The portrait painter of the great and the good of Europe, Isabey was born son of a merchant in Nancy in 1767. He studied painting in Nancy with two local Lorraine artists: Girardet (architecture and decoration) and Claudot (landscape). At the age of 19, in 1786, he went up to Paris, with a letter of recommendation addressed to Dumont, the Lorraine artist and ‘Premier peintre’ to the Queen. He made his living painting the covers for snuff boxes and the ornamentation for buttons on formal clothing, responding to the demand of the times. Introduced at court in Versailles he became of pupil of Jacques-Louis David in 1788.
In 1791 Isabey married Jeanne Laurice de Salienne. After a loss of patrons as a result of the French Revolution, Isabey managed to rebuild himself a client base through his friendship with David, exhibiting many miniatures at the Paris Salon in 1793.
During the Directory period he frequented drawing rooms of Mme Tallien, Mme de Stael and Mme Récamier, becoming a friend both of the young general Bonaparte and his wife Josephine – he was later to be appointed drawing master to Josephine’s children Hortense and Eugène.
After the proclamation of the Empire, Isabey was appointed painter-draughtsman of the Emperor’s Cabinet, ceremonies and foreign relations. As such, he took an important part in the preparations for the “Sacre” [coronation and consecration]. He drew all the ceremonial clothes of the main participants; Moreover, Napoleon having asked him for explanatory drawings of the ceremonies planned in Notre-Dame de Paris, for 2 December 1804, he did more than that: in two days, with his wife, he dressed in paper a hundred small wooden dolls, drew a plan of the cathedral and represented, on a table, the ceremony as it was going to take place.
At Napoleon’s request, Isabey collected his drawings in the Livre du Sacre. This work was not completed until 1815 and Louis XVIII allowed only a limited edition.
Over the years, Isabey amassed many titles and became successively: painter and draughtsman for His Majesty’s cabinet; painter and draughtsman for ceremonies and foreign relations (one of notable tasks in this respect was to oversee the coronation); organiser of public festivals and fêtes at the Palais des Tuileries; draughtsman of the Seal and of Titles; first painter of the Empress Josephine’s chamber; decorator for the imperial theatres; and drawing teacher to the Empress Marie-Louise, in which role he succeeded Prud’hon. This latter job brought him welcome security and his pleasant nature made him soon very popular with Napoleon’s new wife; as a close acquaintance of Josephine’s, he had been concerned about his position after the divorce.
Decked as he was with titles and also privileged to have the monopoly on miniature portraits of Napoleon, for the most part destined for diplomatic presents, Isabey executed during the Empire period several large-format sepia drawings, some of which were exhibited at the Salons, notably: The First Consul’s visit to the manufactory of the frères Sévène in Rouen in 1804 and The Emperor’s visit to the Oberkampf manufactory, in Jouy in 1806.
From 1809 he had a studio in the porcelain factory of Sèvres and painted there, amongst others, the protraits for the top of the famous “Table des Maréchaux“. After Napoleon’s marriage to Marie-Louise in 1810, Isabey became drawing master to the new Empress. Isabey painted Marie-Louise several times. Indeed, at the Salon of 1810 two watercolour portraits of Marie-Louise and Napoleon in their marriage costume were displayed; they were subsequently sent to Francis I of Austria (Schatzkammer, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). In 1811, the birth of the King of Rome, gave him the opportunity to commemorate the scene of the presentation of the child by the new mother to Napoleon. He also produced miniatures and in 1812 executed a portrait of Marie-Louise and other members of her family (painting them in Vienna – these portraits are now in the Albertina Museum).
In 1814, Isabey remained faithful to Napoleon, despite being much affected by the death of his seventeen-year-old son during the Campagne de France. At Fontainebleau, the Emperor enjoined the artist to serve Louis XVIII as energetically as he had served him.
During the First Restoration, Isabey went with Talleyrand to Austria for the Congress of Vienna. He pursued a career which found favour not only with Napoleon during the Hundred Days but also with Louis XVIII and Charles X, becoming for the former ‘dessinateur et ordonnateur des fêtes et spectacles de la Cour’ (1823), and for the latter ‘dessinateur du Cabinet’ (1828). He was furthermore awarded the Légion d’honneur in 1825. After the death of his wife in 1829, he remarried, this time to one of his pupils, a certain Eugénie Maystre, with whom he had two children (Henri 1830-1834 and Henriette 1837-1881). Finding favour with the government of Louis-Philippe, he was appointed in 1837, ‘Deputy Curator of the Royal Museums’. With the return of a Napoleon to the throne (Napoleon III), Isabey now old and weak both in sight and hand received a pension of 6,000 francs. In 1853, Napoleon III made him Commander of the Légion d’Honneur. Isabey died aged 88, and he was buried in Père Lachaise cemetery (20e division).
Updated December 2021.