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Portrait miniature of a lady, possibly Mme. De Montespan, in a rich interior

  • Object:

    Miniature

  • Place of origin:

    France (probably, painted)

  • Date:

    1690 (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Gouache on vellum, heightened with gold and silver

  • Museum number:

    P.39-1987

  • Gallery location:

    Europe 1600-1815, room 5, case CA10, shelf DRAWER 1

This painting started life as a fan-shaped sheet of parchment (animal skin), prepared by scoring or pleating. The sheet was stuck onto a larger sheet, which in turn was mounted down onto a thin, paper-covered copper panel. Some painting on the 'fan' section may have been undertaken before it was mounted. Microscopic investigation shows some trimming of, for example, gold highlights at the edge, while other areas of the 'fan' show more than one layer of paint, as if painted over after the enlargement. In the window area the paint layer appears continuous over both grounds. The fan area has been finished with a glossier glaze, which now shows craquelure and darkening not evident on the outer ground. It is likely that all the phases of work took place at almost the same time, with the painting as the intended product.

Fan painters (éventaillistes) could not join the painters' guild of St Luc and were debarred from selling pictures. By painting sheets that had clearly been designed as fans, they could claim the purity of their intention. Nonetheless, such small paintings are not uncommon. They must always have been particularly suitable for decorating the wooden panelling fashionable in Parisian hôtels and the smaller, private apartments at Versailles.

Physical description

Fan-leaf, extended by the same hand to form a rectangular cabinet miniature.

Place of Origin

France (probably, painted)

Date

1690 (painted)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Gouache on vellum, heightened with gold and silver

Dimensions

Height: 27.5 cm, Width: 47.5 cm, Height: 390 mm gilt frame, Width: 590 mm gilt frame, Depth: 60 mm gilt frame

Object history note

Sothebys 6th July (lot 81, bt. Partridge); purchased from Partridge Fine Arts Ltd, 1987

Historical significance: This painting started life as a fan-shaped sheet of parchment, prepared by scoring or pleating. The sheet was stuck onto a larger sheet, which was then mounted down onto a thin, paper-covered copper panel. Some painting on the 'fan' section may have been undertaken before it was mounted. Microscopic investigation shows some trimming of, for example, gold highlights at the edge, while other areas of the 'fan' show more than one layer of paint, as if painted over after the enlargement. In the window area the paint layer appears continuous over both grounds. The fan area has been finished with a glossier glaze, which now shows craquelure and darkening not evident on the outer ground. It is likely that all the phases of work took place at almost the same time, with the painting as the intended product.

The setting of the work is generally agreed to be the Trianon de Porcelaine. This single-storey pavilion was built in at the centre of an elegant and entertaining complex of gardens which Louis XIV had created for his Maitresse en titre at Verailles 1670-1. In the style of the Chinese taste, it was claimed that the Trianon de Porcelaine was constructed out of porcelain. It was in fact built of brick faced with blue and white pottery tiles from France and Holland. These blue and white tiles can be seen through the window which one of the Putti is shown opening in the left of the painting.

The identity of the lady in centre of the composition as that of Madame de Montespan, is confirmed by contemporary portraits. Attended by putti, she appears to be 'offered' as a gift, suggesting that the painting was made for her. The artist seems to have been asked to create a masque-like, teasing fantasy, laughingly combining aspects of a group portrait of Louis XIV and his legitimate family painted in 1670 as Olympian gods (p1.5.72) with the kind of royal parade of luxury illustrated in the tapestry of The Visit of King Louis XIV to the Gobelins, which records a visit made in 1667 (see p.124).

Madame de Montespan demonstrates her own considerable powers as the king's favourite and the effective queen of fashion. Having removed the suggestive dishabille for which she was renowned (see p1.5.54), she sits bare-breasted, her gown discarded over the jewel cabinet. Around her are examples of the most luxurious furnishings available at court at the time. No exact parallels for individual objects have been identified, but the silver, giltwood and ebony pieces incorporate the fashionable motifs of figure supports, fat paw feet and swags of bursting foliage held up by ribbon ties that appear on furniture associated with the court, which she may have seen and coveted (see p.122).

The gambolling putti who act as chorus and orchestra, underlining the overall theme of love, may offer a clue to more exact dating. On 21 April 1674 Madame de Montespan became the undisputed chief mistress when Louise de la Valliere finally retired to a convent. On 5 July, her children by Louis were brought to live at Versailles, following their legitimization in 1673.

The small figure in the bath is distinguished by the services of the putti, his special status also signalled by the laurel branches held above his head. It seems likely that this figure is the duc de Maine, four years old in 1674. That summer also saw lavish entertainments at Versailles, all revolving around Madame de Montespan. At this time, she was so confident of her power that a little teasing of her royal lover was allowable - perhaps by the commissioning of this most intimate of images.

This painting offers a rare view of the interior of this curious building. Very little survives from the Trianon de Porcelaine. It was pulled down after only seventeen years as it was sait that the French winters were too harsh for the delicate tiled exterior. Apart from this fan leaf, only a few tiles, drawings of the bed from the Chambre des Amours, a blue and white table (Getty Museum), and two gouache paintings by Werner, seem to be the only legacy of this building.

Historical context note

Small gouache paintings such as this one are generally described as fan leaves and were indeed painted on parchment or vellum prepared for fans, though this example was painted on the fan arc and surrounding areas at the same time and may always have been intended as a decorative picture.

Fan painters (éventaillistes) could not join the painters' guild of St Luc and were debarred from selling pictures. By painting sheets that had clearly been designed as fans, they could claim the purity of their intention. Nonetheless, such small paintings are not uncommon. They must always have been particularly suitable for decorating the wooden panelling fashionable in Parisian hôtels and the smaller, private apartments at Versailles.

Categories

Interiors; Paintings; Fans; Furniture

Collection

Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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