WELCOME, sweet guests.
If you enjoyed Books and Brioche, we request the pleasure of your company for an informal stroll through a private portrait gallery at Witherspoon Manse.
And where might this be?
Well, in the pages of Random Magic, by Sasha Soren:
As the witching hour tolls away on the great clock, it’s clearly time for a madcap round of games among the, shall we say, late sleepers among the house party.
A spirited gambol on the roof ensues. Sporting groups of ex-someones emerge with ghostly cricket bats and crumbling croquet hoops, enjoying deafening rounds of bocce in the sealed-off attic, leaving the wretched, sleepless guest to wander through portrait galleries of infamous dark beauties whose eyes follow one round and round the room as if one were a tennis match at Wimbledon.
Ah, never mind, that’s at Castle Marlybone or Castle Greylaudanum isn’t it? Someplace horribly spooky.
A page or so over and a county or so away.
We don’t want to linger over coffee and claret at either of those great homes. Not after dark, anyway.
No, it’d be ever so much nicer to spend a marvelous early afternoon at Witherspoon Manse, enjoying the hospitality of the charming Lady Witherspoon:
A startlingly lovely woman glided into the room in a swish of red and gold silk underskirts, like an upended hibiscus. […] Lady Witherspoon was French by birth…
As an elegant exile from her homeland, Lady Witherspoon brings a hint of la vie parisienne to her surroundings just by virtue of being herself. Her Gallic sensibilities in all manner of lovely things are sometimes subtle, but always near at hand. Even in the remote reaches of the English countryside, she has a way of conjuring up French delicacies, perfumes, fashions - and art.
Tea will be served in the next hour - there’s just time enough for a lovely stroll to view some charming portraits by French painters, stored lovingly away like jewels in a velvet-lined strongbox.
Are we ready?
Then let’s have a quick peek into the private portrait gallery.
This way, please…
First, down a quiet set of stairs, rarely used…
To stop at an otherwise unmarked set of doors, with an otherwise unremarkable look - apart from one slight eccentricity…
And, then, into a library filled with books and statues and lovely carpets - and secret rooms filled with lovely paintings, to soothe the heart of a countess in exile.
One more pleasant detour…
We’ve almost arrived.
Kindly be careful of the steps on the way down…
And here we are, dear guests.
Which portrait is most appealing?
If you don’t have a preference, perhaps we can start on the far side of the gallery, then continue in sequence and work up an appetite for some light refreshments upon our return.
Title: Presumed to be a portrait of Beatrice Portinari
Artist: Elisabeth Sonrel
About the portrait:
Beatrice Portinari (1266–1290) was the muse of poet Dante Alighieri. She was the inspiration for Dante's Vita Nuova, and the Divine Comedy (La Divina Commedia).
Dante claims to have met her only twice, but was so affected by the meetings that he carried his love for her throughout his life, even after her death in 1290 at the age of 24.
Following their first meeting, Dante was so enthralled by Beatrice that he later wrote in La Vita Nuova,
‘Behold, a deity stronger than I;
who coming, shall rule over me.’
Artist: Alexandre Cabanel
About the portrait:
A lush and sensual tableau, depicting an enigmatic woman, whom we gradually realize has already died. Curiouser still, she’s never actually lived; the portrait is based, not on a real woman, but a character - Albaydé. She appears in writer Victor Hugo’s book of poems, Les Orientales (1829).
The character of Albaydé is mentioned in ‘Les tronçons du serpent’ (‘Sections of the Serpent’).
The narrator of the poem pities a snake torn into pieces, but - somewhat surreally - the dying serpent speaks to him, saying:
Car ton Albaydé dans la tombe a fermé
Ses beaux yeux de gazelle.
Your wound is more cruel than mine
because in the tomb has your Albaydé closed
her beautiful eyes, that were like
those of a gazelle.
Title: Self-portrait (1789)
Artist: Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun
About the artist:
‘In the history of portrait-painting in France,’ says art aficionado Andre Michel Jouin, in Les chefs-d’oeuvre (Masterpieces), ‘there is a period...which may be said to belong to that charming woman (artist Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun).’
