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Madame Boucher and Madame Chardin.

ART is not an ancillary to social history, which is why one is surprised that the current exhibition of the splendours of Boucher and Chardin at the Wallace Collection is designated Masters of Modern Manners, with some emphasis on which figures in their paintings drank coffee and which drank tea. Something is radically wrong with the present state of the Wallace Collection, particularly marked in the titles and direction of recent exhibitions there. That on the discerning patroness Mme de Pompadour was entitled 'The Art of Love' with giggly adolescent prurience, that on Francis Boucher was called 'Seductive Visions'. Since so many of the glories of the Wallace Collection derive from the ancien regime, the Jacobin impact it now makes is incongruous. Not many years ago it was manned by civil and affable older men in uniform. They have regrettably gone the same way as another part of the Hertford House heritage, the flagstoned washrooms of marble, slate and granite. The galleries now, for some reason, are watched over by seemingly inexperienced youngsters with identity cards on tapes around their necks: some casual in dress and manner, a few touchily egalitarian. Incautiously selected, they mar the pleasure given by the pictures presented to the nation.

A sparse exhibition space was created not long ago to display pictures not already in the Wallace Collection. Under the name of an exhibition a couple of short but wide corridors in the basement of Hertford House have somehow attracted world-famous pictures by Boucher from Stockholm and New York. The Chardins, or replicas of them by the master himself, were included in an exhibition devised by Pierre Rosenberg at the Royal Academy eight years ago. It is good to see them again, even if they are presented as glosses on eighteenth-century etiquette.

Better still was the rare opportunity to study Francois Boucher's portrait of his wife, Marie-Jeanne, nee Buseau, from the Frick Collection in New York. The portrait was painted in 1743, when she was 27 years old. Her face fully accords (allowing for the passage of eighteen years) with her portrait by Alexandre Roslin (1761) at Schloss Nymphenburg, in Munich, She also appears in two or three of Boucher's domestic scenes, more patrician and less endearing than those of Chardin. In 1742 the Bouchers had moved to rue de Grenelle-Saint Honore, where Boucher may have found his young wife's untidiness comical but mildly regrettable. In his portrait of 1743 and in another portrayal of Madame Marie-Jeanne as A Lady conferring with her Maid (1742) in the Thyssen Collection at Madrid, he attempts smiling censure to change her ways. Every detail confirms that supposition.

According to Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets Jonathan Swift, that master of censorious observation once commented to a dining companion about the man who served them, 'That man, since we sat at table, committed fourteen faults'. Boucher, equally although playfully observant, adds up on his canvas some dozen instances of the tousled state of his wife's boudoir. Propped up by a disarray of cushions, Madame Boucher sprawls boyishly, one foot on the floor and the reclining foot half in a pantoffle, on a chaise-longue. She is fully and elaborately dressed, although the dress is much crumpled. The handle of the open drawer of her side-table is decked with discarded ribbons. On the side-table lie an unfolded letter and a book with its bookmark remarkable near the title-page. The footstool is a secondary table spread with abandoned haberdashery and a needlework bag from which a ball of thread is unwinding. The foot of the chaise-longue is jammed against the open door of a flower-decorated wardrobe. A curtain, which would usually cover the wardrobe, swings free in heavy twists until it is checked by shelves hanging from the brocade-covered wall. On the shelves, stuffed in among Mme Boucher's chinoiseries (including a tiny tea-set) are more discarded ribbons and another crumpled letter. For all that, the laughable disorder of her boudoir (so much at odds with Boucher's exquisitely calligraphic signature) animates the picture, making it far livelier than many portraits intended for a public display, which would have teased Mme Boucher and entertained, in particular, parents of adolescent daughters.

Raising herself on her elbow, Mme Boucher is absorbed in her thoughts, which are unlikely to be profound. Perhaps she is awaiting a midinette's visit, the subject of Boucher's conversation-piece lent to the little exhibition by the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, although it replicates a work already in the Wallace Collection: The Milliner's Visit. A well-fed cat presides on an armchair as a midinette kneels in quarter-profile (one of Boucher's favourite poses) whilst she unpacks her wares for a lady of fashion who, with a meditative pout, scrutinises a strip of fabric.

On the other side of the Seine, the rue Princesse, where Jean Simeon Chardin spent most of his life among moderately prosperous craftsmen and minor entrepreneurs, was not at all like the rue Saint Honore. The women there had no morning appointments with milliners. On the contrary, they made sure that their children's clothes were neat and well-brushed before they sent them to school or took them to early morning Mass. After that they attended to their houses. If they had servants, they worked alongside them in the kitchen or the laundry room. Among these parishioners of St Sulpice, Chardin, with the prudence of his kind, waited until he was thirty-two before he married Marguerite Saintard in 1731. They had been engaged to marry for eight years, but delayed until he was firmly enough established to support a family. Her dowry was less than had been agreed in the original marriage contract of 1723. Her father in particular had advocated the delay, during which his business had failed. Chardin just smiled at the irony of it all.

Their long-postponed nuptials were productive, and Marguerite gave birth to a son ten months after their wedding. Pitifully she died in 1735, two months after Chardin had painted her portrait, meticulously dated February 1735. Not a woman of fashion, she is wearing the dress (white with sea-green and maroon stripes) in which she had posed for his Lady sealing a Letter two years earlier. The subject had been popular with aspiring Dutchwomen when they commissioned portraits from such painters as Gerard Terborch, since it advertised that they could write. To shield herself from the cold winter Marguerite has neatly arranged a shawl of mottled violet around her shoulders, the lining of aquamarine tucked up to free her arms. Her white mob-cap with its hyacinth-blue ribbon perched upon her short grey curls completes the harmony one would expect from Chardin's wife. Her profile is akin to that of Chardin's M. le Noir's Son building a House of Cards of 1737 (National Gallery, London). There was, no doubt, frequent intermarriage among those long-settled in the parish of St Sulpice. With her spoon Marguerite lifts the lid of her old-fashioned tea-cup, to disperse the steam, transient as a sigh, into the past.


Did the Marquis of Steyne found the Wallace Collection? Some More Clues

Briefly we return to the identification of the Marquis of Steyne with Francis Charles Seymour-Conway, 3rd Marquess of Hertford, and correspondingly of Gaunt House with Hertford House, repository of the Wallace Collection (see Contemporary Review, Spring 2008). George IV knew the Marquess of Hertford from their boyhood and, as Prince Regent, appointed him Vice-Chamberlain. Major Pendennis receives an invitation from the Marquis of Steyne on 'stout official paper' (Pendennis, ch. 1). Hertford and Steyne are both members of the numerically limited Order of the Garter (Vanity Fair ch. 48 and 64). They also share the damnosa hereditas of insanity in the family. A connoisseur, Hertford helped George IV build up his notable collection of Dutch painting and bought seventeen Dutch paintings for himself. Steyne's gala entertainments at Gaunt House takes place in 'that splendid room, the picture gallery'. At the supper which follows the charades and the ball Becky Sharp is placed at the high table with 'His Royal Highness', presumably the Prince Regent, who has already favoured her with a heavy Hanoverian quip (Vanity Fair, ch. 41). Hertford's wife was half-Italian and he had a notable collection of Italian Literature, Steyne spends his winters in Rome, where his last encounter with Becky Sharp takes place, and dies of a fit in 1830 (ch. 64). Here Thackeray ambushes us, since Hertford died in 1842. 1830 was when George IV died. Lord Steyne is a trophy from the period whose ethics Thackeray deplored but whose ethos, idioms and manners he cherished.

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Author:Bruce, Donald
Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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