The day after Christmas my wife and I drove to Pasadena to see the special exhibit of Ingres’ portrait of la comtesse d’Haussonville, on loan from the Frick Collection in New York to the Norton Simon Museum. I had met the countess at the Frick over fifty years ago, in the course of a Fine Arts class at Columbia in 1958-59. The following year, when I moved into a little furnished room near campus to spare my senior year the daily three-subway trek from the Bronx, I purchased a reproduction of this portrait at the Metropolitan Museum and ordered a custom-made gilt frame; the total outlay exceeded $100, quite a sum for me in those days. I have had the countess on my wall ever since, either at home or, for the past few decades, in my office, where she hangs above my computer, shepherding the surrounding flock of Carole Landis lobby cards.
Seeing the original–which had undergone a cleaning–for the first time since the early 1960s, I was pleased with my reproduction’s fidelity to its blue color scheme. Even the difference in size was not as great as I had remembered. But even as her model has been renewed, my poor countess has declined, her colors faded and streaked from years and sunlight.
The brief commentary by the Simon docent made me realize that through all these years I had never sought any biographical information about Louise de Broglie (pronounced breuil), comtesse d’Haussonville. The barrier to curiosity was higher in the era before the Internet, when learning even a few basic details about a minor historical figure required some effort. In recent years, I have chanced upon long-standing gaps in my knowledge, sometimes patched over by inaccurate speculations, that would be filled in a few seconds had they emerged today.
The biographical sketch in Edgar Munhall’s fine book,Ingres and the Comtesse d’Haussonville (Frick Collection, 1998), purchased at the museum, provided me with my first real information about Louise. As I learned, she was the granddaughter of Germaine de Staël, wife, daughter, sister, and mother of members of the French Academy, and the author of five published books, beginning with a biography of Irish patriot Robert Emmet, executed after a failed rebellion in 1803 at the age of 23, and including two about Lord Byron. Louise’s choice of subjects suggests in this noble lady an Anglophile fascination with Romantic dispossession and rebellion, sympathy if not for the Revolution then certainly for its liberating spirit.
Knowing her portrait, one still wonders what Louise really looked like; Munhall includes, mentions, no photographs. Could a wealthy Parisienne die in 1882 unphotographed? Mérimée, whose hostility to the countess reflects his unshared enthusiasm for the Second Empire, is quoted as writing in 1865 that she had gained much weight and lost much hair from smallpox; if true, this nastiness suggests a partial explanation.
Some small, early images of Louise reproduced in Munhall’s book share something of Ingres’ abstraction, as do a couple of early versions of his portrait, one study for which expresses a certain hauteur. Louise’s oval face and delicate features, close to the current norm of beauty, seem to have encouraged idealization. Certainly the face in the portrait is as if morphed into Raphaelesque purity by a proprietary graphics program. Louise’s face resembles that of an Ingres odalisque more than that of any real woman. Yet character and intelligence breathe forth from the portrait, in the fixity of the gaze, the strength of the lower lip.
The painter’s famous distortion of his subject’s arms sets art’s achievement beyond the capacity of photography. The arms are almost monstrous, far too big for her head, and as has often been noted, the right arm is lower down on her body that even the most monumental shrug could bring her shoulder. As I see it, the key to the countess’ upper body is that the oversized arms compensate for the non-representation of her bosom. The tiny projection of her dress beyond her left arm can barely be associated with her right breast, and the angle of that arm with her body leaves no visible room for the other. By substitution making up this deficit, the fleshiness of the arms and their position give the countess, mother of two children who would bear a third during the lengthy evolution of her portrait, a chastely maternal body, which, as a secondary compensation, makes acceptable what might otherwise strike us as a sensually provocative gaze: the odalisque as femme du monde. The extreme naturalism of the dress and other details sustain an illusion constantly betrayed by the spectator’s realization of anatomical impossibility, intensifying the esthetic oscillation between sign and internal image as does no comparable work, certainly no other nineteenth-century portrait, and according its subject an ineffable grace.
At the same time, the chaste body’s contained sensuality incites us to imagine Louise’s yearnings unfulfilled, however well they may have been met in reality by what was reputed a happy marriage. Thus it was not altogether inappropriate for this image to appear on the videocassette box of Renoir’s Madame Bovary (where, surely in unintended contrast with the delicate Louise, the heroine was played by a buxom actress in her forties). Emma would have given her eyeteeth for Louise’s dress, the vases on her mantelpiece, the cashmere shawl draped casually on the armchair in the lower right corner–or simply for a night in Paris, let alone in the Hôtel de Broglie. Yet there is something Bovaresque in this figure of Mme de Staël’s granddaughter, wealthy and sophisticated, literate and learned, who could paint, draw, and play an excellent piano–trained by Chopin, she preferred Bach to Rossini–yet frustrated of something that, after her grandmother, no Frenchwoman of her century, not even George Sand, would achieve: an unquestioned place among the leading creators of her time. Why this was possible in England and even in Emily Dickinson’s Massachusetts, yet not in France, is a conundrum that the countess’ half-pensive, half-seductive bearing might be fancied to acknowledge.
