Jean-François de Troy, the director of the Académie de France in Rome, wrote to Abel François Poisson, marquis de Ménars et de Marigny (1727-81) on 10 November 1751:
[…] Barbault, pensionnaire, a fini six tableaux des douze que vous [Marigny] lui aviés ordonné […]. Ces six tableaux sont: Le Suisse de la garde du Pape; le Cocher du Pape; le Chasseur; la Frascatane; la Fille dotée; la Vénitienne […] Il [Barbault] se dispose à faire, conformément à vos ordres: le Cardinal; le Prélat de Mantellette et de Mantellone […] le Chevau-Léger; le Gentilhomme en habit de cour; la Neptunese; la Florentine; la Donna della Torre dei Greci; la Calabrese. S’il y a quelque chose à changer dans ce projet, yous aurés la bonté de me le faire sçavoir.
The client in question, the marquis de Marigny, was a favourite of Louis XV and the younger brother of Madame de Pompadour. At the age of only eighteen he was designated directeur et ordonnateur des Bâtiments, des Jardins, Arts, Académies et Manufactures royales. He arrived in Rome on the Grand Tour in March 1750 in the company of the draughtsman and writer Charles-Nicolas Cochin, the architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot and a certain Abbé Le Blanc. It was this visit that was to establish le bon goût in France and lay the foundations for the emergence of Neoclassicism.
Marigny met Barbault at the Académie de France. The scholars at the Académie had recently planned a triumphal procession to be held in Marigny’s honour. Participants were to appear in oriental costume and the whole event extravagantly designed and staged in a flamboyant architectural setting. The project never came to fruition. However, the proposed event and individual costume designs are documented in a large-format frieze painted by Barbault. Barbault’s skills as a painter will undoubtedly have come to the attention of Marigny in this connection.
The quotation cited above indicates that Barbault’s portrayal of a member of the Swiss Guard formed part of a series of paintings depicting contemporary Italian costumes. A number of these paintings later acquired something like cult status in Barbault’s lifetime among travellers visiting Rome on the Grand Tour. This encouraged him to produce ‘new editions’ by painting a number of different versions. Several versions of the Swiss Guard are recorded. In the present painting the exaggerated pose of the dutiful member of the pontifical guard has a distinctly humorous touch. Barbault’s various depictions of the Swiss Guards show them smartly uniformed, against a dark brown, often architecturally structured, background. Some of his figures are moustachioed. The doublets are decorated with the traditional blue, yellow and red bands and the weapons are the halberd and broadsword. This is still the case today – only the wide-brimmed tricorn hat with its heron feather has been replaced by a simple beret.
These miniature masterpieces were directed at a small, exclusive clientele. In Rome, the contemporary art market still favoured scenes from everyday life over scenes originating in enthusiasm for antiquity. Although Barbault could look back on a long tradition of costume painting, his works are remarkable for their miniaturistic precision and colouristic virtuosity. In the nineteenth century, similar subjects were frequently depicted but more for reasons of interest in costume and tradition.
Records of Barbault’s life and artistic career are only fragmentary. On stylistic grounds it is thought that he served as an apprentice to Pierre Subleyras (1699-1749).