· France, Private Collection
1904, Paris, Salon, no 1655, Ligéia.
Although close to the Symbolists, Elisabeth Sonrel remained on the outer edges of their circles. She followed drawing courses at the Julian Academy as a student of Jules Lefebvre. Residing in Sceaux in 1895, she produced painted decoration and portraits for which she often used her friends as models. Her work was rewarded already before she was twenty years old, and she participated in the Salon of French Artists from 1893 to 1939. Her works were sought as much by French collectors as by foreigners, especially those from the United States, Great Britain, and Italy.
Elisabeth Sonrel, whose work is dominated by an idealized feminine iconography, drew inspiration variously from Pre-Raphaelite, Symbolist, and Art Nouveau aesthetics, as well as from the works of Old Masters such as Botticelli. Spiritual, distant, and mysterious, these young women do not belong to this world and are inspired by the Virgin and mystic Saints, as well as by legends from the medieval period. The artist conceived mellow and melancholic depictions which featured young women with long red hair wearing precious tunics, such as the sitter in our canvas.
Shown full face and bust length, the young woman’s beauty is troubling and lofty. Her undulating red hair graces her left shoulder and billows over her richly ornamented crimson robe. This jewelry and embroidery are comparable to those which embellish the dress in the Distant Princess exhibited by Sonrel at the Salon of 1903. This picture reinterprets the theme of the Beautiful Lady found in literary texts of her time when princesses with tragic destinies evolved midst an idealized vision of the Middle Ages. The title itself refers to a play by Edmond Rostand, The Distant Princess, which recounted Joffroy de Rudel’s long voyage undertaken because of his wish to see the beautiful Melissinda before dying.
In our work, the reds in the dress and hair, plus the brown in the soberly brushed background bring out the young woman’s pale flesh tones while a slight turn of the head emphasizes her fine neckline. Similarly, the weave of the canvas which is perfectly apparent in the background disappears under the smooth brushwork of the figure and makes her seem even more of an unreal apparition.
A dream portrait, our picture is endowed with more profound energy. The golden and green jewels which adorn the young woman give her a hint of mystery. The upper sleeves are covered in ornaments of precious metal, while the bodice is highlighted with a large brooch in the form of a nude female bust with large outspread wings from which a pearl and emerald pendant is suspended. This figure has an impenetrable serious gaze of a sphinx, but her visible hands contradict this supposition. Elisabeth Sonrel sometimes reproduced certain pieces of jewelry from her drawings, and the choice of jewelry in her pictures is never innocuous. Here, the fabulous creature transforms the lady into an ambivalent figure between wisdom and seduction, and this impression is re-enforced by her blue-green gaze the same color as the stone held by the winged creature.
Our canvas was exhibited at the Salon of French Artists in 1904 under the title of Ligeia, the name of a character in the homonymous novel of Edgar Allan Poe published in 1838 and translated into French by Charles Baudelaire in 1856. Along the banks of the Rhine, the narrator encounters and weds Ligeia, a very beautiful young noblewoman with immense knowledge. The narrator is wildly in love with her intense magnetic gaze:
"The expression of the eyes of Ligeia! How for long hours have I pondered upon it! How have I, through the whole of a midsummer night, struggled to fathom it! What was it – that something more profound than the well of Democritus – which lay far within the pupils of my beloved? "
Yet our sitter cannot be Ligeia who is described as having hair and eyes “blacker that the wings of midnight, the hour of the crow’s plumage.” The beautiful spiritual lady passes away not long after the wedding and leaves the narrator in despair. He takes refuge in a former English convent and meets another noble young woman, Lady Rowena de Trevanion (Tremain), who is blonde with blue eyes, and very different from his first wife. He marries her, but does not forget Ligeia whose memory and shadow return to torment Rowena who is finally extinguished and, in death, becomes Ligeia. Sonrel may have wished to depict the moment when Ligeia’s ghost gradually takes over the new wife. This possession is revealed by the change in intensity of the gaze. The viewer is thus in the position of Poe’s fascinated and enthralled narrator who witnesses the metamorphosis taking place.
Bibliography of the Work
Charlotte FOUCHER, “Élisabeth Sonrel (1874-1953), une artiste symboliste oubliée,” Bulletin des amis de Sceaux, new series n°25, 2009), p. 21, repr.