The Duc d'Arpajon Painting
Once upon a time, a very rich and powerful Duke lived in the Château de Sévérac, in the region named Rouergue. His name was Louis d'Arpajon. He had a very beautiful painting sitting in the castle's chapel when he was gone at war. The duke had warred, quite a lot indeed, serving his majesty the King of France Louis XIII, thus was equally glorious. He had quite a fame albeit rumours were spreading around saying he had his wife, Gloriande de Thémines, murdered...
Restoring a piece of art gives an opportunity to enter its life, to reveal quite a few unknown facets, to approach its inner substance. It is always a very delicate operation, exciting and quite often full of surprises. In this story, the rehabilitation of two sides of a triptych—usually a painting, often an altarpiece like here, made of three side-by-side panels—originally belonging to the Duc d'Arpajon makes no exception to the rule.
An unexpected discovery
After a thorough but delicate cleaning of the painting, scenes were revealed with bright colours and masterful touch. Furthermore the restoration work highlighted two signatures never been noticed before. The first one was quickly identifies as the one of the painter Claude Deruet, the second one, quite hidden as a monogram on a character, remains unknown as of today.
Indeed the painting has two faces painted. Specialists identified Claude Deruet's style quite easily, however the other one bearing a monogram was credited to a Flemish school of the first third of the XVIth century. The portion painted by Deruet had been made much later, since the artist lived during the first half of the XVIIth century. How could two paintings, of so different origins and performed a century apart, still remain together on one single panel?
The Duc d'Arpajon's unusual life
He was the only noble in Rouergue having been given the title of Duke and Peer of France. However Louis d'Arpajon had a troubled life, marked by military success and diplomatic missions but, lived family tragedies too. He attended the court of Louis XIII and Louis XIV as well as some well-known salons des précieuses — during the XVIIth century, witty and educated intellectual ladies would gather and entertain lively conversations and playful word games — notably the one run by Mademoiselle de Scudéry where he got accustomed to gentlemen, aristocrat women, and famous writers. Among them was Cyrano de Bergerac, Louis D'Arpajon became his protector.
The painting, a few mysteries to decipher
Ancient inventories of belongings at the Château de Sévérac were clearly showing the painting had not always showing the way we know it now.
Originally it was a triptych as this description, written in 1789 during the French Revolution, states:
"Portable portrait comprising two wooden doors with key, representing a crucifix, the Virgin Mary and St. John by the side, and on one of the two doors, Jesus carrying the cross and on the other one the resurrection."
This altarpiece is the work of a Flemish painter of the early XVIth century. When open, the triptych shows three scenes depicting the Passion of Christ Carrying the Cross, the Crucifixion — the central lost scene — and the Resurrection.
When the triptych is closed, one could see an Annunciation adorning the outside shutters. These paintings were executed a century after after the scenes figuring the scenes of the Passion of Christ on he inside of the altarpiece. They were painted by Claude Deruet, a painter originally from the region of Lorraine — north east of France — who was then a famous active painter from 1615 to 1660. He painted in grisaille, a special technique of painting using monochrome shades of gray.
The central piece, originally showing the Crucifixion of Jesus, disappeared and has not been located. The altarpiece has been dismembered between 1789 and 1846, the latter being the date when the Musée Fenaille in Rodez acquired the two left components.
Louis d'Arpajon, Lord of Sévérac (circa 1590-1679),
an illustrious XVIIth century Rouergat
Louis d'Arpajon had a very busy military career. He served Louis XIII, the King of France, was involved in internal to France conflicts — to crush the south of France Protestants uprisings as well as the peasant revolts happening in Guyenne. Louis d'Arpajon took part in the wars against the Austrian and Spanish Habsburg. Then, when the Kingdom of France got engaged in the Thirty Years' War, he fought in Rhenish Prussia, in Picardy, in Burgundy, Lorraine and Franche-Comté, allies of the Holy Roman Empire. Finally, he was sent to the southern border, in Roussillon.
His last major campaign took place in 1645, leading him to Malta, following a call for help from the Grand Master of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. He raised an army and a fleet to aid the Malta island threatened by a Turkish incursion.
His military service got well awarded. In 1633, he was promoted Knight of the Order of the Holy Spirit, the highest decoration of the ancient regime. He was successively appointed colonel in 1624, brigadier in 1626, and lieutenant general of the King's armies in 1637.
The Royal Court Lord
A lot of rewards awaited his military successes. He earned the title of Viscount of Arpajon, Marquis of Sévérac, and even Count of Rodez. His highest turn came in 1650, he received his patent of duke and peer of France, a negociation for his loyalty to the then young King Louis XIV during the events called the Fronde.
As well he was given some honorary missions like ambassador in Poland, delivering the Grand Collar of the Holy Spirit to the King Ladislas VII. It is said the journey of Louis d'Arpajon begun in 1648 and lasted eighteen months and the Lord went on with a great crew following him.
He appeared before the court of Louis XIII and Louis XIV alike, the latter holding him in esteem. He attended literary salons and appears in Mademoiselle de Scudéry's novel Clélie in the guise of Prince of Agrigento. His third wife, Catherine-Henriette d'Harcourt, was accustomed to the literary salons as well and had a friendship with Madame de Sévigné. Furthermore, he was the protector of some writers, the most famous being the writer and philosopher Cyrano de Bergerac.
Inventories of the Château de Sévérac belongings, written by the late XVIIth century and the early XVIIth century, provide informatiion on the assets held by the Duc d'Arpajon. He possessed a library of nearly one hundred an seventy titles, a collection of precious medals, and two 'curiosities', a rhino horn and an elk foot. Back in 1717, the Château de Sévérac was decorated with one hundred and thirty paintings.
From 1645 to 1648, the Duke went on long trips. The first to rescue Malta threatened by the Turks, and the second for eighteen months as a French ambassador in Poland.
During this time, Gloriande remained alone in the Château de Sévérac, feeling lonely thus having an affair with a nearby gentleman lover. Upon the Duke's return, gossip informed him of his misfortune. Furious the Duke got the gallant thrown in the Château de Sévérac's dungeon and locked up his wife in her apartments.
A few days later, Gloriande got invited to join in her husband to undertake a repentence pilgrimage to Notre-Dame de Ceignac.
When near the foothills of Palenges — near Rodez — the convoy left the main road and entered into the depths of the forest. When in the willderness the Duchess got immediately torn from her seat by armed men and held riveted to the ground. A man, barber by trade, was waiting for a sign of the Duke to do his bloody work. A lancet in one hand, he cut the veins of the unfortunate whose desperate cries were in vain. When the Duke got sure she had lost enough blood to not survive, Gloriande was put back in the coach and brought back to the castle where she died.
Her death got officially declared of natural causes as bloodletting could not be stopped. The Château de Sévérac got covered with black crape and Gloriande got buried in the Arpajon family's tomb.
However nobody got fooled, and as noted Saint-Simon — a King of France's diplomat and writer: "The Duke did not have to defend himself vigorously". Given his rank and service to the King, he did not get in any trouble at all. Furthermore, several lords offered him to remarry, offering him their daughters as brides.