Henry-Pierre Danloux, Le Baron de Besenval dans son salon de compagnie, 1791, huile sur toile, London, National Gallery, NG 6598
This portrait by Henri-Pierre Danloux shows Peter Viktor von Besenval surrounded by paintings and objets d’art. On the mantelpiece there are Chinese celadon vases with gilt bronze fittings; the Baron’s collection of Japanese porcelain can be seen on an item of furniture at the back right. «Le Baron de Besenval dans son salon de compagnie», 1791. Wikimedia / National Gallery

The passions of Sir von Besenval

Peter Viktor von Besenval was born 300 years ago. A Swiss baron and a mercenary officer in the service of the French crown, Besenval was a passionate collector of objets d’art and plants, and a notorious ladies’ man.

Andreas Affolter

Andreas Affolter

Director of the Museum und Begegnungszentrum Schloss Waldegg.

On 10 August 1795, Parisian art lovers were offered the ‘splendid opportunity to acquire superb and exquisite objects’. The auction catalogue that bore these words had everything the well-to-do urban sophisticate could desire. Paintings by contemporary artists and old masters, exquisite porcelain from China and Japan, statues dating from antiquity, busts, gold tobacco boxes and magnificent furniture went under the hammer. Almost 300 years later, a number of these objects are in the collections of the world’s most famous museums, and fetch millions in other auctions. The former owner of these exquisite art treasures was Peter Viktor von Besenval (also known as Pierre Victor, baron de Besenval de Brünstatt). A mercenary officer from one of the most powerful aristocratic families in Solothurn, Besenval amassed a collection that was the envy of contemporaries even during his own lifetime. As a passionate lover of the arts, Besenval embodied all the qualities that were ascribed to an ‘amateur’ in the 18th century: exquisite taste, an instinct for beauty, and friendly relationships with numerous artists. In fact, the General was even admitted to France’s Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture as an ‘Honoraire Amateur’. Thanks to various inheritances and the income from his military service Besenval, who was born at Schloss Waldegg in Solothurn and lived in France from the age of five, became a wealthy man. In 1767, then lieutenant colonel of the Swiss Guards Regiment, he bought himself a palatial residence (Stadtpalais) in the exclusive Faubourg Saint-Germain district, in which he found space for his ever-growing art collection. The stately hôtel particulier still bears Besenval’s name, and since 1938 has been the home of the Swiss Embassy in France.
In 1767 Besenval purchased a hôtel particulier, a grand private residence, on the Rue de Grenelle in Paris
In 1767 Besenval purchased a hôtel particulier, a grand private residence, on the Rue de Grenelle in Paris, and had it remodelled by the architect Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart. Today the building houses the Swiss embassy in France. Wikimedia / Chatsam
Besenval had his new home remodelled to suit his tastes. He secured the services of the renowned architect Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart, who enlarged the building and built a gallery with a skylight for the baron’s collection of paintings – still a novelty in those days. In the basement, however, Brongniart built a nymphaeum, an opulent bathing hall ‘à l’antique’. The hall was lavishly decorated by Claude Michel, known as Clodion, who created, among other things, two large bas-reliefs featuring bathing nymphs, vases decorated with female bacchantes and fauns, and a statue of a naiad. With its exquisite decor the bathing hall, in the style of classical nymphaeums, quickly attained great renown and became one of the known attractions of Paris. As a temple dedicated to love and beauty, the nymphaeum with its erotic scenes also helped bolster Besenval’s aura as a lover and seducer.
Augustin-Claude-Simon Le Grand, Le repos, 1785. Etching, Museum Schloss Waldegg, Wa 1018
Besenval owned a large number of exquisite erotic paintings. This etching by Augustin-Claude-Simon Le Grande was based on the painting «Jeune grecque endormie» by Joseph-Marie Vien, which was in Peter Viktor von Besenval’s collecion, 1785. Museum Schloss Waldegg
Besenval’s success with women and his numerous amorous adventures were common knowledge. Although he never married, the baron had many short-lived affairs, as well as some more serious romantic relationships. One of his long-standing mistresses, Louise-Anne de Vernon, Marquise de Ségur, was also the wife of Besenval’s friend and brother-in-arms Philippe-Henri de Ségur. However, the relationship with Louise-Anne, which continued until her death and produced an illegitimate son, cast no cloud over the relationship between the spouses, or that of Besenval and his friend.
Studio of François-Hubert Drouais, Louise-Anne de Vernon, Marquise de Ségur (1729-1778), around 1770, Schloss Waldegg, Wa 1211.
The Marquise de Ségur was both the wife of Besenval’s good friend Philippe-Henri de Ségur, and Besenval’s long-standing mistress and mother of his illegitimate son, Joseph-Alexandre de Ségur. Studio of François-Hubert Drouais, «Louise-Anne de Vernon, Marquise de Ségur» (1729-1778), around 1770. Museum Schloss Waldegg
On the contrary, the three loved spending their time together. Besenval spent a great deal of time at the Ségur château in Romainville, where he was able to pursue another of his passions: garden design. He too had become caught up in the general ‘garden mania’ of the 18th century. Assisted by the architect Brongniart, he had the grounds of his friend’s château in Romainville transformed into an Anglo-Chinese garden. Fitted out with a number of ‘follies’ – including Roman and Chinese pavilions, an Egyptian statue and a waterfall – the new park boasted everything the enlightened garden enthusiast of the day could have called for!
Plate Différentes Décorations de Romainville de l’Ordonnance de M. le Baron de Besenval, from: Georges-Louis Le Rouge, Jardins anglo-chinois, 9e cahier, 1781.
Besenval had an Anglo-Chinese garden with various ‘follies’ laid out at the château of his friend de Ségur in Romainville. «Différentes Décorations de Romainville de l’Ordonnance de M. le Baron de Besenval», around 1781. Museum Schloss Waldegg
Besenval had the garden of his own hôtel in Paris converted into an English garden, and cultivated rare and exotic plants in specially built greenhouses. To help him obtain seeds and specimens of orchids, jasmine and tulips, he had access to an extensive network. In around 1785 he received bulbs of unknown flowers from South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope procured for him by Colonel Charles-Daniel de Meuron, an acquaintance from Neuchâtel. Besenval even passed on his passion for rare plants to no less a personage than Queen Marie-Antoinette. At his suggestion, she had a number of valuable species planted in the Trianon Gardens at Versailles. Just as he did in the art world, Besenval also acted as a patron in the realm of botany. In gratitude for his support, a plant was even named after him. Unfortunately, it transpired that this particular species had been given its scientific name several years earlier, and so it is known today not as Besenvalia senegalensis, but as Oncoba spinosa.
Unnumbered plate, Besenvalia senegalensis, in: Pierre-Joseph Buc’hoz, Les Dons merveilleux et diversement coloriés de la nature dans le règne végétal […], Paris, chez l’Auteur, rue de la Harpe, [1782], 2 vol., in-folio.
In an attempt to curry favour with his patron Besenval, in 1782 Pierre-Joseph Buc’hoz named a plant Besenvalia senegalensis. However, he was too late with the naming. The thorny shrub had already been known for seven years as Oncoba spinosa. Unnumbered plate, around 1782. gallica.fr

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