81 x 32 cm. (31 7/8 x 12 5/8 in.)
Oil on its original canvas
• Former collection of the Loschi Zileri dal Verme Palace, Vicence (sale Oct. 20th, 2021, lot 81);
• France, Private Collection.
• Une dynastie d’artistes: Les Trois Riesener, exh. cat. Galerie des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1954.
Our picture is a beautiful example of the French commissions which Henri-François Riesener received during the Empire period before his departure for Russia.
With elegant simplicity, the artist reveals the profile of a young woman seen half-length and tuning her harp against a plain-colored background. She wears a white organdy dress in which a cashmere shawl is used as a belt and short sleeves are held by a coral-colored bow which echoes her jewelry. A fine comb holds her hair in place with a gold mount decorated with coral pearls matching her delicate ear pendants. Her coiffure follows styles launched by the Beauharnais in which the hair was caught in a bun while thick curls fell across the forehead. The whole display evokes comfortable social conditions.
Although our sitter’s identity remains uncertain, her features can be compared to those of the Marquise of Chamillard whose life and work still remain unknown. A portrait of the probable marquise was painted by the Swiss painter Firmin Massot during the same period (ill. 1).
Instrumental music really flourished during the 18th century. Under Louis XIV’s reign, the Royal Academy of Music provided teaching of music in the kingdom. The late 18th century saw the appearance of the National Conservatory of Music created with the law of 15 Thermidor, year III (August 3rd, 1795), that combined the former Royal School of Singing and the National Institute of Music under the same name. Long associated with vocal music, the 18th century brought the arrival of women figures in instrumental music. Popularized by Queen Marie-Antoinette who gave her first concert at the court in 1770, the harp, an instrument known since Antiquity, became a veritable element of fashion in Paris, and many women from the upper bourgeoisie followed this path.
It is an instrument which has a lot of width, whose sound is harmonious, and the shape is pleasant. Our Ladies with whom the Harp appears to agree, no doubt will learn with pleasure that Lady Gramer, living in Paris, rue Tiquetonne, at the Hôtel de la Providence, successfully teaches how to play this instrument, as much by the book as by memory, and that little by little she is forming good women students.
Until the mid-19th century, the harp counted among the most expensive musical instruments. It can be found in portraits of young ladies seeking social recognition. The few rare portraits of women figures tuning their instrument makes it possible to see that it was more that an imaginary attribute as learning music contributed to their social position. Our sitter is thus depicted turning the instrument’s keys, which were invented in the 17th century and made it possible to change the tension of certain strings and regulate the highness of the notes produced.
During the Empire, Empress Josephine regularly played the harp and thus perpetuated the fashion. One of the Empress’ harps, exquisitely crafted by Cousineau (Father and Son Lutemakers) is conserved today at Rueil-Malmaison, in the châteaux of Malmaison and Bois-Préau (inv. M.M..40.47.127).
In our composition, the plain coppery, lightly brushed background shows David’s influence and allows the light to play over face and textures, while concentrating attention on the sitter’s facial expression.
Riesener enjoyed painting these musicians (ill. 2). A double portrait depicting a singer and a harpist (ill. 3) conserved in a private collection forms excellent evidence of the painter’s skill in rendering states of mind. Here the artist lets the tenderness of the sitter’s gaze and benevolence be seen as if she is interrupted in her task.
Praised for his sense of psychology and facility in executing his works, Henri-François Riesener is a portraitist who was known in his time and who knew how to lift himself to the ranks of his most eminent contemporaries to the point that certain of his works were confused for theirs.
This work will be included in a catalogue raisonné on the artist being prepared by Mr. Alexis Bordes and Mr. Philippe Nusbaumer.