Detecting in the 18th-Century Art World: the Mysterious Suicide of François Lemoyne

Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, A marginal sketch in a sale catalogue (original now lost) showing an imagined scene of François Lemoyne throwing himself on his sword, c. 1779

I’ve been promising this article for ever and working on it for YEARS so I’m very happy to say that “The Mysterious Suicide of François Lemoyne” is now published! Online in Oxford Art Journal. Print version out later this month.

The official abstract is below but basically it’s about the strange and violent suicide of one of the leading artists in Paris in the 1730s. A ‘locked-door howdunit’, as I call it, it investigates how (and why) this great painter managed to stab himself nine times with his own sword.

On one hand, this article is a serious experiment in life-writing. ‘Biography’ has become something of a dirty word in academic Art History, and in many cases rightly so. But at the same time even academic art historians remain fascinated by the lives of their artists. So here I’m looking for ways to salvage aspects of biography for the discipline, using object-driven and microhistorical approaches to find distinctly art-historical methods that productively deal with artists’ lives.

On the other hand, it is also a really intriguing (I hope!) detective story. For someone with a longstanding devotion to crime fiction and Nordic noir, this was without doubt the most exciting and engrossing research experience I’ve ever undertaken. Working in the French national archives with original police records, witness statements, and autopsy reports, from the very beginning this was more like solving a case than writing an article. I even ended up in a storage room at the Wallace Collection using their handling collections of weapons to attempt a crime reconstruction – which is where I had a breakthrough moment of realising how it’s actually possible to stab yourself nine times with a French small-sword (thanks to Mia Jackson and staff at the museum for that little adventure). I have tried to convey something of this crime-drama-inspired research experience in the article itself – so it is written in the spirit of a police procedural, in which, through proper investigative techniques (questioning witnesses, analyzing the crime scene, examining the body, hunting for motive, etc), there unfolds the story of a tragic and perplexing crime.

The research came out of a book I’m writing with Katie Scott exploring artists’ possessions – the things that made up the material culture of their lives. There is an entry in the book on ‘Lemoyne’s Sword’, but the story of the suicide in which the sword was used was so engrossing that it really needed to be told at length and in its own right. I first presented that story way back in 2011 in the AAH’s wonderful Art History in the Pub series (inaugurated and convened by Matt Lodder).

I really hope you enjoy…

The Mysterious Suicide of François Lemoyne
On 4 June 1737, the celebrated artist François Lemoyne, first painter to king Louis XV, committed suicide by violently stabbing himself to death with his sword. This article offers a forensically inspired art-historical narrative about a crime that took place three centuries ago. Using police records, medical reports, property inventories, eyewitness accounts, and the archives of the Académie Royale, this study pieces together the intriguing tale of Lemoyne’s suicide, examining what drove him to such tragic extremes, and resolving the mystery of how he committed his bloody act. But even more fascinating than the story of Lemoyne’s death is what the evidence uncovers about the ordinary details of Lemoyne’s life, offering glimpses into private spaces, habitual routines, personal relationships, and professional ambitions. Showing how an investigation of Lemoyne’s death reveals more than we might expect about the wider art world of eighteenth-century Paris, this article re-evaluates our art-historical aversion to biography. Borrowing methods from historical writing as well as looking for a distinctly art-historical approach, this article makes a case for the potential of microbiographical and object-driven modes of life-writing in social histories of art.

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