Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Picture This: Women in 18th-Century France

Louis Tocqué, Portrait of Madame de Livry, ca. 1744/55,
oil on canvas, Hitt Collection, Birmingham, AL.
Through globalization and advances in communication, the eighteenth century witnessed incredible changes, particularly on the social front. With a thirst for knowledge and personal improvement, this society ushered in an era of great awareness. Along with this newly cultivated interest in learning and development came theories of how different sexes should behave and how they should stimulate their minds. Here, I focus on a product of this period, the Portrait of Madame de Livry (1745/55) by Louis Tocqué, in the Hitt Collection, in the Birmingham Museum of Art.1 In this portrait, the subject matter and stylistic elements work together to emphasize the femininity and class of the sitter. Focusing on the subtle rendering of this portrait, Louis Tocqué showcases his signature style, and highlights the sitter’s feminine appeal and status in society through features such as makeup and clothing, along with the addition of a closed fan.2

The style of Louis Tocqué is perfectly exhibited in Portrait of Madame de Livry. In this painting, Tocqué chooses subtlety over pomp and grandeur. The figure of Madame de Livry is accentuated by the dark tonality found throughout the background. There are no objects or distractions in this dark space at first glance, but upon further inspection, the barely visible outline of a chair becomes apparent. However, the darkened gold glimmer of the chair frame with the jewel-tone coloration of the fabric, only act as visual emphasis for the sitter. As the eye is drawn to the center of the canvas and the female figure is observed, the work becomes more than just a portrait; it becomes a deeply intimate look into the life of Madame de Livry.

Louis Tocqué depicts Madame de Livry with perfectly coifed hair. The painting is rendered in such a hyper realistic manner, it is as if each strand of powered hair can be discerned. In the center of her scalp are five roses; two pink, one yellow and one blue. Their size is quite small and tasteful. To the left of these highly symbolic flowers are two pale leaves that gently guide the eye down to the delicately flushed face of Madame de Livry. The colors of the roses and leaves help to further accentuate the slightly rouged tone of her flawless complexion. Madame de Livry has soft brown eyebrows that highlight the calm gaze she casts upon her viewer. The rouge on her cheeks matches the pink glow of her nose and lips. As the eye moves downward, the viewer is introduced to her fur lined cloak. The soft gray fur surrounding her collar and moving down the bodice of her dress is complimented by the blue fabric that comprises the cloak, itself. Tocqué expertly handles the look of the fabric, transmitting the sound and feel of the very threads. The cloak masterfully reflects the light and accentuates the dips and bends of her clothing, manipulating the presence of light. Touches of white lace peek out from underneath the cloak, suggesting the sleeves of a gown. Her skirt is a beautiful mixture of plum and dark brown and it, too, appears to be made of the same material as her cloak. The hands of Madame de Livry are perfectly poised, like her slightly turned posture. Her right hand is gently supporting the top of a fan, while her left hand cradles the bottom. The fan is an intriguing addition to the work as it is unusually displayed in a closed form.

The Portrait of Madame de Livry is a magnificent addition to eighteenth-century French portraiture, as it serves as a contrast to other contemporary portrait examples. Tocqué expertly embraces the unique facial features of his subjects and applies only the slightest amount of rouge to their faces to help bring attention to their youthful, almost translucent appearances. The rouged effect, during Tocqué’s time, implied that the social status of this individual belonged to the highest of classes.3 However, this was not the case for long. Rouge was soon readily available to all levels of class and was fairly inexpensive, so many women wore this “accessory” and tried to project the image of high social standing.  Another component to the rouged look, was the contrast of white skin. White was considered to be the color of feminine virtue.4 The way in which Madame de Livry is pictured is not only indicative of the Tocqué style, but also of the declining need to use rouge to distinguish social rank. 

The roses found in Madame de Livry’s hair, were commonly viewed upon Tocqué’s female sitters. This floral accessory accentuates the youth and overall health of the sitter and is associated with fertility.5 The dark tonality of her expensive, yet modest, clothing is stylistically typical of Tocqué’s works, as this darkness helps to highlight the subject’s face. Madame de Livry is dressed like members of the upper nobility in order to establish her social status, wearing luxurious clothing made from rich textiles like animal fur. This depiction not only reveals her social position, but also emphasizes her husband’s rank and success.6 Each of these details reference her loyalty and devotion to her husband, as this portrait is intended to be a companion piece with that of Monsieur de Livry.

Lastly, Madame de Livry appears with a fan in her hands. For women, it was looked highly upon to hold something in their hands while sitting. This act kept the fingers busy, but the mind free from distraction and ready for conversation.7 This seemingly benign addition to the portrait holds more significance than most may realize. Imported from Asia, the fan soon began appearing throughout Europe in the early eighteenth century. Fans encouraged new forms of gestural expression and worked to focus the gaze and enhance the experience of social encounters.8 The role of the fan in the work of Madame de Livry might be interpreted as an accessory to assert her social status through communicative gracefulness. In the portrait, Tocqué chose to depict her with a closed fan. If it were open, it could be argued that its function is to capture the gaze of the observer. However, since her fan is closed the mystery of the figure of Madame de Livry lives on, drawing the observer in, but also keeping her inner-most thoughts carefully guarded.

  1. “18th Century”. Birmingham Museum of Art. 2000 Rev. Abraham Woods, Jr. Blvd. Birmingham, AL 35203.
  2. Paul Vitry, “Pictures," The Burlington Magazine 2, no.6 (August 1903): 342-345.
  3. Melissa Hyde, “The Makeup of the Marquise: Boucher’s Portraits of Pompadour at Her Toilette," Art Bulletin 32, no. 3 (2000): 453-474.
  4. Angela Rosenthal, “Visceral Culture: Blushing and the Legibility of Whiteness in Eighteenth Century British Portraiture," Art History 27, no. 4 (September 2004): 563-592.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Kate Retfield, The Art of Domestic Life: Family Portraiture in 18th Century England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).
  7. Rosenthal, The Other Hogarth: Aesthetics of Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).
  8. Ibid.

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