-Hennessy Chairman
Department of European Paintings