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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9 thoughts on “The Female Elements: Mesdames de France

    1. “Quite short of pulchritude . . .” 😀

      Nattier perhaps supplies the charm. I think the mesdames resemble their father, a handsome enough man, especially in his youth. But this doesn’t necessarily translate to conventional beauty as you have pointed out!

      1. well, yeah, you did underline the main point: they resemble their beautiful father in a way which, least in my opinion, doesn’t fit an attractive woman. nattier, of course, uses the magic of a brush masterly enough to replace a missing physical gorgeousness

  1. Thanks for this delightful posting! I was searching for these Mesdames de France portraits by Nattier just to see what Casanova is talking about in his memoirs – in vol. 6, chapter 9 he is contemplating beauty, and uses Nattier and his portraits of Mesdames de France as an example of the very rare breed of portrait painters who produce a perfect likeness and still manage to add an element of beauty “even if the model is ugly”. Casanova even conveys Nattier’s own commentary about his secret. See the preview on Google Books at http://tinyurl.com/Casanova-on-Nattier-html, pages 213-214.

      1. I can strongly recommend Casanova’s memoirs, they’re just the thing for anyone who’s interested in 18th century history – just be sure to get either the French version “Histoire de ma vie” from his original manuscript, first published in 1960, or Willard Trask’s excellent English translation “History of my Life”. Both are available as 1990’s paperback editions.

        These two are the real thing: about 3600 pages wittily written in Casanova’s own words, proven by historians to be surprisingly truthful (there’s plenty of interesting footnotes), and matching perfectly the motto of your blog. He’s mostly known today as an iconic lover, and he certainly did love women – and vice versa! – but that’s just a small part of the colorful story of his life, spanning most of his century and practically all of Europe.

        Beware of all pre-1960 distorted and semi-falsified editions floating around on the web – they are not written in his own words (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Histoire_de_ma_vie to find out why).

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