He collected some impressive titles, including King of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania, King of France. When young, he was not just his mother’s favourite. He was also a bit of a rebel, calling himself “a little Huguenot” and apparently “even bit the nose off a statue of Saint Paul”.
Aged about nine at the time, he must have been in possession of an excellent set of teeth and that statue can’t have been of marble. As he grew older, his interest in Protestantism faded and he “became nominally Roman Catholic”. We are talking about the fourth son of King Henri II and Catherine de’ Medici.
Henri junior was born in 1551. Being fourth in succession, he was not expected to ever become King of France. At the rebellious and ripe old age of nine years, he was made Duke of Angoulême and Duke of Orléans.
In 1566, he was also made Duke of Anjou. Four years later, his mother tried to get Henri interested in Elizabeth I of England (and a realm) but without success. His younger brother Francis would spend time at Elizabeth’s court instead.
In 1572, France sent an envoy to Poland to negotiate the ‘election’ of Henri to the Polish throne. The carrot dangled in front of the Polish and Lithuanian aristocracy was military support against Russia, diplomatic assistance in dealing with the Ottoman Empire and … important financial ‘assistance’.
Fast-forward to May 1573: Henri became the first elected monarch of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Though the Lithuanian ‘electorate’ boycotted his election. Nevertheless, the Lithuanian ducal council confirmed Henri’s election.
For the alternatives were some Habsburg candidates who were not just from a family who had been rivals of the previous royal family, but also less desirable to the Ottoman Empire. Fancy, Poland and Lithuania could have ended up as part of the Habsburg Empire, if only …
As for Henri, in 1573 he was busy elsewhere: at the Siege of La Rochelle. But let’s face it: who turns down the offer of a large Commonwealth and two titles? Not Henri, who swore an oath and signed a Pacta conventa and Henrician Articles and perhaps even kind of promised to marry the deceased Polish king’s sister.
February 1574, Henri was crowned king in Kraków. But in less than six months, Henri left Poland to never return. Why? In France, his brother Charles IX had unexpectedly died, causing a constitutional crisis with the French Parliament declaring the throne ‘vacant’. In other words: up for grabs to the world and sundry.
So about a year after having been crowned King of Poland (and becoming Grand Duke of Lithuania), Henri was crowned King of France. He was to be the last Valois king. In 1589, Henri III was assassinated and Henri of Navarre became France’s new king.
No portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh, but …
Fast-forward some more, to 2020. Like many countries, the UK is in lockdown over COVID19 for the first time. Art dealers Philip Mould & Company buy some “intricately detailed, jewel-like miniature painting” – unseen. For with a country in lockdown it is impossible to travel around to have a good look at art up for sale, right?
The unseen miniature was presumed to show a famous Elizabethan gentleman: Sir Walter Raleigh. On finally receiving the miniature the experts look and agree: nope, this is not Sir Walter Raleigh.
So who is this fellow? After extensive research, they concluded the miniature might show Henri III, King of France. This was made even more likely, after the painting’s frame was opened. A signature ‘Decourt’ and date ‘1578’ were revealed. For all the details and more photos of this discovery, scroll down and use the link to Philip Mould & Company’s website.
As the blog of the art dealer explains: “Jean Decourt was a remarkable painter, with an exquisite eye for detail, who had an illustrious career. On the death of Francois Clouet, Decourt assumed the role of official court artist to King Charles IX of France, albeit he is also documented to have been the official artist for Mary, Queen of Scots and recorded as painting Elizabeth I and her favourite, Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester … “
So how did an exquisite little portrait of a French King end up in Great Britain? It is now presumed this miniature may have been brought to England during the French Revolution. Many aristocrats as well as tourists and craftsmen fled from France to Great Britain once the revolution erupted.
The date suggests, the little portrait may have been painted in the Louvre Palace, then a royal residence and looking slightly different from the museum we know. Philips Mould states: “This work is a French National Treasure – a hugely significant unpublished image of a misunderstood King, and confirmation of Jean Decourt’s immense talent. It would be wonderful if it could ‘come home’ to Paris, as I believe that is where it truly belongs. We have therefore given the Louvre the first opportunity to purchase it.”
Let’s hope the Louvre buys this gem. Then once all those nasty lockdowns and museum closures are over, we may travel to Paris to visit the Louvre and see if Henri is available. Have you noticed he kind of seems to say “how about it, kid?” with a hint of a smile? Though beware: any wink and smile would have been for one of his ‘mignons‘ – not you.
Interested in miniatures, or buying art? Have a look at the website of Philip Mould & company. The physical gallery is currently closed again due to another lockdown,but there is a fascinating virtual gallery and blog.
Henri III by Jean de Court, Independent/Philip Mould & Company; body-colour highlighted with gold on vellum. Annotated on the back by a contemporary hand (by the artist?): faict·par·decovrt·1578. H. 57 mm.
Miniature of Sir Walter Raleigh, Nicolas Hilliard, National Portrait Gallery, London
UK Independent: Miniature portrait
Philip Mould: “Ground-breaking” discovery of rare portrait of Henri III