Several hundred miles from Paris, Montpellier was, during the reign of Louis XIV, prosperous enough to support its aristocracy and clergy in some style. Part of that style involved the commissioning of landscapes and portraits from local artists, and it was into the family of one such artist that Jean Ranc was born in 1674. After training in his father Antoine’s atelier, Ranc set off for Paris where his father’s friend and pupil Hyacinthe Rigaud helped him put the final touches on his already considerable technique. Rising quickly in the Paris art world, Ranc entered the Académie royale de peinture et sculpture at thirty and a year later exhibited eleven canvases at the Salon of 1704. Ranc went on to earn a good living from portraits of the French and Spanish Bourbons and other well-heeled patrons. Several of these are displayed in the Musée Fabre’s first-of-its-kind exhibition of Ranc’s work. Representative works by Rigaud and other contemporaries are also on display.

Hyacinthe Rigaud, Portrait d’Antoine Ranc, 1696, Oil on canvas, Narbonne, palais-musée des Archevêques.

The exhibition covers nine stages of Ranc’s development. These comprise his early years in Montpellier and Paris, his admission to the Académie, and his increasing success with commissions, which first came from prosperous merchants and ascended through the aristocratic classes to include paintings for French and Italian royalty. Finally, we see how Ranc incorporated garden scenes and nature as important elements in his portraits; it is here that we find his teasing masterpiece, the lovely Vertumne et Pomone.

Ranc incorporated garden scenes and nature as important elements in his portraits.

The exhibition opens with a survey of Ranc’s formative influences and includes scenes by Sébastien Bourdon and Jean de Troy and monumental altarpieces by Ranc’s father depicting well-proportioned figures of Saint Jacques and Saint Augustin (ca. 1700). Directly across from these are sumptuous portraits by Rigaud of himself and his brother (both 1691) along with Ranc père (1696) et fils (ca. 1710–15). Rigaud’s taste for draping his subjects in contrasting fabrics and his care in detailing their big, big, big wigs show us the sophisticated technique he taught to Ranc. They also reveal how close to the edge of flattery his works came—a method Ranc adopted just as enthusiastically with his Portrait d’homme en cuirasse (ca. 1700) and Portrait de Jean Olivier (1715). The pictures that gained him admission to the Académie—portraits of Nicolas Van Plattenberg dit de Platte-Montagne and François Verdier (both 1703)—are intense and confident and show the same spectacular detail of dress and pose. The most engaging pairing in the exhibition consists of the husband-and-wife portraits of Joseph Bonnier and Anne Melon (both 1702), whose ease of expression and likeability immediately draw us in. Ranc’s royal portraits of Louis XV (ca. 1718–19 and 1718–20), by contrast, are elegant but distant, while those of the Spanish Bourbons, particularly of Dom Francisco de Bragance and Dom Antonio de Bragance (both 1729), strike a somewhat truculent tone. Most of Ranc’s portraits in the exhibition have a genial if somewhat melancholy quality, suggesting that he could bring out the best in his sitters. In the case of the Bragances, however, the results are left to speak for themselves.

Jean Ranc, Vertumne et Pomone, ca. 1710–22, Oil on canvas, Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

As good as the portraits are, the exhibition’s highlight is Ranc’s spectacular Vertumne et Pomone (ca. 1710–22). Painted just before he departed for Spain, it visually retells Ovid’s story of Pomona’s seduction by the devious Vertumnus. Unlike Nicolas Fouché’s baby-doll depiction of her, or Rubens’s more obviously predatory Vertumnus, Ranc has Pomona in formal dress, delicately holding a parasol that allows for the play of light on her billowing cape and attire, while casting Vertumnus in half shadow as he spins his line. Vertumnus’s ardent expression and Pomona’s own calculating—maybe even amused—appraisal of his efforts make us wonder if she would have been more of a willing participant than Ovid originally conceived.

The catalogue (€39, in French) is excellent.