Robert Lefèvre was born in Bayeux (Calvados),
at n° 3 de la rue Franche, on 24 September, 1755, son of Jacques Lefèvre, draper, and Suzanne Françoise Marguerite Decrot, the latter's wife.
Despite revealing a talent for drawing when still young, his father wanted him to become a lawyer and so had him placed with a procureur in Caen. His first sketches were as a result to be doodled on legal dossiers. More often than not he drew the lawyers' clients.
In 1773, at the age of eighteen, he spent his savings on a journey on foot to Paris to see the works of the Great Masters.
On his return to Caen, he abandoned the law and turned full time to painting. His first public work being a shop sign for his barber showing a razor and scissors in a bowl. He was later to declare that the naïve admiration expressed by strangers before this sign had been dearer to him than all the success which was later to have in the Paris Salons.
His first works included: the decoration and portraits in two apartments in the Château d'Airel, near Saint-Lô. Using his fee for this work, he returned to Paris, in 1784, to become a pupil of Jean-Baptiste Regnault, painter to the king. Regnault warned him: «I can teach you drawing but not painting. You use the colours of nature, and she appears to have been your teacher». In this workshop, he became friends with Pierre Guérin, Carle Vernet, Bertin and Van Daël.
He exhibited for the first time at the Salon of 1791.
His painting was of a young woman dressed as a bacchant (Musée Baron Gérard in Bayeux), about which people said: “You would said that this wonderful painter had stolen his colours from the Graces”; at the Salon of 1795, he was to present some paintings of subjects from antiquity, one of which entitled, Venus disarming Cupid (Fontainebleau) and another in the Troubadour style with the title: Eloise in tears holding a letter from Abelard; at the Salon of 1798 he was to show Cupid sharpening his arrows, for which he was to receive a 'prix d'encouragement'.
At the end of the century, the portrait of Mirabeau by Joseph Boze (exécuté en 1789-1790 ; 214 x 225 cm, oil on canvas, Aix-en-Provence, Musée Granet, see la reproduction in La peinture française, ed. Pierre Rosenberg, éd. Mengès, oct. 2001, tome 2, p. 592), caused a scandal: Robert Lefèvre accused Boze of only having painted the head, not the rest of the painting. Indeed there is a marked difference between the two parts and it would appear that Lefèvre painted everything apart from the head.
The same scandal was to arise with another portrait. This time it was a painting of General Bonaparte and his chief of staff, general Berthier, at the battle of Marengo, on 14 June, 1800 (oil on canvas, 289 x 232 cm, painted in 1800-1801). The work was signed J. Boze, and Boze took it with him first exhibit it to Amsterdam and then later in London. Lefèvre's reaction was immediate: in an article published both in Journal des Arts and in the Moniteur Universel (11-17 and 18 Thermidor, An IX: 2-8 and 9 August, 1801), he claimed that he had painted the work in collaboration with Carle Vernet, for the figures in the background. Both Lefèvre's and Vernet's styles can clearly be identified in the painting, Lefèvre for the portraits of Bonaparte and Berthier and Vernet for the figure of the hussard and the fine horses' heads. The work was bought by the Musée Grévin in 1898, and from here it was to be sold at auction by Sotheby's Paris, on 12 march, 2002, and bought by the Fondation Napoléon, for 110,000€ (see Sotheby's Catalogue, 12 March, 2002, p. 60-62; Karine Huguenaud, Magazine Napoléon Ier, n° 14, mai-juin 2002, p. 63).
At the Salon of 1801, Robert Lefèvre was to exhibit a portrait of the painter Pierre Guérin (oil on canvas, 109 x 80 cm, Orléans, Musée des Beaux-Arts; see the reproduction in La peinture française, op.cit., tome 2, p. 593), one of his finest works: the pose is elegantly simple, the sitter's look intense, haughty yet melancholy, the composition confident and precise. At the Salon of 1804 he was to present portraits of Carle Vernet, battle painter (Louvre), Van Daël, flower painter (Antwerp), Lady in black velvet, reclining on hillock holding her hat in her hand (Caen), the latter being especially appreciated. At the Salon of 1806, he presented his portrait of Bertin, landscape painter.
In 1803, Vivant Denon commissioned Lefèvre to paint the First Consul
for the Dunkirk town hall.(1) This painting was so successful that it was copied, in 1804, by Vien fils, for the town hall in Bruges and by Dabos for the town hall in Paris (Versailles) (2).