He continues: In those last years of the 'old regime,' the fashionable world of Paris adopted for its painter Élisabeth Vigee. There was so close, so intimate, a connection between this painter and her models that although she lived well into the nineteenth century, she yet remains in the history of French art the portrait-painter par excellence of the court of Marie Antoinette. Upon the approach of the Revolution, she fled from France.
If we would catch in an attitude or in a look the moral reflection, so to speak, of an epoch, if we would read the thoughts or...guess the secrets of those hearts, sometimes full of tenderness, again light and flippant, concealed beneath transparent muslin fichus, it is to the works of Madame Vigée Le Brun that we must turn for answers to our queries.
Title: Portrait of Marie Antoinette (1783)
Artist: Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun
About the portrait:
The work shown above is a portrait of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France and Navarre from May 1774 until her execution in the early 1790s. As recounted in a brief biography on the artist, Masters in Art: A series of Illustrated Monographs (Bates and Gould Company, Boston, 1905):
In 1779, Madame Vigée Le Brun painted the first of her many portraits of Queen Marie Antoinette, whose favorite painter she became and with whom she was always on a footing of affectionate intimacy. We are told of the duets that were sung by the royal model and the painter at the close of the morning séance, for the queen dearly loved music and Madame Le Brun had a charming voice.
Le Brun herself left Paris for Italy in October 1789, just before the full fury of the French Revolution and attendant Reign of Terror erupted, and it was while in Italy that she received word of the sad fate of Marie Antoinette and other friends and acquaintances who'd lost their lives to Madame Guillotine. A return home to her native France was out of the question, and Le Brun spent over a decade in exile, making her home in Italy, Russia and Austria.
On her return to Paris in 1800, she made only one or two lengthy trips outside the borders of France, having ‘acquired an inclination for rest.' She spent the rest of her life at her country seat at Louveciennes, near Paris, acquired by her own means, through her own success as a painter.
She outlived her husband, brother and daughter, all of whom died within the space of seven years (1813-1820). In her later years, she wrote a memoir, Memoirs of Madame Vigée Le Brun. With the ghosts of a lost age to keep her company, Le Brun quietly continued her work for the next 20 years, before dying peacefully in 1842.
Details of this 1783 painting and some notes on the sitter, seen through the appraising but affectionate eye of the artist who painted her, are given here:
Madame Vigée Le Brun painted between twenty and thirty portraits of Marie Antoinette, of which one of the most charming is this picture in the Palace of Versailles, where the queen is represented in a garden tying up a bouquet of flowers.
Her dress is of gray taffeta trimmed with delicate lace, she wears a hat of gauze decorated with ostrich plumes, while around her throat and wrists are strings of pearls.
Le Brun describes Marie Antoinette as 'tall and with a fine figure. Her arms,' she says, 'were superb, her hands small and perfectly formed, and her feet charming. She had the best walk of any woman in France, carrying her head erect and with a dignity that stamped her queen in the midst of her whole court; and yet this majestic mien in no wise diminished the sweetness and gentleness of her expression.'
Of all the ghosts of Le Brun’s lost age, we have here before us a particularly sweet and melancholy one, in this portrait of a doomed queen captured during a quiet moment of contentment.
Note: Text source referred to for Le Brun quotes or period detail is Masters in Art: A series of Illustrated Monographs (Bates and Gould Company, Boston, 1905).
Title: Venezia bella, regina del mare (1893)
Title (trans.): Venice the Beautiful, Queen of the Sea (1893)
Artist: Edmond-François Aman-Jean (1858-1936)
About this portrait:
The personification of Venice, Italy, as a beautiful woman - although the tableau is painted in dark and melancholy colors. This is probably apt, depicting Venice in both her glory and fall. A long-established city, she’s seen wars, plagues and the constant danger of being consumed by floods, vanishing into the Adriatic Sea forever.
Venice was always a city of secrets. But even with the darkness, intrigue and danger, artists of all kinds have been irresistibly drawn to this beautiful city - writers, painters, musicians, artisans like the glassblowers of Murano.
