Femme à sa Toilette, Mme de Montesson

30 January 2011

Femme à sa Toilette painted by Guillaume Voiriot in around 1760. I wrote about this painting back in the heady days when I first started this blog but am going to write about it again as I think that this must be one of my all time favourite eighteenth century portraits.

I first came across it while wandering around the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris a couple of years ago. I’d just been gently scolded for taking photographs in the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition in the Musée des Modes and so was too abashed to take photographs in its magnificent sister museum.

I was more brazen when I went back last June, as you can see.

I was hiding from a particularly overly friendly curator when I turned a corner and saw this portrait hanging luminous and beautiful against a dark wall. The label says that it probably depicts Charlotte-Jeanne Béraud de la Haye de Riou, Marquise de Montesson and morganatic second wife of the Duc d’Orléans.

Madame de Montesson was a well known society lady in the final days of the ancien régime. She’d been married off at the age of sixteen to the seventy six year old Marquis de Montesson and became well known at Versailles for her beauty, sweetness of nature and wit. After her husband died in 1769, she became the mistress of the Duc d’Orléans who was so enamoured with her that he wished to make her his wife. Sadly, Louis XV refused to give his permission for the marriage and the couple had to wait until 1772, when his successor the young King Louis XVI gave his consent to the match, on the condition that it remained a secret and that Madame de Montesson did not take the title of Duchesse d’Orléans.

I stood for a long time in front of this painting, admiring Madame’s direct yet langourous gaze, the seductive ribbons on her bodice, the lavish falls of lace at her elbow and the exquisite feminine clutter on her dressing table. To me, this painting epitomises everything that I most love about eighteenth century France.

You have here the attractive mistress of a Royal prince, surrounded by serious luxury and yet at her elbow there sits a bouquet of flowers, while in her hand she holds a book, her finger marking the spot at which she was interrupted. She holds your gaze enquiringly, almost as if she doesn’t mind in the slightest if you want to look at her, but she’d actually like to carry on with her reading if it’s all the same with you.

A first sweeping glance of this picture would probably convince you that Madame is as beauteous as her surroundings but there’s also that wonderful eighteenth century trick of loading a portrait up with so much flounce and gilt and gorgeous, luxurious detail that it takes you a while to realise that actually the sitter isn’t actually all that pretty after all.


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