An 18th century portrait of a small dog believed to be Marie Antoinette’s toy poodle Pompon sold at auction on Friday for $279,400, 56 times the high pre-sale estimate of $5,000. This was totally unexpected, as several versions of this portrait exist and none of them have generated the kind of explosive interest that sparks an auction floor bidding war. Fifteen people were bidding against each other for this piece, inexplicably driving the price up into the stratosphere.
The painter was Jacques Barthélémy Delamarre who was active in Paris in the last quarter of the 18th century through the early 19th century. Very little is known about him. The only biographical information with a paper trail about him is that he was admitted to the Académie Saint-Luc, a Paris painters and sculptors guild, in 1777.
He made several versions of this dog portrait. There are differences in the grooming style, the backgrounds and the accessories in the room. One sitting on a red velvet bed sold for 11,875 euros, 10 times its very low estimate, at Sotheby’s in 2020. That same version sold for just a hair above estimate in Paris in 2021.
There is no evidence that Marie Antoinette commissioned the comparatively unknown Delamarre to paint her pooch. There’s no evidence that the portrait was even made in the dog’s lifetime, nor in the tragic queen’s. Not even the dog’s breed is certain. It has been billed variously as a Löwchen, a King Charles Cavalier spaniel and as a Bichon Frisé/Maltese.
If this is a portrait of one of Marie Antoinette’s many dogs, it was probably painted after her death as a souvenir for people with nostalgic feelings for the decapitated monarchs. That would explain why he cranked out several versions of the pup.
So the feeding frenzy for the one that just sold cannot really be explained by the quality or backstory of the painting itself. My theory is the dog looks so meme-like with his fluff-up-top, shaved-down-below style that bidders lost their minds a little.