Power, wealth, position and breeding are the defining characteristics of the status portrait, and the spectator’s ability to recognise a person’s place in the hierarchy was as important as a good likeness. For artists, the social rank of their sitters could often do more for the artist's reputation than the artist's own qualities as a painter or sculptor.
Franciso de Goya y Lucientes, Ferdinand Guillemardet, 1798. Oil on canvas, 186 x 124 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Bequest of Louis Guillemardet, the sitter’s son, 1865.
Early in his portrait-painting career Goya emphasises his social deference to sitters such as the Count of Floridablanca by the inclusion of the artist offering up a painting for the count’s approval. Such awkwardness is banished in Goya’s 1798 portrait of Ferdinand Guillemardet where the brilliant tricolour plume of the sitter’s hat, and the sash round his body, assert his position as the French Republic’s ambassador. The studied elegance of the pose invites our appreciation of the man’s importance and of the new Republic, enhanced by Goya’s psychological insight into his essential arrogance. The expansion of portraiture during this period led critics, at both the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon, to bemoan the appearance of nonentities, claiming that their presence drove out the more elevated kinds of painting, a complaint that was not applied to subjects who had the necessary virtue and status.
Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755–1842) was a member of the middle classes who devoted herself to portraits of the aristocracy, as well as having ambitions as a history painter. The Comte de Calonne was the king’s finance minister and, in keeping with conventions of the genre, is shown seated at his desk with attendant papers of state. There is, though, an unexpected liveliness in the presentation of the figure, with the relaxed turn towards the spectator, the legs crossed, and the freshness of gaze. Contemporaries felt Vigèe-Lebrun had gone too far in presenting the man, rather than the position. They recognised Calonne but not the finance minister.
Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun, Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, 1784. Oil on canvas, 149 x 128 cm. Lent by Her Majesty The Queen. Photo: The Royal Collection © 2006 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
The rich red of the embroidered chair covering, and the curtain sloping in to support the figure, creates a sumptuous contrast with his black satin clothing and blue sash. The lighting, against the dark background, emphasises the face and catches the silvery whiteness of the wig, which is in turn balanced by the white shafts of the quill pens.
The exhibition of the portrait prompted rumours that Vigée-Lebrun was the Count’s mistress, which she later denied, but it illustrates a source of tension that existed between female artists and their male sitters. Conduct books of the period advised women that any prolonged glance at a man was inappropriate behaviour. Dr Johnson felt that ‘public practice of any art, and staring in men’s faces, is very indelicate in a female.’ Nevertheless, female artists were associated with the genre, partly on account of their interest in individual likeness and their supposed inability to think abstractly, the quality required for the more exalted types of painting.
In her memoirs, Vigée-Lebrun described the amorous glances thrown at her by her male sitters, a problem she solved by painting ‘them with gaze averted; which prevents the sitter from looking at the painter.’ Her close identification with the court and the aristocracy (she painted over twenty portraits of Marie-Antoinette) meant that as the Revolution progressed commissions disappeared, a problem she solved by moving to Italy, Austria and Russia, where she could still find the aristocratic elegance she was best suited to portray.
This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department publication Citizens And Kings: An Introduction to the Exhibition (0.8 MB)