I know almost nothing about Corneille de Lyon. I don’t have any books on him. I’ve never seen an exhibition devoted to him. But in museums across America and Europe, I find myself hovering, like a hummingbird poised to strike, in front of tiny portraits with green or blue backgrounds. And I frequently find, when I peer at the wall label, that they have been attributed to Corneille de Lyon.
None of them is signed. Although the paintings themselves are often no bigger than postcards, they are usually in elaborate, aedicular frames (niches covered by a pediment supported by a pair of stone columns). They are not all equally riveting. But most are a notch or two above everything around them.
What makes them so good is not easy to explain. It’s not just the extraordinary level of concentrated detail. They possess something else — something intangible, a hypnotic quotient of oddity.
It might be a slight asymmetry in the subject’s eyes. It might be the bravura rendering of a fancy plumed hat or a fabulous red mustache. Or it might be a particularly unforgiving stare, the kind I associate either with Ingres’s most incendiary 19th century portraits or the murderous looks my wife gives me when I’ve shrunk her new blouse in the dryer.
It all speaks to the artist’s refusal to idealize, to smooth over particulars for the sake of the sitter’s vanity. Corneille de Lyon painted portraits and, as far as we know, nothing else. This one, in Toledo, is the one I saw most recently. But I have seen others in Washington, London, New York, Chicago, Paris (the Louvre has 12), Vienna, Houston, Boston and the Berkshires.
But take that with a pinch of salt. In truth, only one painting — a portrait of a man named Pierre Aymeric in the Louvre — can be securely attributed to the hand of Corneille de Lyon. With all the rest, it’s educated guesswork.
That’s because he never signed his works and the historical record is unusually thin. He was born in The Hague in the first decade of the 16th century. (We don’t know the date.) In 1533 or 1534, he settled in Lyon, one of several Flemish painters active in the French city. A decade later, he was established as painter to the Dauphin (later King Henry II). In 1547, he became a naturalized French citizen by royal decree, and he died in Lyon in 1575.
Corneille always painted on a small scale. He employed multiple assistants. His subjects were usually men and women in court circles, merchants and officials.
The gold chain around the neck of this sitter, Maréchal Bonnivet, conveys wealth and status. Bonnivet’s large ear still seems to tingle with the sensation of having been pitilessly scrutinized, while the color and texture of his curly beard and thin mustache are captured with a miniaturist’s mind-bending wizardry.
Perhaps most arresting is the way Corneille’s emerald background chimes with the subject’s green eyes. Those eyes do not meet the viewer’s. But along with the tautly drawn mouth, they communicate an unmistakable intensity and resolve. All by itself the tiny bit of shading under the outside corner of his left eye conveys an impression of the muscles keeping the orb alert, missing nothing.
It’s this that catapults Corneille’s portraits five centuries into the present. Their immediacy is such that it diminishes our interest in the artist, the sitter, dates, patronage, costume and class — all those details that so exercise art historians. Instead of being buried under documents, befogged by facts, you find yourself in the immediate, proximate, breathing presence of another human being — and there’s suddenly no room for anything else.