70 x 57 cm. (2 ft. 3 9/16 in. x 1 ft. 10 7/16 in.)
Oil on canvas
• France, Private Collection.
• Une dynastie d’artistes: Les Trois Riesener, exh. cat. Paris, Galerie des Beaux-Arts, 1954.
Caught between two centuries, Henri-François Riesener was born in 1767 into an artistic milieu, and first initiated into the craft by his father, Jean-Henri Riesener, the famous cabinet maker to Louis XV and then Louis XVI. The young Henri-François then studied under Antoine Vestier (1740-1824) who reoriented him towards portraiture. The Academy school annals mention that he was a student of François-André Vincent (1746-1816) for a while, and then of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), before his career was brutally interrupted by military service and then the Revolution. Riesener participated therefore in the Salon in 1793 for the first time, and then a second time in 1799, before exhibiting regularly until 1814, when he received the grand gold medal with Napoleon’s image. The Salon livrets list a large production of male and female portraits whose meager description does not make it possible to retrace the exact dates of portraits. He was a terrific portraitist, and his works, lauded in his lifetime, led to numerous commissions, to the point that sometimes he produced many replicas.
The return of the Bourbons to power slowed the number of the artist’s commissions, and he chose to leave for Russia from 1816 to 1823. Passing through Warsaw, he met the Grand Duke Constantine who subsequently presented him to the Empress and Emperor Alexander. During these seven years, Riesener met with open success. Among other commissions, he was charged with painting celebrities among the Russian aristocracy and commercial networks.
Although the identity of our sitter remains uncertain, our picture is a beautiful example of the French commissions received in about 1815, shortly before his departure for Russia. In a simple elegant depiction, the artist presents a bust portrait of a seated young woman at a slight three-quarter angle. She wears a blue typical dress fashionable between 1815-1820, with its low neckline and belted under the bosom by a fringed braid, over which an elegant embroidered cashmere shawl - an indispensible element in feminine attire – draped over her right shoulder descends over the back of her chair.
Far from all the complexity of the surrounding space, the artist concentrates the viewer’s attention on this young woman’s delicately lit face whose gentle gaze focuses on the painter. Eliminating superfluous details, Riesener has simply reproduced the few coquettish elements, notably the diadem in her hair and the long gold chain around her neck which indicate the sitter’s social rank. Her skillful hairdo is organized in curls, some of which escape and fall over her forehead, a souvenir of the fashion launched by Hortense de Beauharnais under the Empire and which lasted until the years 1825-1830.
Like his eminent contemporary Jacques-Louis David in his Portrait of the Duchess of Sorchy-Thélusson, the artist presents his sitter against a neutral brushed copper-colored background. This ground inspired by David’s work can be found in other portraits by the artist. It brings out the light playing across the face to fabric folds, and concentrates attention on facial expression. The state of mind thus caught in the face reveals this young woman’s benevolence with her deep black eyes, as if she did were very trusting. In addition to depicting a certain almost naive restraint in the face, the virtuosity of the artist’s brush creates a touching work in which the sitter almost could seem religious. The direct and almost familiar aspect of the portrait could furthermore give the impression that the painter knew the sitter well.
Upon his return from Russia, Henri-François Riesener was reunited with his wife and his son, and also met with success. His adventures also allowed him to establish himself as an independent painter whose portraits were ravishing to the eyes of his most eminent contemporaries. He was an excellent colorist, recognized by his elders for the truthfulness which emanated from his portraits and allowed him to live “free from want.”
This work will be included in a catalogue raisonné on the artist being prepared by Mr. Alexis Bordes and Mr. Philippe Nusbaumer.