Later, as a result of the patronage of Vivant Denon, director general of Museums and Administrator of the imperial art manufactories, forty portraits of Napoleon were to follow, each slightly different (though all were painted by Lefèvre himself): some were in the coronation robes, others showed him in uniform, some had laurel wreaths, others not, some were face-on, others three-quarters, some were standing portraits, other were bust portraits, and there were even miniatures – but all were painted for members of the great state bodies, for grand dignitaries, or for imperial and foreign towns (Versailles, three variants: one with the green uniform of colonel of the Chasseurs à cheval de la Garde; 216 x 156 cm, Salon of 1806, see Histoire de Napoléon par la peinture, p. 193; another with the blue uniform of Colonel of the Grenadiers à pied de la Garde, 278 x 206 cm, Salon of 1812; Musée Carnavalet, 1809, 226 x 157 cm; Musée de la Légion d'honneur; London, Wellington Museum; Mons, hôtel de ville; Cuba, Museo Napoleonico, copy painted for Marie Walewska).
Napoleon liked Lefèvre's portraits and found them very lifelike. As the painter to the emperor, the imperial family, the court and the great dignitaries of imperial high society, Lefèvre was in effect the official iconographer of the First Empire.
His best known works in this sense are: the Empress Josephine, standing next to a herb garden, for Aix-la-chapelle (1807) Bust of Josephine (1806, London, Wellington Museum); Madame Mère, for the King of Spain (1808, Rome, Museo Napoleonico; repeat commission by Napoleon, 1813, Versailles; small sketch, Maison Bonaparte, Ajaccio); Lucien Bonaparte, Prince de Canino, Versailles, on permanent loan to Malmaison, Musée du Château (see the Dictionnaire Napoléon, coloured images pages); Pauline Bonaparte, Princesse Borghèse, Duchesse de Guastalla, commissioned by Vivant Denon (Salon of 1808, Versailles: see Dictionnaire Napoléon, p. 1314): Marie Julie Clary, Queen of Naples, commissioned by Denon (1807), Versailles; the Empress Marie-Louise, 1812, Parma, Museo Glauco Lombardi, with the diamond tiara made by the goldsmith Étienne Nitot and the very fine necklace given to her Napoleon, on the birth of the Roi de Rome; this necklace now belongs to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington (see Histoire de Napoléon par la peinture, p. 230).
Lefèvre painted the following civilian and military figures: Pope Pius VII (1805, London, Wellington Museum); the Prince-primat Dalberg (Salon of 1812); the Grand Duke of Wurtzburg (Salon of 1810); the Prince Lebrun, Architrésorier de l'Empire, Duc de Plaisance (Salon of 1808, Coutances); Maret, Duc de Bassano (1807, private coll.); Régnier, Duc de Massa (1808, Versailles); Savary, Duc de Rovigo (1814, Versailles, see Histoire de Napoléon par la peinture, p. 146); the Comte de Montesquiou, Grand Chambellan de l'Empire (Salon of 1810); the Maréchal Augereau, Duc de Castiglione (1804, Versailles); the Maréchal Oudinot, Duc de Reggio (1811, Salon of 1812, Versailles); General Lebrun, Emperor's ADC (Salon of 1808); General Boyer (Salon of 1810); General Comte Walther (1815, Versailles); Mme la comtesse Walther (Salon 1812, Versailles); General Baron Tharreau (Versailles); Vivant Denon, Lefèvre's patron (Salons of 1808 and 1812, Versailles and Caen, See Magazine Napoléon 1er, n° 16, sept.-oct. 2002, p. 17); Charles Percier (1807, Versailles); the composer Grétry (1809, Versailles and Caen); Marie Walewska (see the painted sketch in Histoire de Napoléon par la peinture, p. 104); the Senator Lecouteulx de Canteleu (Salon of 1808); the three young children of Monsieur Langlois, founder of the porcelain manufactory in Bayeux (Caen); Mme la comtesse Saint-Hilaire (Salon 1812); Mme la comtesse Edmond de Talleyrand-Périgord, Princesse de Courlande (future Duchesse de Dino, Salon 1812, sale Monte-Carlo, 1986); Mme Récamier seated (Caen); Mme la maréchale Soult, with her two children (sale London, 23 March, 1973).
There is also a self-portrait (1810, Caen and Bayeux: lithography 1818, Bayeux); the portrait of his beautiful wife (Bayeux) and his sister (sale, 4 December, 1920).
In general, Lefèvre was not content to be simply a fashionable portrait painter but took extraordinary pains in his attention to detail (clothing, accessories, and decor). He was always striving for the closest resemblance possible (Nicole Hubert).
