Corneille de Lyon

Portrait d’homme, probablement un officier royal

Oil on panel: 7.1(h) x 6(w) in /

18.1(h) x 15.2(w) cm

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BL 24



The Hague c.1500/1510 – 1575 Lyon


Portrait d’homme, probablement un officier royal


Inscribed on the reverse: F.D.L.

Oil on panel: 7 1/8 x 6 in / 18.1 x 15.2 cm

In a sixteenth century Italian Renaissance style tabernacle frame, built in fruit wood with trompe l’oeil marble columns and decorated with marble, mother-of-pearl and lapis lazuli 

Frame size: 13 7/8 x 16 ½ in / 35.2 x 41.9 cm


Painted circa 1545-1550



By descent in a Flemish private collection since the nineteenth century



Treasured objects since the seventeenth century, small French portraits on olive green, blue or brown backgrounds, are found in many collections. None is signed, but they are linked with certainty to the name of Corneille, a Dutch artist based in Lyon since at least 1533. In France, he was invariably referred to by the town of his birth, The Hague, which eventually formed his patronymic and that of his descendants. It was in fact a relatively common name in France at the time and we find several ‘de la Hayes’ – doctors, lawyers, artisans, merchants – in documents from Lyon, Tours and Paris. However, this name was lost, and in the nineteenth century, he would only be known as ‘Corneille’, then ‘Corneille de Lyon’ from the name of the city where he established himself. If the work of Anne Dubois de Groër[1]  rediscovered his real name which seemed forever lost, at least the name which he bore in France, he is still conventionally known as ‘Corneille de Lyon’.


In Lyon, Corneille became the successor to Jean Perréal (c.1460-1530), portraitist to Charles VIII and Louis XII and the most prominent member of the Lyon artists’ guild, best known for his small, intimate portraits with colourful backgrounds, who had died before the arrival of the Dutch painter. Corneille’s oeuvre is entirely composed of portraits of very small dimensions on green, or more usually blue, backgrounds. Painted directly on wood panels in a few sittings without preparatory drawing, they were destined for the family and close associates of the sitter, as opposed to works by François Clouet (c.1515-1572), which are more formal and intended for a wider audience. Corneille began by working for Lyon’s leading citizens, judges and merchants. Eventually he gained commissions from the nobility and when the Court stayed in Lyon he was asked to paint members of the royal family, including the Dauphin Henri (later Henri II) and his wife Catherine de’ Medici. He also received the title of painter to the Dauphin, and subsequently painter and Valet de Chambre to the King. He could thus enjoy the privileges of royal office while still living in Lyon; his name never appears in the records of other royal houses. Corneille’s renown was wide and did not suffer from his conversion to Protestantism (he eventually returned to the Catholic faith in 1569).


Ever-increasing demand forced Corneille to surround himself with a large workshop, which was also charged with copying portraits for collectors. These connoisseurs would not hesitate to commission other artists to copy works by the Lyon portraitist, or to take inspiration from him. Among this abundant production, paintings which can be firmly attributed to the master are relatively rare. Originals by Corneille can be distinguished by the precision of their form, contours and expressions; brushwork that combines almost impressionistic freedom with the minutiae of a miniaturist; heads slightly disproportionate to the body; dishevelled hair rendered with individual strokes; soft and colourful shadows; sparkling eyes; clothing more broadly treated than the face; a plain background darkened at the edges, forming at times a cast shadow.


This Portrait d’homme presents all these features and can be firmly inscribed in Corneille’s autograph oeuvre. It can particularly be linked to a number of portraits of anonymous men dating from 1545 to 1550 (Figs. 1 (private collection), 2 (Musée du Louvre, inv. RF 357), 3 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Agen), 5 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv. no.1982.60.41) and 7 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv. no.1975.1.132). As with these works of great finesse, far removed from the more candid portraits of the previous decade, like the Unknown man, c.1535 (Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, inv. no.K1656; Fig. 6), the skin tones here are smooth, the eye contours are fine, rose-toned and broken, the lips blurred, eyebrows and moustache treated as an opaque mass, the hair and beard created ​​by superimposing increasingly fine brushstrokes (Figs. 8-10). The young man is shown almost to the waist and seems to lean slightly forward, a format and pose that are frequent in the work of Corneille (Fig. 3). Similarly, his coat is depicted with quick brushstrokes, each braid or slash consisting of a single thick line (Figs. 11-13). The brushwork does not suffer any rupture of rhythm or style, the technique retains the same virtuosity in the face as in the clothing or background, which excludes any intervention from the workshop.


