Portrait of a Lady in a landscape

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Marie-Guilhelmine BENOIST (born Leroux-Laville)

Paris, 1768 - 1826

Portrait of a Lady in a landscape, 1805-1810 ca.

Oil on canvas, cm. 115,5 x 90,5

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A series of rather convincing stylistic and compositive comparisons suggest ascribing this large canvas to the French painter Marie-Guilhelmine Benoist. Born Leroux-Laville1, Benoist was well – connected at the court of Napoleon, a circumstance that appears particularly interesting in the attempt to identify the still unknown subject of the portrait, who might be referred to a member of Napoleon’s family on the basis of a physiognomic analysis.

image001Fig. 1: M.-G Benoist, Zoè-Victorie du Cayla 1801, Private Collection

image003Fig. 2: M.-G Benoist, Ritratto di una giovane donna, 1802, Private Collection

There is no doubt that many elements of this painting, such as the lyrical setting in the landscape, the distinguishing treatment of silks and fabrics, the posture of the female figure and the rich and bright laying of colours, relate to highly regarded French painter’s production.

This portrait, datable around 1805 – 1810, shows precise analogies with the official portraits of Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi and her husband Felice (both painted in 1806 in Paris, where Benoist was active, and sent to Lucca in that same year [1]) and with the portrait of their child Napoleona Elisa, that Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi commissioned Benoist to paint in 1810 [2].

image005Fig. 3: M.-G. Benoist, Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi 1802, Lucca, Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Mansi

image007Fig. 4: M.-G. Benoist, Felice Baciocchi, 1806, Rome, Museo Napoleonico

A comparison with the portrait of the young child Napoleona Elisa Baciocchi with a dove can be established on the base of the dark and wavy shades of complexion, particularly marked in the arms and face of our portrait, and on the base of the naturalistic scenery, which foreshadows esthetical changes towards romantic atmospheres.

Similarly, the tapered arms and hands, the very characteristic shape of eyes and lips, the redness of cheeks, the firmness and whiteness of silks, the shading of the skin and, once more, the landscape in the background – which are all distinctive features of Benoist’s works such as the Portrait of Paolina Borghese (which Paolina commissioned Benoist to paint in 1808 as a gift to her sister Elisa Baciocchi [3]), the Portrait of a young lady with vases of flowers, or the portrait of Zoè-Victoire du Cayla [4]seem to confirm the attribution to the refined French artist.

image009Fig. 5:M.-G. Benoist, Napoleona Elisa Baciocchi 1810, Fontainebleau, Musée National du Chàteau

With its large sizes, extreme quality of painting, accuracy of details and deep insight this canvas is one of the most emblematic and impressive portraits in Benoist’s luxuriant portrait painting production.

Marie-Guilhelmine Leroux-Laville, who was born in 1768 (and not in 1780 as inexplicably still mentioned in Italian literature) and married the Jacobin lawyer Pierre-Vincent, count of Benoist, in 1793, developed her style in great painter Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Lebrun’s atelier where she entered in 1786, after a period spent in Jacques-Louis David’s atelier. 1786 marks also her first appearance at the Salon of Paris, where her works were highly appreciated.  

In the years of the Empire her style became very close to François-Joseph Kinson’s, Robert Lefèvre’s or Guillaume Lethière’s for the shared affinities with the winning portraiture style of François Gerard.

image011Fig. 6:M.-G. Benoist, Paolina Bonaparte Borghese, 1808, Fontainebleau, Musée National du Chàteau

Her marriage to Pierre-Vincent Benoist and her closeness first to the republican and, later, to the Napoleonic world, confirmed her great success as an artist. In 1791 a historical subject painting by Marie-Guilhelmine Benoist was accepted at the Salon, while to 1800 is dated her celebrated Portrait of a black woman, now at the Louvre.

With the taking over of the Bonapartes, Benoist’s portrait painting style became extraordinarily popular since it could satisfy the needs of social legitimacy of this family and the new social class (the so-called “civic class”) and illustrate a new idea of political power. Famous are her portraits of Napoleon and the empress, while Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, who, as previously said, in 1806 commissioned her the court portrait of herself and her husband, tried by all means to take her to Lucca even by offering her husband an important public office, as he had already hold the office of General Secretary of the Minister of the Interior Chaptal during the Kingdom of Louis XVI. Napoleon himself opposed this transfer [5]. With the Restoration, Benoist’s success waned for obvious political reasons.

                                                       Francesco Leone

image013Fig. 7:M.-G. Benoist, Portrait of a niger, 1800, Parigi, Musée du Louvre

[1] On these portraits of Elisa and Felice see: A. Tosi, Il principato napoleonico dei Baciocchi (1805-1814) riforma dello Stato e Società, exhibition catalogue, Lucca 1984, pp. 292-293; Elisa Bonaparte. Ritratti di famiglia, exhibition catalogue (Lucca-Roma), edited by G. Gorgone, Lucca 2003, cat. 3 e 4, pp. 58-61 (entry by M. Pupillo).

[2] On this portrait of the young Napoleona Elisa set in a garden see: Elisa Bonaparte. Ritratti di famiglia, exhibition catalogue (Lucca-Roma), edited by G. Gorgone, Lucca 2003, cat. 11, pp. 73-73 (entry by G. Gorgonie).

[3] See: Villa Borghese. I principi, le arti, la città dal Settecento all’Ottocento, exhibition catalogue (Roma 2003 – 2004), edited by A. Campitelli, Roma 2003, cat. 14, p. 273 (entry by M. Pupillo).

[4] See : A. Reuter, Marie-Guilhelmine Benoist, cit., pp. 272-275.

[5] See P. Marmottan, Les Arts en Toscane sous Napoléon. La princesse Elisa, Paris 1901, pp. 185-186.

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