France, Private Collection.
Emmanuel Bréon, Claude-Marie, Edouard et Guillaume Dubufe, Portraits d’un siècle d’élégance parisienne, Délégation à l’action artistique de Paris, 1988.
“Monsieur Dubufe was cherished by the women of his time almost as much as Alexdandrine the seamstress.
How he clothed them elegantly, how he knew how to set them off to advantage and how flattering he was!”
Destined for a career as a consulate, Claude-Marie Dubufe turned towards painting following the sage advice of Jacques-Louis David whose studio he frequented. After a few attempts at mythological subjects which were largely influenced by both his master and Winckelmann’s theories, Dubufe developed a particular taste for the portrait which became almost his sole focus until the year before his death in 1864. In Palermo in 1811, he was introduced to the Orléans family and thus painted his first portraits, including that of Ferdinand-Philippe, Duke of Chartres. He returned to Paris, exhibited his works at the Salon of 1812 and very rapidly met with success. Gradually the commissions began to flow: “the rich bourgeois or banker only knows Monsieur Dubufe,” and high society women eager to gain social recognition insisted that they should also have their portrait done by Claude-Marie Dubufe.
Claude-Marie Dubufe’s art did not suffer from the appearance of the daguerreotype which produced small scale difficult-to-read negatives and could obviously not compete with the art of the painted portrait. Among the many faces of women whom he painted was of his sister Josephine Anne Philibert de Princepré’s, of whom another portrait is known. In the delicate poetic atmosphere of our painting with its studied naturalness, this young woman with her large black eyes and bare shoulders has her hair done up in a fashion of the time known as “Apollo’s knot.” Lounging on what appears to be a sofa, she delicately holds a notebook which could be a dance card in her right hand and rests her left arm graciously on a cushion decorated with palmette motifs reminiscent of the Empire. At the height of his career, Dubufe gratified members of his family by painting their portraits, and even more, half-length portraits whose going price was fifteen hundred francs, when the average worker’s annual salary was one thousand francs.
Dubufe’s portraits were appreciated for the way their smooth graceful style - inherited from David’s example and still very anchored in Neoclassicism - flattered sihouettes. They were also sought for the particular attention which the artist devoted to the effects of muslin’s transparency and weightlessness on dresses and fabrics of all types. “I definitely prefer Mr. Dubufe the father: he had, and still has, a marvellous talent for women’s fabrics, frills, and furbelows.” In our portrait, the various light voluptuous materials intermingle to form a dress at the height of fashion at the time: shoulders slightly bared, puffed sleeves which balloon lightly around the arms, and the whole gathered at the waist by a belt of fine yellow fabric matching the shawl draped around her. In sparkling luminous lighting, the white of the dress, which could be interpreted as a symbol of virtue, creates a harmonious contrast to the red fabric covering the sofa. Finally, the heavy green velvet curtain, to which the painter adds an opening onto a landscape seen on the left side of the canvas, is a reminder of the theatrical aspect of Neoclassicism.
“From 1830 to 1845, an elegantly attired woman should, out of all necessity, have her portrait by Dubufe.” While it is true that Dubufe flattered sitters, he was, in fact, mainly responding to commissions which were often quite exacting, because the portrait was a tool for social recognition more than just a depiction of self. A veritable chronicler of his time, a painter of the bourgeoisie, Claude-Marie Dubufe was the first painter of a dynasty. He left behind him a true delicate sensitive style which his son Edouard and grandson Guillaume would enjoy perpetuating.