Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Lady in a Painting

the sole painting of a woman in the main hall of château de Sully-sur-Loire

Since today is the international women’s day, I thought it would be a good idea to share what I noticed when we visited the château de Sully-sur-Loire last summer. One of the largest and most important rooms in the castle is the main hall (salle d’honneur) with an area of 300 square meters. This served as a court, a receiving hall for aristocrats and dignitaries visiting the castle and as a ballroom for festivities and gatherings. It also served as the “theater” for some of Voltaire’s plays when he stayed here in exile.

the main hall or salle d'honneur of the castle seen from the door by the fireplace

On the wall are paintings of ancestors and prominent members of the family of Maximilien de Bethune (the duke of Sully) from the reign of Henry IV to Louis XV (source: Les Châteaux de la Loire I, Le Figaro Collection, February 2006). All are male, except for one. At the end of the immense hall, opposite the big fireplace is a painting of a beautiful, stately woman. It’s a shame I couldn’t remember her name, but I find it very interesting that she’s the only female member of the family whose painting is displayed here. She must be quite important and very influential to be given this “place” of honor --- her painting at the end of the hall as if presiding over a male-dominated banquet table. And I doubt it was an act on the part of the duchess of Sully as the paintings were commissioned by the duke himself. And it was he who instructed that these paintings be placed in the main hall. The lady in the portrait must have had a significant role, if not in the running of the estate, at least in the life of Maximilien de Bethune.

I like the idea of “a painting in a painting” shown in the portrait. The concept is not very common and opens a lot of doors for interpretation, not only about the subject but also about the artist’s intention. Is the painter implying something, or is it just pure aesthetic on his part? Was it the subject who chose to be painted with another painting or was it the artist’s choice? Why the juxtaposition of the women's ages? Why did the main lady in the portrait wore an underskirt having the exact color as the dress worn by the younger lady in the smaller painting --- is it her choice? or is it the painter's? did they really wore the dresses or were just drawn from the artist's imagination for an artistic purpose? And who is the woman in the smaller painting? So many questions, very few answers --- and many of them are just speculations.

a closer view of the main lady in the portrait

But at least, I believe I can answer the last question. Looking at the features of the two women, I would say that the one in the smaller painting is a younger version of the lady in the portrait. They have the same kind eyes, the dignified bearing without being arrogant or pompous, and the serene aura around them. The similarities are quite striking. Well, maybe I’m wrong. It's probable that the young lady in the smaller painting is an ancestor of the elderly woman. But I believe I could say with a fair amount of certainty that they are from the same family, if not the same person. And for her to be "shown" twice (if the latter case is true), she must have been a remarkable woman in her time to be given such importance by the duke of Sully in an era when women are usually relegated to the background ... and only a handful makes their name and influence known in areas dominated by men.

enlarged view of the lady in the smaller painting

Sully-sur-Loire part II, see part I


Greg Maher said...

my guess is that it's a portrait of elisabeth-charlotte "liselotte" who married louis XIV's brother philippe,duc d'orleans, and with a portrait of her daughter charlotte-elisabeth who was married to the duc de lorraine. It looks to me like liseloote is in mourning so it was probably painted c.1701-02 as the duc d'orleans or "monsieur" as he was known as,died in 1701.I also think it was painted by largilliere.

lareine said...

Thanks for the info Greg!

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