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OBJECT No. 1: Lagneau (active 1590-1625), Middle-aged man with curly hair, 1620s

We look at objects, write about them, talk about them, consume them. They are the centre of our discipline - the focal point and its reason to be. For OBJECT No.1 Dr Rachel Sloan looks at Lagneau’s enigmatic portrait of a middle-aged man.

The man’s eyes are the first thing you notice. Dark, slightly sunken, but with a bright glint, their expression is hard to read; the longer you look at it, the more it shifts from weariness to resignation to curiosity to suspicion. The intensity of his gaze pierces you as it must have pierced the artist who recorded his likeness. His face is heavily lined and weather-beaten, each wrinkle, each fold of flesh, each grizzled curl and eyelash rendered in meticulous detail in a subtle blend of black and red chalks that vividly evokes the tone and texture of hair and skin. His clothing is plain but neat and sober – not a nobleman, then, but perhaps a steward or another high-ranking servant in a wealthy household. In any case, a rather unusual subject for a portrait in 1620s France, when portraiture was primarily the domain of the elite. Who was he, and who was the artist who chose to depict him?

The artist, in this case, is as mysterious as his subject. The writer and collector Michel de Marolles (1601-1681) applied the name ‘Lagneau’ to several albums of similar portrait drawings now housed in the Louvre and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. These black and red chalk drawings represent men and women, mostly older, ordinary working people. Some are drawn with the sympathy and close observation seen in The Courtauld’s drawing, while others veer toward caricature and the grotesque. Why Lagneau focused on such unorthodox subject matter has been the object of much speculation. Was he working for a highly specialised market? Did he make the drawings for his own pleasure? Or were they intended as a sort of model book from which heads and figures might be taken as needed for other compositions? To add to the enigma, it is now believed that not all ‘Lagneau’ drawings were by Lagneau himself; many are thought to be the work of imitators of his distinctive style.

We may never discover the identities of either the artist or the sitter, but what isn’t up for debate is this portrait’s power and vivid sense of presence. If you’d like to experience it for yourself, you can: visit our Prints and Drawings Study Room and come face to face with this mysterious man.

The Prints and Drawings Study Room is open by appointment Monday-Thursday, 10-1 and 2-5, and for drop-in (no appointment needed) on Wednesdays during term time, 1.30-4.

This article was first published in SEE:ONE, The Courtauldian’s printed publication. You can find the full first issue of SEE here:

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