Art prof finds twelve important works in a small Portuguese cathedral
Luís de Moura Sobral, Professor of Art History at Université de Montréal, discovered 12 canvasses in the late ‘90s by painter Pierre-Antoine Quillard (1701-1733) in a small cathedral, the former São Domingos convent, in the Portuguese city of Aveiro. The works, dating back to around 1730, have probably been there since they were first hung. Measuring approximately 1.2 metres by 1.3 metres each, the canvasses, depicting eight women and fourteen men, are placed on the backrests of the choir stalls, in two rows facing each other. “It’s virtually the entire hall of fame of the São Domingos Order at the time,” explains the specialist of Portuguese baroque painting who will announce his discovery this month at the Institut national d’histoire de l’art in Paris.
“There are those things that we find because we’re looking for them, and others that find us,” says Prof. de Moura Sobral. “As far as I know, these paintings have never been reproduced, studied or attributed to their artist.” Struck by the quality of the works, their style and their period, which does not correspond with the Portuguese artistic trend of the early 18 th century, Prof. de Moura Sobra decided to take a closer look. After reviewing the specialized literature, he was only able to find one line in an art survey that referred to these paintings, with no mention of the artist or the figures depicted on the canvas. “This silence was very intriguing from the start. There was absolutely nothing about these works of art,” he explains.
While compiling data, it became clear that the work had to be attributed to the French painter, since the paintings were in a place of worship, had a devotional vocation, and were clearly propagandistic. Every religious order has an obvious political interest in beatifying or canonizing its members, and everything in these paintings represents a prestigious celebration of the Order of São Domingos.
“The key to the mystery was to find out who had commissioned these works,” explains Prof. de Moura Sobral. His hypothesis is that the commission came from the dukes of Aveiro—already proven by archival documents—and that the collection included a certain number of paintings by Pierre-Antoine Quillard. Another vital clue was that Gabriel de Lancastre, the seventh Duke of Aveiro and a direct descendant of princess Joana, had wished to be buried next to his beloved grandmother.
Quillard, who died young, at the age of 29, enjoyed enormous success in Portugal’s royal court. He studied under and may even have been an assistant to Jean-Antoine Watteau. After arriving in Portugal in 1726 as an illustrator to an accompanying Swiss naturalist, he was appointed the King’s painter in 1727. Right up to the day he died, he was a prolific draughtsman, engraver, decorator, historical painter and portraitist. Adding 12 paintings to the work of an artist who died so young is nothing short of a major discovery. Not only does it change our perception of the artist’s work, it also offers new insights into French painting, in general, not to mention the impact on our understanding of Portuguese painting which was indirectly influenced by French art. Prof. de Moura Sobral will present the fruit of his research in Europe at a series of international conferences on May 19 th, at the Institut national d’histoire de l’art in Paris and, on June 2 nd, at the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon.