Madeleine Le Clerc

François Clouet
1510 – 1572

Madeleine Le Clerc

Painted 1570

Oil on panel: 13 13/16 x 9 15/16 inches, 34.5 x 24.9 cm



  • The family of Mailly-Nesle, Marquis de Nesle
  • Private collection, France

This ravishing little panel is a rare and precious object, not only as one of the few surviving works by François Clouet, but for its almost pristine condition.[1] Of particular importance in establishing its authenticity, is the recent revelation through dendrochronological analysis that the panel on which it is painted is taken from the very same oak tree as the panel on which Clouet painted a portrait of Hercule-François, Duke of Alençon in 1561, now in the Royal Collection, Windsor.

The execution of the present portrait is of the highest quality, in particular the manner with which the artist’s exquisite technique has rendered Madame Le Clerc’s seemingly life-like flesh and her glittering jewellery.[2] As with his masterpiece from 1571, the portrait of Elisabeth of Austria (Musée du Louvre) the virtuosity with which Clouet meticulously has captured every strand of hair and the minute intricacies of jewellery, using tiny impasted touches of colour, can only be really appreciated by close inspection with a magnifying glass.[3]

François Clouet was born in Tours circa 1515, the son of the painter Jean Clouet (1486 – 1540) from whom he learnt the art of portraiture. Upon his father’s death, François replaced him as court painter and valet de chamber to the King of France, François I (1494- 1547). He maintained his position under Henri II (1519 – 1559), François II (1544 – 1560) and Charles IX (1550-1574) effectively serving four different kings. François died in Paris in 1572. Alongside his father, he was the greatest of the French portraitists of the Renaissance.

Madeleine Le Clerc was born into the Parisian bourgeoisie de robe. Her father, Pierre Le Clerc, was a state counsellor at the department of Waters and Forests and her brother, Guillaume Le Clerc, was president of the Royal Mint. Her first marriage was to a lawyer called Robineau, with whom she had three children.[4] What happened to this husband is unclear, because by the early 1570s, she had fallen in love with a young Italian émigré called Sébastian Zamet (1549 – 1614), by whom she had two children out of wedlock. The first, a boy called Jean, was born in 1574 and the second, another son called Sébastian, in 1577.

Zamet had newly arrived at the court of Henri III (1551-1589), along with his three brothers, and had been first appointed as shoe maker and servant of the wardrobe to the king.[5] However he very quickly discovered a far more profitable career, discreetly lending money at court not only to the royal house of Guise, but also Lorraine and Savoy. By benefiting from the turmoil of the time and the need for money caused by war, his shrewd and astute skills enabled him to amass a vast fortune in an amazingly short period of time. By 1580 he had become one of the most influential of financiers of his time. Indeed in the subsequent reign, apart from personally clearing the King’s gambling debts and making his nearly built palatial hotel available for him to entertain his mistresses, as Henri IV’s confidant, he was able to conduct numerous affairs of state on the King’s behalf.

In 1583, with presumably her former husband still alive, Zamet secretly married Madeleine. Though in 1588, their liaison was officially recognised this legitimizing the children. The youngest child, Sébastian joined the church, ultimately becoming Bishop and Duke of Langres. Under his auspices, a sumptuous family tomb was to be built for his parents and his brother in the church of the Célestins in Paris.

Madeleine seems to have been a lady of character, as suggested by an episode narrated by the seventeenth century writer Tallemant des Réaux. One evening, as Henri IV was having supper chez Monsieur Zamet, two noblemen got into a fight and one of them was wounded. The King was so irritated by the incident that he wanted the aggressor to be executed and the victim to be left unattended. However Madame Zamet, who had the habit of speaking quite freely to the King, pressed the sovereign not to act too hastily. As she duly proceeded to take care of the wounded man, she told her king: ‘Sir, each one of us is the master at his own place; so are you at yours; let me be the mistress here, please’.[6]

[1] A technical analysis by dendrochronology of the oak panel supports our dating of the portrait, on stylistic grounds, to between 1570 and 1572, the year of Clouet’s death. Refer Ian Tyers, Tree-ring analysis of a panel painting: a portrait of a French noblewoman, ARCUS project report 922d, University of Sheffield, September 2005.

[2] The identification is confirmed by a crayon drawing from the studio of Clouet in the collection of the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, which closely follows our painting and which is inscribed thus ‘Magdeleine Le Clerc, fe. [mme] de Sebastien Zamet surintendant de la maison de la Reine’. This drawing has in the past been attributed to François Clouet himself, however Jean Adhémar attributed the drawing to the so-called anonyme Lécurieux, in reference to the provenance of the album in which the sheet is mounted. See Adhémar, ‘Les portraits dessinés du XVIe siécle au Cabinet des estampes’, Gazette de Beaux-Arts, September – December 1973, no.149, p.145.

[3] For comparative details of the jewellery in the Louvre painting, see Etienne Jollet, Jean et François Clouet, Paris, 1997, colour illustrations, pp.6 & 250.

[4] See Catherine Grodecki, Sébastian Zamet, amateur d’art, Avènement d’Henry IV, Quatrieme centenaire. Vol. V, 1990, pp.189-190.

[5] Ibid., p.187

[6] See Gédéon Tallemant des Réaux, A Adam & G Delassault (eds.) Historiettes, 1960 (first published 1834), Paris, vol.I, p.438.

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