Yes, a beautiful city, even though the subtle ravages of time are evident. Ah, but so is the city’s glory, particularly during Carnival, as the hidden streets and waterways spark to life to become a living theater.
Beauty has never been forgotten, here - come what may.
Title: Portrait of Joachim Murat (Date unknown)
Artist: (Attr.) Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson
About the portrait:
Joachim Murat, the Dandy King, has the curious distinction of being one of the most lion-hearted figures in history, but also one of the most vain.
To explain: Murat came to the notice of future Emperor of the French, Napoleon Bonaparte, when young general Bonaparte needed someone to take charge of artillery salvage operations before a critical battle.
Through several strategic victories, Murat eventually became one of the most famous cavalry generals of the period; he was just as well known for his decorative and flamboyant dress uniforms and evening attire, and impeccable manners and style.
After Napoleon took the throne of France, he made Murat King of Naples. Later, the fortunes of both men turned. Napoleon lost his kingdom and spent his last days in exile.
Murat lost his throne as well. He tried to retake it in 1815, assembling an army of 600 in Corsica, Italy. But his attempt to regain
kingship over Naples ended in a sadder fortune; he was captured and sentenced to be executed by firing squad.
Courageous until the very end, Murat refused a blindfold and himself gave the order to fire, on October 13, 1815.
Vain until the very end, he told the firing squad to spare his face and aim instead at his heart.
His last words, reportedly, were:
Droit au cœur mais épargnez le visage. Feu!’
Do your duty!
Straight to the heart but spare the face. Fire!’
Title: Léopoldine au livre d'heures
Title (trans).: Léopoldine with a Book of Hours
Artist: Auguste de Châtillon
About this portrait:
Painted by Auguste de Châtillon in 1836, on the day of Léopoldine Hugo’s first communion. Léopoldine died only a few
years later, in 1843.
Léopoldine Hugo was the daughter of writer Victor Hugo; now a name instantly recognizable as the author who created classic novels Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame).
Léopoldine died in a boating accident at Villequier, at the age of 19.
Via Wikipedia: Victor Hugo was devastated when his oldest and favorite daughter, Léopoldine, died shortly after her marriage. She drowned in the Seine at Villequier, pulled down by her heavy skirts, when a boat overturned. Her young husband Charles Vacquerie also died trying to save her. Hugo describes his shock and grief in his poemÀ Villequier (excerpt):
Hélas ! Vers le passé tournant un oeil d'envie,
Sans que rien ici-bas puisse m'en consoler,
Je regarde toujours ce moment de ma vie
Où je l'ai vue ouvrir son aile et s'envoler !
Je verrai cet instant jusqu'à ce que je meure...
Alas! Turning an envious eye towards the past,
inconsolable through any earthly means,
I keep looking at that moment of my life
when I saw her open her wings and fly away!
I will see that instant until I die...
He wrote many poems afterwards about Léopoldine’s life and death; at least one biographer claims he never completely recovered from the loss. His most famous poem is probably Demain, dès l'aube (Tomorrow, at dawn), in which he describes visiting her grave:
'Je marcherai les yeux fixés sur mes pensées...et le jour pour moi
sera comme la nuit.'
'I will walk, my eyes seeing only the visions of my mind...and the day
for me will be as night.'
Note: Excerpted - full poem maybe be read here and additional poems here.
You can listen to an audio reading of Demain, dès l'aube here.
Lastly, so that we should not be too unhappy in the hearing of some melancholy tales from the lives of great men - and women - perhaps we can rest for a moment before a last series of portraits.
These are women whose names are lost to time. Portrayed here without a history, without even a name - but perhaps their names aren’t as important as the fact that they are all instantly recognizable.
Surely you recognize them, yourself. All of these small moments; of joy, of melancholy, of anticipation, of thoughtfulness. A thousand small pains, and a thousand small kindnesses, difficulties and agonies, happiness and delight, moments of exhaustion because of overwhelming fatigue, and moments of blissful indolence - just because.
These moments don’t belong only to one woman, but to all women. These nameless portraits aren’t just one woman, they are all women. And all men. And all humanity - fleeting, small, individual moments that nonetheless touch eternity.
After joy, sadness; and after sadness, joy.
