I find this painting of Queen Hortense under a pergola in Aix-les-Bains (1813) by Antoine-Jean Duclaux arresting on many levels. As a lover of the Regency era, the scene and its occupant are an embodiment of my romantic ideas about the era. I don’t care whether art critics regard the work as great or minor – there’s something about the quality of light (is it sunrise or is it the hour of the golden light – just before sunset?) … the solitary position of the sitter, whose back is turned to us … the beautiful clothes and scenery … the lively dog with a tail that bookends the feathers to the hat at right.
In 1813 the Napoleonic Wars were still raging on the Continent. British tourism to Europe had halted. Before the wars, the Grand Tour was a requirement for a young heir. Many rich girls and their chaperons also paid homage to France, Greece, and Italy, taking in the culture and fashions and bringing back objects d’art with Neoclassical influences. All of that had halted. Starved of Parisian influence, British fashions had begun to look to English history for influences and British and French fashions had begun to diverge.
This scene is quiet, almost elegiac. I wanted to write about my own response to the painting before looking up any information on it and am glad I did. It seems that just before she sat for this portrait, Queen Hortense, who is Josephine de Beauharnais’s daughter, had just lost her good friend, Adèle de Broc, who had drowned in front of her:
on 10 June, the two ladies went for a stroll near the Grésy waterfall. “I went first, the board was unsteady. I turned around: Good Lord! What a terrible sight! My friend, taken away by the current, had disappeared from view… Her lifeless body was retrieved [...] She was no more! What despair! Once again I found myself more alone than ever, without my friend who had helped me through all my hardships!” – Napoleon.org
In an effort to assuage Hortense’s grief, the painter François Fleury Richard was summoned. He arrived with his pupil, Atoine-Jean Duclaux, and while the master sketched the young queen playing music, the student painted the lady from behind. Duclaux had just turned thirty when he painted Hortense. His family had been driven out of Lyonnais during the terror to Burgundy, where the family lived on charity. In his youth he knew terror and the harsh realities of the guillotine. The painter’s early background and his knowledge of Hortense’s grief add to my enjoyment of this painting.
Hortense sits in shadow under a dark and oppressive roof, but she is bathed in golden light – a sign of hope? The little dog is there to comfort her or to draw attention away from her reverie and sad thoughts. “Here I am,” he seems to say, “notice me. ” Dogs in art mean fidelity and loyalty. They have also been associated with death and as guardians of the Other World, assuring us safe passage to the other side. Ostrich feathers, while quite a fashionable adornment during this era, are also symbols of truth in Egyptian art. It is interesting to see how the feathers are given the same visual weight as the dog’s tail. reaction to it.
One more thing: Hortense’s pose reminds me of my favorite view of Jane Austen, painted by her sister, Cassandra. It, too, is taken from behind. I love the mystery of both positions.
I am curious to know your thoughts about this painting and its many layers of visual enjoyment and interpretation.