I have before me one of Louise’s books, which touches me as the work of an old friend whom I have just discovered to be a writer. Proust’s awe at the Duchesse de Guermantes’ (Proust attended Louise’s son’s receptions, they say) is transmuted into an imaginary communion of spirits. Les dernières années de Lord Byron was begun in 1872, when the countess was fifty-four and the memory of the recent Prussian conquest still fresh. The book makes frequent reference to Switzerland; the activity of composition in the family chateau of Coppet, Louise’s birthplace and her celebrated grandmother’s residence, which she would inherit a few years later, may have provided relief from the humiliation she must have felt as a resident of Paris.
The author displays a reflective and curious intelligence, a solid classical education (quoting Latin and Greek), and a thorough familiarity with European writers and thinkers of her day and of the past. Her harmonious prose, lyrical without striving for effect, at times conceding to cliché, maintains a classical balance, but enriched with more luxuriant imagery, like a rarely modest Chateaubriand or a less effusive Lamartine. Her descriptions of the Swiss landscape and the reveries they inspire are as lovely as anything in the genre. After a brief, apologetic preface, this is the opening passage:
Au bord de cette mer où s’égarent mes yeux, la fiction et la réalité se mêlent sans se confondre, comme à travers la lumière bleue qui les unit se marient les rives de la terre et du ciel. Que de visions glorieuses, d’apparitions charmantes flottent au hasard de ma rêverie, s’élèvent, glissent, disparaissent entre les plis de cette gaze aérienne qui les révèle et les dérobe tour à tour à mes regards! A chaque sinuosité de ce divin contour qui encadre le cristal de l’onde se dresse une figure célèbre, plane quelque création poétique aussi vivante, plus vivante que la réalité même. Entre tant de souvenirs divers qu’évoquent en ces lieux l’imagination et la mémoire, où s’arrêter et par où commencer? Après avoir quelque temps tournoyé dans le vague des airs au-dessus du magique miroir comme un grand cygne aux ailes blanches, ma fantaisie finit par s’abattre sur Lausanne. Lausanne, en effet, est un promontoire d’où l’on découvre tout le croissant du lac. Son arc lumineux s’étend des glaciers de Vevey aux riants coteaux de Genève. Montez sur les hauteurs de Lausanne et vous le verrez décrire sa courbe gracieuse aux pieds des Alpes que domine la pale silhouette du roi des neiges éternelles.
On the shore of that sea where my eyes wander, fiction and reality mingle yet remain distinct, as through the blue light that unites them are wedded the borders of earth and sky. How many glorious visions and charming apparitions float at random through my reverie, rise, slip, disappear between the folds of that airy gauze that by turns reveals and conceals them from my sight! At each sinuosity of the divine contour that frames the crystal waves rises a celebrated figure, floats a poetic creation as alive, more alive than reality itself. Between all the diverse memories that imagination and memory evoke in this place, where to end and where to begin? After having circled for a time in the uncertain air above the magic mirror like a great white-winged swan, my fantasy finally fell on Lausanne. Lausanne, in effect, is a promontory from which one can discern the entire curvature of the lake. Its luminous arc extends from the glaciers of Vevey to the smiling hills of Geneva. Mount the heights of Lausanne and you will observe it trace its gracious curve to the feet of the Alps dominated by the pale silhouette of the king of eternal snows.
The author of these lines cares little for self-promotion but has not abdicated for all that the privilege of the esthetic subject. At the start of her book, Louise revels for a moment in her freedom to choose what world to evoke; she will not make her own experience the material of her story, merely the basis of a knowledge she will share with her reader. It is this absence of competition with us that makes her prose flow so effortlessly. This is a feminine sensibility–more overtly feminine than that of Sand, but like hers, still disguised by anonymous masculine neutrality–that would acquire only in the following century a narrative voice in French letters. Louise is no creator of fictions, but her text is full of fine descriptions and interesting digressions, provocative observations and judgments on Byron and other English poets, on her fellow Swiss Protestant Rousseau and his moral limitations, on Byron’s relationship with Mme de Staël and admiration for the young beauty of Louise’s mother…
I feel a sense of pride in reading the thoughts and emotions of this woman who has shared her soul with me by hanging on my wall for fifty years. The intuition of culture and intelligence I felt in her portrait is more than confirmed. Louise’s writings may attract few readers in future centuries, but they are a precious legacy I have been entrusted with, more assuredly no doubt than that of Carole, which I wrote a book to preserve, only to discover that the cult of a lovely woman can be celebrated by some very unlovely people. Such misfortune is unlikely to attend my admiration for Louise’s graceful prose. I now have two of her books and will do my best to find the others. To renew my acquaintance with her portrait is the occasion of a rededication.
Humans age and die, artworks remain “forever” young, or can at least be restored to youth. We purchased at the Simon the only reproduction available today, a poster from the Frick. It hangs now over our fireplace, where Louise stands coyly before us in her blue silk dress, having tossed her shawl on a chair, posed her opera glasses on the mantelpiece, and hung her little Chinese evening bag from the handle of the Japanese vase.