If the attribution of the panel to Corneille is undeniable, identifying the sitter, as is unfortunately the case with the vast majority of portraits by the master of Lyon, is impossible. The young man, aged in his twenties, with brown eyes, hair and beard cut short, is turned three-quarters to his right, towards the light, which contracts his pupil and plunges into shade – very lightly, as always with Corneille – the left side of his face. He gazes into the distance. This presentation, directly inspired by portraits by Jean and François Clouet, was initially applied by the Lyon painter to noble sitters, but extended to the haut bourgeoisie, represented until then facing forward, from the mid 1540s onwards. Similarly, the slight smile given by the young man is, in Corneille’s work, the privilege of ladies and some leading citizens (Fig. 1), whilst gentlemen, as in the portraits of Clouet, are depicted serious and proud. The sitter wears a doublet with slashed crimson sleeves and a black collet (an outer garment, a kind of jacket) with velvet trimmings and decorated with alternating horizontal and diagonal slashing. This type of collet was fastened by shoulder-knots (Figs. 1 and 5), but, painting rapidly, Corneille has omitted this detail. A small, white, turned-down collar finely embroidered with black thread, and a black cap placed high on the head, complement the sober and distinctive attire of this young man. The cut of the high collar and cropped sleeves, as well as the cap (toque à fonces), correspond to a fashion launched at the French court shortly before the death of Francis I in 1547 by his sons, Henry (the future Henry II) and Charles d’Orléans, and which lasted a few years after the accession of Henry II. The lack of jewellery and of feathers reserved for nobility, as well as the way in which the cap is worn – straight and not tilted over one ear (Figs. 1, 4) – do not allow us to see the sitter as a gentleman. However, it would be ill-fitting for a simple bourgeois to dress in red and cover his coat with slashing. This singular mixture, in representation and clothing, of aristocratic and bourgeois codes could indicate a servant of the king, a non-noble officer of his house, a valet or a craftsman. The sitter might be a royal dependent enjoying a number of privileges, like exemption from land taxes or less strict compliance with sumptuary laws: the splendour of the Court of France notably authorized officers to wear velvet and bright colours. This could also explain the model’s young age, as most of Corneille’s non-noble clientèle was composed of middle-aged men, less anxious for a perfect likeness than to show off their worldly success. This is an intimate portrait, done with nuance and finesse, as far removed from codified images of aristocrats and courtiers as from those, often pretentious enough despite their apparent modesty, of the important citizens of Lyon.


To summarize, this is a remarkable, autograph and rare portrait. A work by Corneille de la Haye himself, without participation of the workshop, it dates from the late 1540s and in all likelihood depicts an officer of the Royal House. The sober and yet virtuoso manner, and more so the young man’s soft, slightly melancholic expression, ranks this portrait amongst the most beautiful and captivating works from the master of Lyon.


Information translated from a report by Dr Alexandra Zvereva, Centre Roland Mousnier (CNRS), Université Paris-Sorbonne.
































The Hague c.1500/1510 – 1575 Lyon



We do not know Corneille’s real name, designated only by the town of his birth – ‘The Hague’ –  which eventually became his family name, and since the nineteenth century, by the city of Lyon, where he lived. He seems to have come to France quite young and was already established in Lyon by May 1533, when the Flemish poet Jean Second, his friend, met him there by chance. The influence of Jean Perréal, who died in 1530, is so evident in his work that it is tempting to imagine Corneille having worked with the most famous painter in Lyon before setting himself up alone, which could also explain his rapid rise to fame. In fact, courtiers solicited his services before 1535, and Pierre Aymeric, a citizen of Lyon that he painted in 1534, calls him ‘painctre de la Royne Helienor Royne de France’[2]. However, no document confirms this title nor seems especially to accredit importance to the artist. When, during the Court’s stay in Lyon in 1536, a true passion developed for Corneille’s work, to the point of breaking Jean Clouet’s monopoly on Court portraits, such an honorary appointment would have allowed him easier access to the Royal Family. But it was not until 1544 that he presented the authorities with a ‘certiffication’ dated 7th January 1541, for them to take into account his exemptions and privileges as ‘painctre de la maison de Monseigneur le Daulphin’[3].


At his accession, Henry II appointed Corneille Painter in Ordinary and he was naturalized as a Frenchman in letters of December 1547, ‘en faveur des bons et agréables services qu’il lui a faict et faict chaque jour en son art et mestier“*** and “sans que pour ce il soit tenu […] payer aulcune finance ou indempnité’[4]. In 1551, the nephew of the Venetian ambassador Giovanni Vapelli saw in Corneille’s studio ‘the entire court of France, as many gentlemen as ladies, represented in many small paintings, with all the naturalness imaginable’. Corneille held the honorary title of painter and valet under François II and Charles IX, without being expected to fulfil the feudal duties of service de quartier, but enjoying all the privileges granted to royal officers. He was highly esteemed by Catherine de’ Medici, who visited his studio in 1564 and had Charles IX grant him the goods of a Savoyard weaver Pierre Breyssard, who died in Lyon the same year, which were due to the king by right of escheat[5].


Artist of repute, proprietor of several houses and land in Vénissieux, married since 1547 to Marguerite Fradin, daughter of a Lyon typographer, Corneille led the life of a prominent citizen. He had four daughters and two sons, Jacques and Christophe, who became painters. Membership of the Protestant religion does not seem to have hurt his credit, but the whole family was forced to convert to Catholicism in 1569. Corneille died three months after his wife and was buried in Lyon on 8th November 1575.


We attribute to Corneille de La Haye and his workshop a large number of small portraits painted on wood in blue, green or brown backgrounds – apparently without any preparatory drawing. A pencil drawing in the Albertina (inv. 82802) is perhaps the only one that can be attributed to him, if it is not a later copy after his self-portrait, since the seventeenth century inscription identifies the model as Corneille himself: ‘Corneille de Lhaie Flament qui excelloit a fai[re] / des petits portraits au naturel, quon nomment Cornilla’[6].



Information translated from a report by Dr Alexandra Zvereva, Centre Roland Mousnier (CNRS), Université Paris-Sorbonne.


[1] Anne Dubois de Groër, Corneille de La Haye dit Corneille de Lyon. 1500/1510-1575, Arthéna, Paris 1996.

[2] ‘Painter to Queen Eleanor, Queen of France’; note on the back of Aymeric’s portrait in the Musée du Louvre, RF 1976-1915.


[3] Painter to the house of Monseigneur the Dauphin.


[4] In favour of his good and agreeable services which he has done and does every day in his art and work without which he should not be held […] to pay neither finance nor indemnity.


[5] Reversion to the Crown of the estate of a non-naturalized alien.

[6] ‘Corneille of The Hague, a Fleming who excelled in making / small natural portraits, whom we name Cornilla’.


Old MasterCorneille de Lyon