Consuelo Vanderbilt, born on 2 March 1877, was the eldest child and only daughter of William Kissam Vanderbilt and his first wife Alva Erskine Smith, later Alva Belmont. Consuelo is perhaps the most well-known of the women who would come to be called the ‘Dollar Princesses’ – heiresses from the United States who married into aristocratic families from the Continent whose titles and grand homes belied the fact that over generations their ‘fortunes’ had become quite diminished. The young and beautiful Consuelo’s 1895 marriage to the 9th Duke of Marlborough, the most eligible peer in Great Britain at the time, thrust her into the international spotlight overnight, and made her as popular a subject for the gossip papers as she was for the great artists of her day.
Consuelo’s marriage to the Duke was arranged through the machinations of her socially striving mother, who long hoped to secure an aristocratic marriage for her daughter, but had not settled on a particular aristocrat until the Vanderbilts visited Lord and Lady Lansdowne, who was the Duke of Marlborough’s aunt, in Calcutta in late 1893. Passing through Paris on the way home from India with her parents in the spring of 1894, Consuelo made her European debut at a ball thrown by the Duc and Duchesse de Gramont and within a month had received five marriage proposals from various European suitors. Her mother, however, had her sights firmly fixed on the Duke. While in Paris that summer, she commissioned a portrait of Consuelo by Carolus-Duran – which still hangs at Blenheim Palace – where she particularly requested that her daughter be set against a backdrop of an English landscape in order to draw comparison with the Duchesses of the 18th century who had been painted by the great British portraitists.
Though both Consuelo and the Duke were said to have been in love with other people, they were persuaded that a marriage would be advantageous to them both – Consuelo by Alva’s insistence on the point, and the Duke by the fact that his £8,000 a year income would not be enough to save Blenheim, which had fallen into disrepair and required £14,000 annually just to keep up. It was the influx of Consuelo’s fortune which allowed the Duke to restore Blenheim to the glory that the great house still exhibits today. The two were married on 6 November 1895 at St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church at 5th Avenue and 53rd Street in Manhattan. The wedding caused such a sensation that the police were called in to control the crowd, but were told that they couldn’t use their nightsticks to subdue the onlookers clamoring to get a glimpse of the bride because they were all girls from ‘good families.’ While Alva steadfastly fed information to the papers about everything from Consuelo’s gown to the gold fastenings on her undergarments in order to build public excitement, when the bride and her father arrived late to the church for the ceremony, it was obvious that she had been crying.
The Duke and Consuelo tried hard to make the marriage work, but were ultimately poorly matched with one another in their temperament. They were happy briefly early in their marriage, and the Duke was particularly pleased by how quickly the beautiful Consuelo took to her duties as a Duchess, how well she was received in society and by the tenants on their estate, and the fact that the two were able to produce two sons, born in 1897 and 1898 to carry on his line. By the time John Singer Sargent painted his famous portrait of the family in 1905 though (fig. 1), the cracks had already long begun to show. The couple separated in 1906.
The present portrait of Consuelo was executed during Paul Cesar Helleu’s visit to Blenheim Palace in the spring of 1900, when the Duke was away fighting in the Boer War. During his stay at Blenheim, Helleu is thought to have produced two pastels, five etchings, and a number of drawings (fig. 2), many of which, like the present portrait, illustrate a great intimacy between artist and sitter. Helleu’s daughter believes that the two probably carried on an affair between 1900 and 1901, which began while the artist was at Blenheim and continued after his return to Paris, where Consuelo came to visit him and sit for him again. Helleu was cultured, sophisticated, and had a great wit, and was a friend to Consuelo during a particularly lonely time in her life. Though the relationship eventually soured because Helleu would regularly make additional copies of an etching he had made of Consuelo to sell when he needed money, against her express wishes, it was an important relationship for both while it lasted.
It is the immediacy and touching intimacy of Helleu’s pastel which grants this portrait of Consuelo a unique place among the many portraits of her. While the Carolus-Duran portrait portrays her as a pawn in her mother’s schemes, the Sargent portrait portrays her with all the trappings of her title, and Boldini’s masterful portrait of her (fig. 3), now preserved at the Met, portrays her as a fashion plate and woman of society, it is Helleu’s portrait alone which seems to show Consuelo as she truly was. This simple portrait of the 23 year old Duchess, elegantly dressed with a ribbon emphasizing the long neck for which she was so famous, staring off into the distance with a brightness and intelligence to her eyes, must be as close as we can get to seeing how Consuelo would have wanted to portray herself.
We are grateful to Les Amis de Paul-Cesar Helleu for confirming the authenticity of this work, which has been registered in their archive as n° PA-6150.