The Portrait of Two Ladies

My previous post was about my trip to London last week. I didn’t want to cram the piece with too many space-greedy photos, so omitted the ones of pictures I liked in the National Gallery. Several of you were kind enough to suggest you’d like to see them, so having got ahead of myself preparing Tennyson for next week’s classes (and C. Rossetti, looking further ahead), here they are. Just two of them.

First is this one; it seemed easiest to just post the caption on the wall of the gallery for information about it:

Morisot, Girl on a Divan

Berthe Morisot, Girl on a Divan



Morisot, Girl on a Divan caption








Morisot first exhibited at the Salon at the age of 23 in 1864, and continued to do so most years for the next six, after which her work was included in the ‘rejected’ alternative salon of Impressionists – among all the now household names. She was married to Manet’s brother. I think her famous painting The Cradle (1872) was the one that first brought her to my attention many years ago; it’s a tender image of (presumably) a mother beside her baby’s ornate crib. There’s a striking portrait of her by Manet, done the same year, dramatically dressed in black (she was in mourning for her father), gazing out at the viewer with large, challenging, slightly amused eyes, yet they seem more guarded than those of the girl in the divan. That’s what interests me about her: she was denied access to the seamier parts of urban/social life beloved of the male impressionists – the brothels, low dives and clubs, and so on; but she could gain access to and gain the trust of the women who wouldn’t necessarily have interested her fellow (male) artists, or posed in the same way.

It seems that she influenced Manet considerably, encouraging him, for example, to taking up painting in the open air, not just in the studio. According to Wikipedia, where you can see the paintings I’ve mentioned, and several more, she was described by some art critics as being the best of the group.

Like most women artists (most women?) she found it hard to be taken seriously in her world. So here she is.


Ingres Mme Moitessier

This is by the Neo-Classical artist, Ingres (1856), a portrait of Mme Moitessier. She was the wife of a wealthy banker, shown here wearing a costly and fashionable Lyon silk gown. It was the detail and colour of this that has always drawn my eye – this little image can’t do it justice.

Ingres apparently laboured over the work for 12 years, constantly striving to perfect that colour and detail. It’s quite stunningly beautiful. It may be my imagination but the sitter’s facial expression seems far less comfortable under the artist’s male gaze than the girl in the divan above – though her body language seems quite relaxed. But it has more in common with a fashion plate than an intimate portrait, it seems to me. She and her husband no doubt wanted the artist to show off their prosperity.

Hope you didn’t mind this little detour away from my more usual literary territory. Apologies to any art specialists for any solecisms in my Google-derived information in this post. Obviously these are just snaps from my phone; I’d recommend taking a look online at the professionally photographed images of these artists’ work.

4 thoughts on “The Portrait of Two Ladies

  1. I wonder if you are too hard on Mme Moitessier…. from her expression, it looks to me as if she has got the measure of him.
    If I were a novelist, I would weave a story about a highly intelligent woman married off to an income, as women of her class always were, and how she hates this artist who only wants to paint not what she is and yearns to be, but what he wants to see: wealth and privilege and a dress so perfect he takes 12 years over it.
    And so each week, to torment him, she surreptitiously alters the gown a little, not enough for anyone but him to notice, an extra tassel, a tassel of a different colour, a small flower more, a rose of a different hue, one leaf or trailing piece of ivy less…

  2. Your pictures are beautiful, and tough I am no great fan of Ingres, the dress is certainly stunning; one can see that, even on such a small photo.
    Last night I happened to see Botero’s interpretation (parody?) of Mme Moitessier, which is called “d’après madame Moitessier”. I was torn between laughing and throwing up, which is my usual reaction to his art 🙂

    • Just had to look up Botero – hadn’t heard of him, I’m afraid. Yes, his parody of the portrait is pretty gross. It seems there’s a standing portrait by Ingres of the same lady, now the National Gallery, Washington. In that one she’s in an austere, plain black dress.

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