Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Female Elements: Mesdames de France

When Louis XV commissioned Jean-Marc Nattier to produce portraits of four of his daughters representing earth, fire, water, and air, he furthered a notion of natural right that had cemented France as a superpower in continental Europe.  This ancient concept of earthly bodies ruling by order of celestial spheres is at once subtle and obvious in his daughter’s portraits.  For what, one could ask, is more elemental than a woman?  What is stronger than the elements but the will of mankind?

In strikingly similar styles, Nattier had painted Louis’ daughters before with Henriette as Flora and Adelaide as Diane.   The Frenchman was known for his allegorical depictions, a style that would go out of fashion by the end of the 18th century.  For this mid-century work, though, he was perfect.  Re-imagining the Filles de France as goddesses or mythological figures was something he could capture with with romantic efficiency, portraying Louis’ daughters as both naive, gentle creatures and powerful earthly beings.

Madame Henriette as Flora (1742)  Check out the sandaled feet!

Commissioned by Marie Leczynska as a pendant portrait to Madame Henriette as Flora; Adelaide, 13 years old (1745)

Unlike his predecessors, Louis XV’s grandfather, Louis XIV, presupposed that his tempestuous courtiers would best respond to his absolute rule if they were surrounded by natural symbols of his God-given power.  The Louis’s were masterminds at propagandizing and with the exception of Marie Antoinette’s Louis, their images carried splendidly in art as well as in person.  Since Louis XV’s daughters were his pride and joy until Madame du Barry sullied the scene, he understandably adored these portraits.

His eldest daughter and the premiere princess Louise-Elisabeth personifies earth in this series that once hung in the south wing of Versailles.  She had married by proxy the Infante Phillip of Spain in 1739 at the tender age of 12.  This was a distinction among Louis’ daughters.  One flew to the convent and the others never married.  The three single ladies following Louise-Elisabeth in age–Henriette, Adelaide, and Victoire–assumed the roles of fire, air, and water.

The Earth

Madame Louise-Elisabeth

As a mother, Louise-Elisabeth is the most voluptuous and fertile of the sisters.  Sitting on golden brown cloth and surrounded by a landscape, all but her stark white body and gown is earthen colored.  Her elbow rests upon a globe showing France and Spain (her husband’s home) along with the upper African continent.  Her posture is open and confident.  She drapes her left arm over grapes and other various fruits and flowers.  To the south of a plump peach, coins spill along the greyish-ivory glide of her dress. The steer handler in the background appears to be waving, perhaps declaring the riches birthed by the earth in the form of his bovine?  The only detail that seems curious to me is the pearl beading around her waist and arms and even in her hair.  Makes me wonder if the water element, in addition to earth, is a nod to her fecundity.

The Fire

Madame Anne-Henriette 

Louis’ favorite daughter Henriette represents a Vestal virgin upholding the virtues of domesticity and home.  Her rippling dress, the color of silver smoke, echoes the swirls of smoke to her left where the fire burns on a marble altar decorated with swags and florals.  Her fingers rest thoughtfully on her chin while propped just to the center of her lap is a tome entitled Histoire des Vestales.  The statue in the background is Vesta, the goddess of the hearth whose virgins once spread the sacred fires to the homes of every Roman.  The goddess is commonly shown with her tools of a bowl of fire and a torch.

The Water

Madame Victoire 

I’m quite taken with Victoire’s eyes.  They large and watery with copious amounts of highlighter lining the bottom.  Her sisters must have been so jealous!  As a water nymph, Victoire is luminous from the tip of her nose to her pale bosom.  The scene is tranquil and, with the exception of the urn, almost slumberous.  A pair of swans swim in the backdrop, the reeds beside her sway on a gentle breeze.  The sole detail interrupting the gentle portrait is the urn gushing water.  I have read that the direction of the water, parallel to her hips, represents fertility.  As a single lady, Victoire spent her life childless, but maybe since she was the seventh child of Louis and Marie we can conclude abundance was the pride of this royal family? (though clearly not male Y chromosome abundance).  I do note that the earth and water sisters are wearing similar pearl headbands, which probably answers my earlier question about Louise-Elisabeth.

The Air

Madame Adelaide 

Adelaide’s portrait as Juno has the most movement of the four.  She looks like she’s sitting on clouds with her companion, the peacock.  The regal, if fierce, looking peacock is perched on the same brownish substance, a pink bow tied prettily around his neck.  The rainbow arching over Adelaide dances in the background, seeming to come closer to us the closer we look.

Along with the peacock and the upward trajectory of Adelaide’s posture, the focus adds a whimsical nature to the painting.  Any moment she might lose hold of the blue cloth and float away with it.  Why, though, is her gown tied in the back?  Juno was often depicted as wearing a goatskin cloak knotted around her neck.  So, either we are to assume Adelaide is donning the goat or it must be an extremely windy day and she can’t otherwise keep her naughty bits covered?  Doesn’t matter, I suppose.  She and the rest of her sisters are fetching as the elements and I can see why Louis adored these portraits.  I certainly do.