He had a remarkable facility and prodigious visual memory, which enabled him to get a perfect likeness even without a model. In order to paint his portrait of Napoleon for the town of Dunkirk, he limited himself to watching the emperor pass by. In the same way, he managed to paint a very accurate rendition of Pope Pius VII in only 6 hours, in stark contrast to the multiple sittings which David had required from the pontiff.
Despite losing popular appeal after his death,
in his lifetime, Lefèvre's portraits were favourably compared to those by Gérard and Gros. Indeed, it would not appear accidental that Balzac, his novel Cousine Bette (1846) wrote of “the portrait of Hulot, painted by Robert Lefèvre in 1810, in the uniform of the Commissaire ordonnateur of the Garde impériale, towered of the girl as she worked”, in Madame Hulot's bedroom.
Lefèvre's career did not suffer during the Restoration. He was appointed painter to the 'Chambre' and to the 'Cour du Roi'. His works of this period included: portrait of Louis XVIII (Salon 1814, done from memory without a sitting: Amiens, Colmar, Toulon); portrait of the composer Monsigny (Salon 1814); portrait of the Marquis de Lescure, General in chief of the Vendéens in 1793 (Salon of 1817, Versailles, on permanent loan to Cholet); portrait of the Duc de Berry (Salon of 1822, painted from memory after the prince's death); portrait of Fontanes, as Grand Master of the University (Salon of 1822, Paris, Musée Marmottan, see Histoire de Napoléon par la peinture, page 151, Dictionnaire Napoléon, p. 770); portrait of Malherbe (Salon of 1822, Versailles, on permanent loan to the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris); portrait of the Député Manuel (1827); portrait of Charles X (Salon of 1827, Louvre, Rouen, Musée des Beaux-Arts), portrait of the Duchesse d'Angoulême (Musée de La Rochelle), and portrait of the 'Chansonnier' Desaugiers (1827, from memory after his burial).
In 1820, he was made Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur.
Lefèvre lived and worked in Paris, 3, quai d'Orsay (today 1, quai Anatole-France, VIIth arrondissement), on the corner with rue du Bac. His apartment was sumptuously decorated (including furniture by Boulle) and he had many fabulous paintings, drawings and miniatures on the walls. He taught painting and drawing to the great and the good of the Faubourg Saint-Germain and also had a few pupils, notably Mlle Fanny Defermon. His prices were high: 12,000 francs for the full imperial regalia painting and 15,000 francs for the portrait de Lebrun, Architrésorier de l'Empire, Duc de Plaisance.
In the last years of his life, Lefèvre turned to religious painting:
Assumption and Christ on the cross (Salon of 1827), Apotheosis of Saint-Louis.
He was working on the latter painting when the Revolution of July 1830 took place, an event which was to deprive him of his support and official posts. Ill, depressed and desperate, he committed suicide by cutting his own throat at his house on the night 2/3 October, 1830; he was 75 years old. He was buried in the Père-Lachaise cemetery, in Paris (20e), in the 27th division, 1st line, on the Chemin du Dragon (Répertoire mondial des souvenirs napoléoniens, pp. 775 and 301).
He had two sons: the first, Jules Robert, Sous-lieutenant in the Génie, was killed at the Battle of Leipzig on 18 October, 1813 (this is mentioned on the tomb in Père-Lachaise); the second, who also followed a military career, left the army in 1840, with the rank of captain. Both died childless.(3)
Marc Allégret tr. P.H.
Revue du souvenir Napoléonien n°445
(1) This portrait was deliberately incinerated on 3 June, 1817, by order of the Sub-Prefect of the arrondissement.
(2) Robert Lefèvre was often copied. He wrote as much on 21 June, 1811, (original held in the Bibliothèque de Bayeux), in a letter to Savary, Duc de Rovigo, Police minister (“I have been informed that a painter has produced and sold copies of the portrait of the Emperor which I gave to you Excellency…”) and asked for his protection against such counterfeit.
(3) Source: Michaud, Biographie universelle, tome 23, p. 590 ; Gaston Lavalley, Le peintre Robert Lefèvre, sa vie, son oeuvre (Caen, 1902); Dictionnaire Napoléon, s. v. Lefèvre, by Nicole Hubert, p. 1052; A. Fierro, A. Palluel-Guillard, J. Tulard, Histoire et dictionnaire du Consulat et de l'Empire, R. Laffont, 1995, p. 899; E. Bénézit, Dictionnaire des peintres sculpteurs, dessinateurs et graveurs, Paris, Librairie Gründ, édition 1999, tome 8, p. 433; Claire Constans, Musée national du Château de Versailles, catalogue des peintures, 1980, s.v. Lefèvre Robert; documentation from the Musée Baron Gérard, in Bayeux (ten works by Lefèvre).