This is almost certainly a portrait of Hercule-François, Duke of Alençon and of Anjou (1555-84) rather than, as previously thought, of one of his brothers, Francis II or Charles IX. Hercule-François was the fourth and youngest son of Henry II of France and Catherine de Médicis. He was called Hercule until his confirmation in 1566, when he was renamed in memory of his grandfather Francis I. In 1569 he was seriously ill with smallpox which left him permanently scarred. Marriage between him and Elizabeth I was proposed in 1572 as part of negotiations between England and France to counter the power of Spain. He courted the Queen again between 1579 and 1581, though he was only 24 and she was 46. It is possible that this portrait, which shows Hercule-François before he contracted smallpox, was sent over to England as part of the marriage negotiations. It seemed that in 1576 Hercule-François was planning to join the Protestant Germans and Swiss against his Catholic brother Henry III. Two years later he formed an alliance with William of Orange and the Dutch, but after a dramatic and failed attempt to lay siege to Antwerp he returned to France and an early death.
The sitter would have been between 5 and 6 when the portrait was made and it was perhaps his first portrait in oil. The portrait is dated 1561 in the upper right corner and seems to form a pair with the very similar portrait of Charles IX (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), who was Hercule-François’s elder brother. The position and style of the dates match. The format and dimensions are close, particularly if the Vienna portrait was trimmed at the lower edge by 6 centimetres.
The appearance of the sitter agrees with the other accepted portraits of Hercule-François. A chalk drawing of him at the age of about 4 or 5 years (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris) has the same thin, slightly asymmetrical lips, almond-shaped eyes and bulbous nose. Two portraits of the older Hercule-François confirm the identification: the Clouet studio portrait in the Louvre, made when Hercule-François was about 12 years old, and the later portrait in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, painted when he was 18.
This portrait is finely executed by François Clouet himself. Technically the portrait is comparable to those of Charles IX (in Vienna) and Elizabeth of Austria, 1571 (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Fine and free hatching, possibly in a dry medium, visible with infrared reflectography, models the face and thumb. Even the slightly anxious furrow above his left eyebrow is indicated with underdrawing. Small hatching strokes build up this delicate portrait in paint. There are some adjustments - for example, the right edge of his hat. Several copies of the painting are known: an accurate version (31.5 x 23 cm) identified as Hercule-François was sold at Drouot/Tajan (13 December 2005). Another, described as ‘le duc d’Alençon enfant’, was in an exhibition of French portraiture at the Galerie Charpentier (26 June 1945).
Text adapted from The Northern Renaissance: Durer to Holbein, London, 2011
ProvenanceProbabaly first recorded in the Royal Collection during the reign of William III
François Clouet (c. 1520-72) (artist)
- Physical properties