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The Bird Still Sings: Underrated Poet, Anne Finch (1661-1720)

Yesterday I received an email from a musician specializing in the 18th century who had recently begun a YouTube project on the poems of Anne Finch, née Kingsmill.  If you’re not familiar with the Countess of Winchilsea, she was one of England’s earliest celebrated female poets and served as a trailblazer to all aspiring stanza scribblers of the feminine persuasion during the 18th century.

Only a handful of collections by female poets were published prior to her, and Anne herself was nervous of the negative reputation gained by her predecessors.  For a long time after coming to court at St. James’ Palace, where she served as Maid of Honour to the Duke of York’s (later King James II) wife, she kept her scribblings private.

When she married in 1684, her husband Heneage Finch strongly supported her work.  Since she possessed hopelessly illegible penmanship, he eventually transcribed her poems into a folio manuscript around 1694 -1695.  His encouragement, along with that of her friends, played a signifcant role in getting her poems before the public eye.

Anne’s daily struggles provided fodder for her writing.  The Finches led an exciting life of political upheaval, starting with their refusal to swear an oath to William of Orange during the Bloodless Revolution.  Stressors regarding her husband’s arrest and their subsequent exile resulted in Anne having a depressive period, which produced one of her most famous poems, The Spleen.

Although Anne is not part of the popular British canon today, she was a well-heeled wit who could hold her own against contemporary poets.  She was unusual for her time not only because she was a published female poet, but unlike many of her peers, she was happily married.  These unique circumstances turned Anne into an upper class observer, and lucky for us, her poetry provides a window into the 18th century elite without being too firmly entrenched in the inside view.

Many of her poems center around love and friendship, but her topics went beyond proper female preoccupations of the time.  They ranged from keen political observations to feminist commentary on sufferance and repression.  And as poets are wont to do, she had a satirical devotion to the human condition, though, unlike some of her male contemporaries, she posessed a tendency to temper her barbs.

If you like your poetry read to you with music accompaniment and video, please consider visiting Anne Finch Poetry on Youtube.  I’ve embedded ‘Tis Strange, This Heart’ for your enjoyment:

If you’re interested in Anne, a more complete history can be found at Celebration of Women Writers, Biography and Links to Works from UPenn.  I will also provide links to Anne Finch’s poetry and the YouTube channel in the 18th Century Reading Room for later reference.

The Rise and Fall of May Fair

“May Fair, upon the authority of a tract that will be named presently ‘was granted by King James II under the great seal, in the fourth year of his reign, to Sir John Coell and his heirs for ever, in trust for the Right Honourable Henry Lord Dover and his heirs for ever; to be held in the field called Brookfield, in the parish of St. Martin’s, Westminster, to commence on the first day of May, and continue fifteen  days after it yearly for ever, for the sale of all manner of goods and merchandise.” Gentleman’s Magazine, 1816.

‘May Fair’ may have started out as a venue for cattle and other live trade in 1688, but soon enough the market diverged into an all out celebration of amusement and vice.  By the dawn of the 18th century, pickpockets and rogues were heading to the fair in droves.  The year 1700 brought such a disorderly crowd that the magistrates present were forced to send for the constables.  Their mission was to subdue the charlatans and thieves who went to prey on the merry and the drunk, but chaos erupted instead.  John Cooper, a peace officer, was accidentally killed when soldiers joined in the throng, and as a result May Fair’s reputation stumbled.

Victoria & Albert Museum 

The people, however, loved their yearly May outing.  By 1707, after attracting the nobility and gentry (including the Lady Mary Finley as the must-see rope dancer) the fair was all the rage.   Everywhere one looked May Fair was bursting with revelry.   Here and there were Indian rope dancers and buffoons, puppet shows and music shows, stage plays and tricksters.  For those loose with their pockets, gaming, raffling, and lotteries served up yet another diversion.

In 1708 the right to hold the fair was openly attacked.  The throng and ongoing unsavory behavior were declared a public nuisance.  Come April of 1709, Queen Anne issued a Royal Proclamation prohibiting the erecting or making of stalls or booths for stage and music plays, along with any activity deemed disorderly.

Still May Fair refused to die and when the beast started breathing again, the atmosphere became more depraved.  Prize fighting, boxing, and bull-baiting flourished.  Its natural sibling–prostitution–arose with it. But alas, the people’s choice outing was not to last.  After almost a hundred years, the fifteen day fair was shut down in 1764.  The wealthy residents who had lamented at the ruckus had finally got their wish as the riffraff, so disdained for their lowbrow antics, were thrown from the property gobbled meadow and Mayfair as a district ascended to its height as N.P. Willis describes in his 19th century Prose Works:

May Fair!  What a name for the core of dissipated and exclusive London!  A name that brings with it only the scent of crushed flowers in a green field, of a pole wreathed in roses, booths crowded with dancing peasant girls, and nature in its holyday.  This—to express the costly, the court-like, the so called ‘heartless’ precinct of fashion and art in their most authentic and envied perfect.  Mais les extremes se touchent; and perhaps there is more nature in May Fair than in Rose Cottage or Honeysuckle lodge.