Physical beauty has brought fame throughout the ages to women on whom it has been bestowed and French women seemingly had more persuasive powers through the bedchamber, than their English counterparts.
Mistresses provided for the sovereign’s amorous dalliance and amusement, and in some cases this turned into devoted love.
Well-known eighteenth century French portraitist Jean-Marc Nattier (1685-1766) specialized in recording the beautiful aristocratic women of his time.
Graceful and charming, just like the Marquise d’Argence, all Nattier’s sitters enjoyed his ability to offer them innumerable guises to embrace.
The detailing of eighteenth century costume in French paintings of the period, is quite breathtaking.
Here Marie Françoise de La Cropte de St. Abre, Marquise d’Argence, is wearing a white dress with a grey pointed bodice trimmed with lace and pearls.
She also has an extravagant bow of taffeta knotted at her breast. The rendering of the wonderful fabric of her dress, is completed with such great skill, you can almost hear it rustling.
When this work was completed in 1744, she had been married in Paris to Francois Achard Journard Tison d’Argence (1719-1781) who had descended from famous families whose ancestry stretched back into antiquity.
Jean Marc Nattier also represented a number of his clients as Diana, Goddess of the Moon, the Forest and the Hunt. Perhaps the most famous would be Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour.
A member of the haute bourgeoise Jeanne-Antoinette managed to rise above her station and become the official mistress to the King of France.
Nattier depicted Reinette, as her family called her, wearing a white chemise, seductively low on her shoulders, while wrapped in an exotic leopard skin, which was highly fashionable.
He placed her against a dramatic sky, highlighting the delicacy of her beauty. It is easy to engage with her direct gaze, which is more than sensual, her eyes providing a wonderful window to the soul.
When the King left the famous Yew Tree Ball at Versailles celebrating he wedding of the Dauphin to Infanta Maria Teresa Rafaela of Spain in 1745, with a woman dressed as Diana, it created quite a stir, especially when everyone discovered who she was.
Nattier’s portraits of court ladies by this time were much in demand, because he was known for being able to retain his ladies likeness while enhancing their beauty.
During the eighteenth century at Paris the new independent, rich, less discreet slightly immoral society was clamouring for novelty.
When Louis XV ascended to the throne he was required to share the limelight with his nobles and to take notice of the thoughts and wishes of the bourgeoisie, or middle classes who were becoming more and more influential
They were gaining an education and questioning established ideas of thought. A change of style was required because it represented an intellectual challenge to earlier ideas that had taken hold through fashion
Of all his ladies Nattier’s Portrait of Marie Leczinska, Queen of France, which appeared at the Salon in 1748 is considered perhaps his most poignant and remarkable likeness painted from life.
She is in many ways a sad figure, locked into a formal marriage without a private relationship. Having nearly died in childbirth in 1737, it was 1738 when she barred the King from her bedchamber.
Official portraitist to the four daughters of King Louis XV after 1745, Nattier’s ladies were mostly involved in passionate pursuits.
It was 1745 when he took Madame de Pompadour as his official mistress, and Marie Leczinska despite the angst caused by those around her, managed to have a reasonable relationship with her.
Born in Paris, Jean-Marc Nattier’s father was a portraitist to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture of which he became a student when he was fifteen years of age.
His godfather Jean Jouvenet was a history painter and he couldn’t’ have failed to have had an influence on his young charge.
As a young man Nattier was kept occupied, assisting both his father and brother with the plates for engravings commissioned for the cycle of works depicting Maria de Medici’s life by German born Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, that were hanging in the Luxembourg Palace.
In 1715 when in Amsterdam Nattier painted portraits of Russian Tsar Peter the Great and his wife Empress Catherine, at the time he turned down an offer to go to Russia, which in reflection may not have been a bad idea.
He became made a member of the French Academy in 1718, but then was caught up in a financial crisis of 1720 in France, which meant he had to abandon his desire to be a history painter, taking on the more lucrative profession of portraitist.
He used his love of history however, to call on his knowledge of mythological figures to fashion his sitters, amusing their friends while enhancing their reputations.
Historical, mythological subjects and allegorical motifs were all the rage, the rediscovery of classical antiquity reaching a zenith of popularity, as publications about the ancients were more readily available through publication. It stirred the imagination and innovation of both poets and artists, taking hold in the visual arts and not letting go until the end of the nineteenth century.
During the 18th century the philosophical revolution of the ‘Enlightenment’ in France throughout the century until the rupture that saw its monarchy overthrown, was fuelled by dramatists, the success of opera and inspired by Romanticism. Studying your myths became essential to the understanding of much English and American literature.
Nattier and his lovely images helped to drive intellectual change and eventually by old age, he like other painters of his day, was suffering as more and more people demanded realism above fantasy. He depicted Marie Adelaaide de France, the fourth daughter and sixth child of King Louis XV as justice punishing injustice.
Eventually they left the frivolity of the Rococo style behind and embraced the future and the style now known as Neoclassicism.
While they lasted however, Nattier’s lovely ladies such as Madame Henriette, twin sister of Louise Elisabeth de France, reigned supreme.
The eldest child of King Louis XV of France, she fell in love with a prince from the Orléans branch of the family although not allowed by her father to marry him.
She poured all her passion into her love for music as Jean-Marc Nattier’s portrait shows she is playing the viola da gamba with alacrity.
Only 24 when she died of smallpox, hers is a sad story, with Nattier’s image ensuring she always remained an image of youthful beauty.
We would have to say that Jean-Marc Nattier achieved his full potential through patronage.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015