The Astronomy Lesson of the Duchesse du Maine by Francois de Troy (1705-1710)
The Astronomy Lesson of the Duchesse du Maine presents a window into the glittering life at Sceaux, the seat of the Duc and Duchesse du Maine. The Duc was the legitimized son of Louis XIV and Mme de Montespan and the Duchesse, Louise-Bénédicte de Bourbon, daughter of the Prince de Condé. In 1700 they moved into the chateau, which was built for Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), the controller general and later secretary of state for the navy to Louis XIV. It was near enough to Versailles for them participate in some of the court life there, but far enough away to have an independent existence.
According to Saint-Simon, the noted memoirist, the Duc was solitary and unpleasant, while the Duchesse was a lively personality, fascinated by the arts and sciences, who devoted herself to spending her husband’s fortune on a variety of remarkable entertainments. She even founded a imaginary order of chivalry called the Ordre de la “Mouche à Miel” (Order of Flies to Honey) of which she was naturally Reine des Abeilles (Queen Bee). Under her guidance Sceaux became famous for both its wit and extravagance.
The painting is set in the Duchesse’s apartments, which were part of the public rather than the private space at Sceaux. It had formerly been the library of Colbert, and much of the furnishings were his. The only recognizable sign of the Duchesse’s taking it over is the clock on the rear wall, which has the Duc’s and Duchesse’s supported by the figures of Time and Love. The Duchesse is seated in an arm chair (fauteuil) as befitted a princess of the blood and across from her on a stool (tabouret), indicating his lower rank, is Nicolas de Malézieu, a tutor to the Duc, and a member of the Académie des Sciences and the Académie française, among other accomplishments. Malézieu was part of the learned and talented people with whom the Duchesse surrounded herself and was her mainstay in organizing her various projects and entertainments. While the Duchesse is in her daytime clothes, her hair
unpowdered, Malézieu is wearing a theatrical costume, possibly denoting the seamless transition from art to science that characterized life at Sceaux. He appears to be enumerating various points related to astronomy which she confirms, referring to the large text before her and the celestial globe to her left. In the doorway at the far left appears the Abbé Charles-Claude Genest, whose long nose prompted the Duchess to compose an anagram about it. He in turn is shown holding a loupe in his hand and gesturing toward Malézieu, who had extremely poor vision.
Le Troy painted few versions of the same painting and one of them was sold at Sotheby’s, New York, in 2009 for 230,500 USD.