It’s remarkable to account for all opportunities to record what we look like. The number of photos taken of me likely hits the thousands. Through every phase of life – flattering and not – through every unique experience, a camera followed. Not to say I’ve had paparazzi treatment. Though, if a bystander asked me to submit a summary of my likeness, I could select from an array of options.
Which makes the 1800’s a fascinating contrast.
Step into the shoes of Louise de Broglie. The French Countess, evocative of the modern day feminist, famously wrote in an outspoken manner similar to her political tour-de-force grandmother, Madame de Staël. Upon marrying, she wrote,
I was destined to beguile, to attract, to seduce, and in the final reckoning to cause suffering in all those who sought their happiness in me. I wanted to marry young and have a brilliant position in society. And that, basically, was the only reason I wanted to marry him.
Her marriage did last as did her pedestal in society. In addition to Louise’s grandmother, inveighed combatant to Napoleon, the house of Broglie claimed many erudite Europeans including French Academy members, Nobel Prize winners, heads of government… the list goes on. Family dinners were not light fare.
If a bystander asked Louise to submit a summary of her likeness, she’d have decidedly fewer options. Though one reigns supreme.
The Portrait of Louise de Broglie, Countess d’Haussonville screams personality.
This oil canvas, well-regarded, resides in the Frick Collection in New York City. The artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres received acclaim for his portraiture, despite his personal misgivings for the work, preferring to capture historical figures. The posing for this portrait began when Louise was 27 years old. From the preparatory sketches (of which at least 16 are still in existence) to the completion of the work, three years passed.
As a photographer, I am ensnared by this portrait.
Let’s point out the “flaws” commonly critiqued – most notably the right arm that seemingly begins lower than is probable. As well, the appearance of the left hand in the mirror which likely would not show given the tilted-position of Louise.
Anatomical and realism quandaries aside, this portrait rebuts prosaic high-society portraiture.
The more I read about de Broglie and her family (which, that activity could keep me thoroughly entertained for months), the greater impression it imparts.
There’s a dive into French history one could go on, which I am thoroughly unqualified to write about, so I’ll instead focus on the woman and the general progression of the climate.
Louise authored herself in a confidence that acknowledged her family’s status but also shook “accepted” female behaviors. The French are linked with strong, progressive voices, particularly the women. Frustratingly, women in France (as is consistent legislatively across the Ocean) did not gain the right to vote until 1944 nor the right to work without a husband’s permission until 1965.
Living as a women in these times, even in affluence, caged you. Distinct legal boundaries shrunk aspirations. Traditional gender roles impeded the autonomy of women.
Back to the portrait, scholars indicate that Louise’s pose was modeled for modesty. In a modern lens, I find it delightfully sassy and suggesting of an independent spirit. The hip-tilt gives an aura of logical calculation, sizing a companion up before extending a hand in greeting. Her fingers placed on her chin exemplifies a depth of consideration, unwilling to mindlessly agree with the conversation’s group think. For a person legally excluded from the civic exercise of choice, she powers an undertow by which to bend the choices of others.
Though her thoughts were not measured equal to a man’s in her time, her quote radiates her inner-hunger. She was constrained by her times, but she also vocally aiming for prestige.
I wanted to marry young and have a brilliant position in society. And that, basically, was the only reason I wanted to marry him.
Sure, this could read as haughty, but my general ledger of her morality actually points to her desire to contribute in her times.
The lever by which to increase the volume of her voice was to rise in society. Practically, she must have observed her grandmother’s epistolary spars with Napolean. Thus her dedication to a written word traced similar steps in attempt to ascend but also to allow her words to live past her own existence.
Another nugget raised in scholarly commentary on this portrait is Louise’s dress. There is recent dialogue that her dress, while consistent with the times, was markedly out-of-style or otherwise unfashionable.
This point further champions Louise’s layered yearning for more. Women often are typified (ha!) as vapid, in a never-ending chase of “nice things”. In parallel, society deposits greater attention to those who carry and wear “nice things”. Louise – perhaps purposefully – demonstrates a lack of care over fashion in favor of ferocity.
If you’ve made it this far, surely you can sense my tenderness of the decisions made in this portrait. Admittedly, I attach modern conjectures and weave it with partially-formed internet research. With all this considered though, the Portrait of Comtesse d’Haussonville stirs a curiosity for more.
In all the photos taken of me – though wonderfully shot – few capture an encompassing attitude and plight.
Louise died years before Kodak marketed the first commercial camera in 1888. Perhaps the benefit of timing is such that the artistic decisions made in her portraiture by Ingres capture a study of character, not a mere replication of likeness.
This Parisian painter unknowingly threw a gauntlet – to encapsulate spirit rather than steadfastly mimicking reality.
Because of his achievement, Louise also threw a gauntlet – to seize opportunity and be unafraid of one’s voice, even if the audience is not yet ready to hear it.
I read many, many pieces in writing this, and I still could have read 100 more articles, encyclopedia entries, etc.
Though, I am including contributing pieces here, because I was widely uninformed on this slice of history prior (and still am to a certain extent given its depth).
Wikipedia Article on the Portrait; Wikipedia Article on Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres; Wikipedia Article on Louise de Broglie, Countess d’Haussonville; Wikipedia Article on Germaine de Staël; Wikipedia Article on Louis Philippe I