61 x 50 cm. (24 x 19 11/16 in.)
Oil on canvas and its original stretcher
Old sale label on the verso of the stretcher: GERARD (Attributed to the Baron) under the number 96
• Probably in Sale, Dec. 1st, 1890, Tableaux anciens, nombreux portraits des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècle et tableaux modernes...2.e Vente, [Old Pictures, Many 17th and 18th century portraits and modern pictures), Mazaroz-Ribalier collection, under number 79, “GERARD (in the manner of Baron F.) Portrait assumed to be of Mlle Mars.”
• France, Private Collection.
• Elisa Aclocque, Souvenirs anecdotiques sur Mademoiselle Mars, Librairie de Chaumerot, Paris, 1847.
• Anne-Marie de Brem, Louis Hersent: peintre d’histoire et portraitiste, exh. cat., Paris: Paris-musées, Museum of Romantic Life, Sept. 29th, 1993 – Jan. 9th, 1994.
• Patrick Shawcable, “Louis Hersent,” La Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Jan. 1999, pp. 20-21.
« M. Hersent was not just a great painter,
He was also very intelligent and witty, had taste and good judgment, and above all, was a good man.”
Unjustly overlooked by history for more than half a century, Louis Hersent was nonetheless student of the most famous painters of his time, including Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) and Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1754-1829). He enjoyed great fame under the Restoration and the July Monarchy.
The young artist began his career as a history painter inspired by the greatest artists, including Baron Gerard (1770-1837). Under this influence, Hersent realized many formal portraits in a similar vein, such as the Portrait of the Field Marshal of Massena (Nice, Villa Massena, inv. MAH 3255), a fact which probably led to many mistaken attributions of which our portrait is a convincing example. In fact, an old sale label glued to our work’s stretcher mentions an attribution to Baron Gerard.
“Collectors worthy of the name for a moment thought they recognized M. Gerard touch. Certainly nothing [could be] more flattering for Mr. Hersent, but I dare believe as well that Mr. Gerard would not complain about the mistake.”
After a stay in Rome during which he only retained the handling of light, Hersent returned to France and participated in the weakening of academic authority which made it possible for him to convert to Romantic painting, a trend guided by exoticism which the artist integrated willingly into his works. Already well-known for his presence at the Salon since 1802, it was following his outright success at the Salon of 1824 that he chose to devote himself almost exclusively to the art of portraiture, mainly of women whose grace was largely enhanced under his hand.
Our picture presents one of these portraits which were often of illustrious women, wives and coveted young women and very much in demand. By depicting these high society profiles, the artist found a carefully selected clientele who took advantage of his gifts for tracing a souvenir of their young beauty and multiplying commissions. Most of his sitters pose inside. In our work, the young woman seems to be posing outside surrounded by stormy woods and sky in contrast with her dazzling powdered ivory complexion. In her right hand, she grips a small notebook tightly and seems slip a finger inside to hold a page.
Our sitter’s facial features can be compared to those of Anne Françoise Hippolyte Boutet, called Mademoiselle Mars (1779-1847), a sociétaire – that is, actress and member - of the Comédie Française. Comparison with a work after Baron Gerard is particularly striking (ill. 1).
“This inimitable actress who made the glory and the fortune of the Comédie Française for so many years; this woman for whom Marivaux and Molière must have found a last sigh at the bottom of their cold dark abodes.”
The little notebook which she holds could well be a personal compilation of notes concerning her career. According to her contemporaries, during the 1820s, Mademoiselle Mars was a triumphant actress at the Comédie Française whose success gave her absolute authority over her peers. In particular, she participated in bringing Molière and Marivaux back into fashion. She played the role of the Duchess of Guise in Alexander Dumas’ Henri III and his Court (1829), Doña Sol in Victor Hugo’s Hernani (1830), and Desdemona in Alfred de Vigny’s The Moor of Venice (1834).
“Why were you called Mars, then? ‘Ah! Ah! The little chatterbox (that was the name she called me when the barometer returned to beautiful weather); I will tell you. The name of Mars came from my mother. My mother lived in Carcassonne, came from a good family and was beautiful. Letting herself get carried away, she entered the theater to upset her family who pursued the one who abducted her there, the name Mars was given to him rather than to her. — This name got lost in wings of the stage and here is when it was passed on to me as a sort of inheritance. A reader of cards whom I consulted one evening in the company of Talma foretold immense success and a great number of conquests for me; the prediction spread around and from then on Mars became my nickname. – My sister, who also was in the theater at the time, wanted to share the glory, and until her death, the public told us apart by Mars the Elder and Mars the Younger. That is the real truth.”
Attired in the latest fashion, she wears a vaporous dress in white muslin which reveals her shoulders, while fine lace covers her bust, and transparent gauze on the sleeves brings out the whiteness of her skin. Her hairdo is in keeping with the worthy silhouettes of the Empire Period. The high bun wrapped in a gold band from which thick curls escape to be skillfully arranged around her face recalls the one worn by Hortense de Beauharnais in the famous portrait painted by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. SK-A-4943).
An elegant red cashmere shawl embroidered with floral motifs falls from her shoulders and is held around her bust by her right arm. An element which was indispensable for feminine attire and collected by Empress Josephine, the cashmere shawls appear in most portraits of women in the first half of the 19th century. Very expensive and a symbol of belonging, they instantly communicate high social status (ill. 2).
With a supple and enveloping brushstroke, Hersent endows his sitter with a gentle delicate gaze, and does justice to the striking harmony of her complexion which combine gentleness and gracious curves. Although it is difficult to determine the sitter’s age, a certain candor emanates from this evasive and almost mischievous gaze as if she were interrupted in her thoughts. The artist takes care to emphasize the fineness of her facial features in highlighting the pink cheeks and mouth.
Praised for the accuracy and precision of his brush, Hersent demonstrated rigor in drawing which was then included in the painting. This is particularly apparent in the handling of the hair which almost becomes the artist’s signature in which his virtuosity is detected. As in the portrait of the writer Delphine Gay, the unctuous lines traced by the brush make it possible to underline the artist’s ingeniousness in capturing light and transcribing its brilliant effects on the hair.
Hersent played with knowledge of radiance and gentleness which he expressed poetically in each of his portraits. Using his gifts as a colorist combined with his mastery of light, he brought his works to life by systematically creating a striking contrast between the background and the sitter. A famous Romantic portraitist, Hersent met with increasing success by playing with the harmony of fabrics, on the one hand, and transparency effects on the other, as here where organdy magnifies the whole composition, and expresses passion and melancholy through blended brushstrokes.
The gentle sensual atmosphere of our work leads one to think it was a private commission realized at the height of Hersent’s career, when the artist raised the art of portraiture to its highest level manifesting his sense of psychology as much as his technical mastery.