On 4 February 1771 the two royal brothers Gustav and Fredrik arrived in Paris. By that time Roslin had already had time to paint a portrait of their middle brother, Karl, who had left the French capital a few months earlier. New sittings now followed – in the mornings the Crown Prince and his younger brother came to Roslin’s studio – as we are told by the ambassador, Creutz. The individual pictures in the form of half-length portraits that he produced were to be repeated in numerous other contexts. Roslin himself could hardly have had any inkling of how rapidly a demand for a series of royal commissions would arise. As fate would have it, Gustav III was in the box of Countess d’Egmont at the Paris Opera when news reached him on 1 March that his father had died two weeks earlier. There can be no doubt that this was important for Roslin’s career in France, especially as he had failed to acquire the most prestigious commission of painting Louis XV. But now he was first in the field and the new king was liberal with his commissions.
Not merely half-length portraits of Gustav III were required, now the same basic type was needed in full-figure. To this was added a group portrait of the three royal brothers. Like all fully fledged court painters, Roslin was able to vary the same basic design to form a number of different compositions and formats and their associated replicas. In the first separate portrait he painted of Gustav III, the new king was depicted in armour, with a gown strewn with crowns and the grand star of the Order of the Seraphim. This was an archaic form of representation, but it can be interpreted allegorically. The king’s heroic costume endows him with the role of Sweden’s strong man, a Hercules who will crush the Hydra of anarchy and discord. It is more than symptomatic that after the coup d’état in August 1772 Roslin made a new version with the same basic pattern, now in revolutionary uniform “with a kerchief”.
In addition to Gustav III, separate portraits of the two princes, Karl and Fredrik Adolf, were produced by Roslin. Only the last of these has been preserved in a pastel version. The artist was also required to compose a group portrait based on these three studies. Because of the constraints he faced, Roslin was now obliged to create a totally new configuration. He chose a triangle as his basic structure with the three princes seated round a table. To hide the fact that the princes had not themselves sat for this large painting and so mask his use of manikins or lay figures, Roslin chose to dramatise the portrait by introducing a narrative. The royal brothers were portrayed as they studied a plan of campaign. Although this was intended to enhance the composition, at the same time none of the subjects could be depicted from an unfavourable angle. Roslin was particularly successful with the two younger brothers, while the new king’s face was partly overshadowed.
This eagerness to please turned out be somewhat fatal for the credibility of the narrative, as none of the participants is paying the slightest attention to the plan on the table. There is no need to turn to any of the more sardonic French reviewers. The same observation was made by a good-natured Swede visiting Paris. Johan Henrik Lidén puts his finger on the problem in an article in the Swedish publication Allmänna Tidningar: “Not one of the Personages is looking at the Plan of the Fortifications, which is nevertheless the subject of their Discussion, nor is any one of them looking at the other, but each observes the beholders - - - but he [the artist] should not have chosen an action, when in doing so he essentially offends truth and Convenance”. His final judgement is not far from that of the anonymous contributor to Mémoires Secrètes: “One is not entitled to choose a composition that one cannot discharge without offending the most important rules – good taste and truth”. Both had complied with the classical rhetorical forms by pointing to all the merits, not least Roslin’s eminent ability to render fabrics and external appearances in a lifelike manner, but then they approach what was sometimes a justifiable criticism, not least on the part of Diderot: resemblance and illusion do not always coincide, if the representation lacks credibility. However it is possible to object to the demand for universal realism by pointing out that this was a portrait of princes. The demands of decorum required the models to exhibit dignity. Gustav III and his brothers could hardly be portrayed as sweaty campaigners despite the gravity of their doings. Here, rather, one pictorial convention runs athwart another.