Sarah Kuenzler is an independent researcher who holds a Masters in Art History from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her thesis focused on the orientalization of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam by the American artist Elihu Vedder, and her current research delves into aspects of racism and the collectable minority of 19th century trade cards. You can follow her on twitter @19thAmerican.
Preserving the feminine self: gathering agency from Laneuville’s The Citoyenne Tallien to Lehmann’s Portrait of Clémentine
Portraits were extremely popular in France at the end of the eighteenth century. Seen as a way to visually indicate assured citizenship and self-importance during the end of the French monarchy and the rise of Napoleon, there were unspoken social rules of portraiture along gender lines. Citizenship was a guarantee for only men. Portraiture, however, was not. Open to both sexes, the art of the portrait in post-revolutionary France allowed for a departure from the placid homemaker and the personifications of revolutionary ideals to one of self-decision and self-agency for women.
At the turn of the eighteenth century, women’s agency in portraiture changes with the concept of self-agency and citizenship. Two portraits in particular serve as befitting examples of such change – The Citoyenne Tallien in the Prison of La Force, Holding Her Hair Which Has Just Been Cut by Jean-Louis Laneuville (1796) and Portrait of Clémentine (Mrs. Alphonse) Karr by Henri Lehmann (1845). Political and social upheavals aside, both pieces show the feminine struggle to display their self-agency in an arena which at once transcended the limits of the home and simultaneously presented the sitter in an intimate setting.
For women like Thérésia Cabarrus, known also in eighteenth century France as Mme Tallien, portraiture under her own terms was a risky venture. From her prison cell in 1794, she commissioned a portrait from artist Jean-Louis Laneuville, which was exhibited at the Salon of 1796.[i] This portrait, seen in Figure 1, shows Cabarrus, “in a prison cell at La Force, holding her hair which has just been cut.”[ii] This portrait defies the late eighteenth-century standards for French women, depicting Cabarrus facing the audience with purpose, surrounded by elements which remind the viewer of her involvement with the revolution – mainly her severed curls, which was a step taken before a prisoner was sent to the guillotine.[iii] As Amy Freund states,
“One anomaly leads us to another. The sash around Cabarrus’s waist is improvised from a knotted handkerchief. The skirt of her dress is overlapped on the right by pieces of straw and on the left by a chain, objects that emphasize the conditions of her captivity. Cabarrus’s body is framed by a pillar supporting an archway on the left and the edges of a craggy stone wall on the right, adding a note of Gothic atmosphere…All these cut and crumbling objects remind the viewer of the dangers surrounding Cabarrus, whose unearthly calm suggests the fortitude of a Christian martyr or a heroine of ancient Rome…She is at once a society beauty and an actor in the national drama of the Terror”. [iv]
These elements assuredly seat Cabarrus’s involvement in the Revolution as entirely her own – in direct contrast to other portraits of French women of that same period, whose political leanings were usually only displayed in relation to their husbands’ views, removing the agency which Thérésia sought. The juxtaposition of a beautiful woman in such a strong, arresting pose and scene was disturbing to many viewers at the 1796 salon.[v] In a time when women were “discouraged from representing themselves as political actors,”[vi] Thérésia Cabarrus visually forces her audience to recognize her political involvement, creating a strong sense of feminine political agency for herself.
In the early nineteenth-century, the female portrait shows signs of a more deliberate feminine agency. Henri Lehmann’s 1845 Portrait of Clémentine (Mrs. Alphonse) Karr shows the sitter placed so close to the frame that we only see her from the waist up. The darkness of the background flows into elements of Clémentine – her hair, her eyebrows, and her dress. The contrast between the dark elements and the paleness of her skin increase the drama and the arresting nature of the image. The real power of the portrait, however, is in the gaze – Clémentine stares at you in a deliberate entry to the space of the viewer, unapologetically refusing to look away. This forced interaction on the sitter’s terms between viewer and work enforces the sense of self and agency Clémentine possesses. She will not shrink from society’s gaze, nor will she succumb to social pressures to be anything other than a self-possessed woman. While the bend of the hand under Clémentine’s chin is most likely a nod to Lehmann’s tutelage under Ingres,[vii] as seen in Ingres’s portrait of the Comtesse d’Haussonville (Figure 3), it also adds to the sitter both physical and mental stability – she holds herself up in the face of the viewer.
Like Thérésia Cabarrus, Clémentine was herself a public figure of some note due to her public and dramatic legal separation from her author husband, Alphonse Karr. Clémentine alleged that:
“…her husband had spent most of her dowry in two years of marriage; had left her in the country while maintaining a relationship with an actress in his apartment in Paris; had told her that he would never consent to a shared residence; had abandoned her [and her child] without a word…; and…had recently published an injurious novel, Le chimen le plus court, which cruelly and recognizably portrayed her and her mother”.[viii]
There are a few ways in which Lehmann’s portrait of Clémentine works to give agency to how the sitter views herself – mainly in the face of her separation from her more famous husband. Alphonse’s novel, Le Chemin Le Plus Court, presents the main character as “a noble and good-natured hero whose only flaws are that he is too credulous and too tender-hearted.”[ix] In a not-so-subtle way, Alphonse describes the heroine in his work as a physical match to Clémentine, including her black eyes and graceful hands. [x] Even though this portrait was painted eight years after her legal separation from Alphonse, Clémentine could be using the opportunity to re-cast herself as a real, strong, feminine person in the public eye. As a woman pictured alone in a portrait during the July Monarchy, “these were women who chose to stage themselves in public ways reflecting their rank and privilege and not in terms of their private roles of mother and spouse.”[xi] Both Thérésia and Clémentine work to establish their own image of their strong feminine selves in the face of political and social disapproval, almost five decades apart.
[i] Freund, The “Citoyenne” Tallien, 325
[iv] Ibid, 328. The Reign of Terror, known in French as La Terreur, is defined as the period during the French revolution from September 5, 1793 to July 27th, 1794. The Revolutionary government decreed an order of Terror and executed waves of people from all political leanings who were suspected of being enemies of the Revolution. At least 300,000 suspects were arrested – 17,000 were officially executed, and perhaps 10,000 died in prison or without trial. Britannica Academic, s. v. “Reign of Terror,” accessed April 17, 2016, http://academic.eb.com/EBchecked/topic/588360/Reign-of-Terror.
[v] Ibid, 328
[vi] Ibid, 325
[vii] Ambrosini, Two Paintings by Henri Lehmann.