And so it goes…
Title: Pierrot's Embrace
Artist: Guillaume Seignac (1870-1924)
Title: Jeune femme pensive tournée vers la gauche (1900)
Title (trans.) Pensive Young Woman Turned Towards the Left (1900)
Artist: Edgar Maxence (1871-1951)
Title: A Beauty in Violet
Artist: Paul Francois Quinsac (b. 1858)
Title: Isolde (or Iseult)
Artist: Gaston Bussière (Attr.)
Depiction of Isolde, based on the legend of Tristan and Isolde, but sitter is unknown. One of Gaston Bussière’s best-known works, a depiction of shield maiden Brynhild, also springs from legend, this time the Völsungasaga and the Poetic Edda.
Title: Dolce far niente
Note on this phrase: Dolce far niente
Artist: Auguste Toulmouche (1829-1890)
Title: Jeune femme de Pompeï sur une terrasse
Title (trans.): A young woman of Pompeii on a terrace
Artist: Guillaume Seignac (1870-1924)
And now, perhaps we might indulge ourselves; a marvelous light repast lies in attendance.
Adieu, shades of the past…
Now, then, on to brunch.
Thank you for your good company. We hope you’ll be pleased with the assortment of celestial sweets, and depart contented.
If you’ve enjoyed this stroll through the portrait gallery and would like to spend some more time with your gracious hostess, Lady Witherspoon, here are some details about Random Magic, by Sasha Soren. You’re quite welcome to browse them all, if you like.
The cover art for Random Magic is, in fact, also an original painting. If you already own your own copy of the book, you’ll be able to see the fine attention to detail in the vivid portrait of one of the characters from the book. There’s also a secret message to the reader hidden away in the cover.
Shown above: Book trailer for Random Magic, by Sasha Soren
Find Random Magic: Amazon | Kindle
Explore Random Magic: Twitter | YouTube
If you love portraits and interesting stories, please feel free to browse the Reading Women series on Tumblr: Visit the gallery
Extra Goodies - Win this cute book and sticker gift
Shown above: Portrait of Madame X (1884)
by John Singer Sargent
We also have one more lovely treat to send you on your way - a historical novel about one of the most striking portraits ever painted - Portrait of Madame X, by John Singer Sargent.
The portrait scandalized Paris on its unveiling, and it was only in later years that it was recognized as one of Sargent’s finest works.
by Gioia Diliberto
About: When John Singer Sargent unveiled Portrait of Madame X - his famous portrait of American beauty Virginie Gautreau - at the 1884 Paris Salon, its subject's bold pose and provocative dress shocked the public and the critics, smashing Sargent's dreams of a Paris career.
In this remarkable novel, Gioia Diliberto tells Virginie's story, drawing on the sketchy historical facts to re-create Virginie's
tempestuous personality and the captivating milieu of nineteenth-century Paris.
Excerpt: I heard nothing from her for months. Then one day she sent me a package containing several hundred typed pages. Inspired by my visit, she had dictated a memoir to one of her maids. She wanted history to remember who Madame X was…
I can still see her as she looked then, on the night I first met her. She was tall and slim, her green eyes glittering in that porcelain face, and her silvery laughter floating across the table as she reached for a champagne flute with a long, shapely arm. How could anyone forget? (Browse this book)
Bonus: Great Self Portraits sticker set will be included with the book.
About: More than a reflection of the artist's likeness, self-portraits also show how artists interpret themselves. The 16 stickers in this mini collection include reproductions of self-portraits by Picasso, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Goya, Hopper, and 10 other artists.
1 - Browse this fun list: Top 10 Characters in Random Magic. Tell us which character you think would make the best subject for a portrait, and why.
2 - Pick your favorite portrait from the gallery above, and tell us why it appeals to you more than any of the others.
3 - (Leave email address)
4 – (maybe) One extra entry for blog post or Twitter mention with link to this post.
Offer ends December 31. Open to all.
Contest has ended - winner is here
* Notes: Image shown at header of feature is The Mask, generally attributed to Joseph-Désiré Court.
* image source: stairs, handle, bookcase door, blue door, spiral stairs