Mademoiselle Clairon or La Clairon, née Claire-Josèphe-Hippolyte Legris de Latude (1723-1803) was one of the most celebrated actresses in France in the 18th Century. This portrait is possibly the same one listed in LaTour’s last will and testament, in both the 1768 and 1784 versions (see Wildenstein, op. cit., pp. 75, 117), providing a terminus ante quem for the creation of the work.
In contrast to his official royal portraits, La Tour’s pastel portraits of his fellow artists – painters, writers, actors – were informal and display more warmth and naturalness. Portraits such as the present one which show the actress bare faced and with a knowing gaze, as well as his portraits of fellow-painter Jacques Dumont Le Romain and Jean-Baptiste Chardin display an intimacy and a real expression of the sitters’ personalities missing from his official royal portraits.
Mademoiselle Clairon made her stage debut at the age of thirteen. She had difficulty gaining entrance to the Comédie française, finally succeeding in 1743 when she made her debut in the title role of Phaedra which was an undisputed success. For the next 22 years, Clairon performed classic tragic roles, as well as in works by the most important contemporary playwrights such as Voltaire, Jean-François Marmontel, Chateaubrun, Saurin and de Belloy. Carle Vanloo depicted the actress as Medea (Bildegalerie, Potsdam-Sans Souci), the title role in Bernard de Longepierre’s play, and the role for which La Clairon is best known. This painting was exhibited at the Salon in 1759 when La Clairon was at the height of her popularity. La Clairon was also painted by Greuze, and a profile portrait by Cochin was the basis for the engraving for the frontispiece of her autobiography. The present portrait, if indeed it represents Mademoiselle Clairon, shows her at a younger age than in Vanloo's painting and should date from c. 1750.
In the early 1760s, the actress was imprisoned at Fort-l’Evêque for refusing to perform with an actor she considered sub-standard. Upon her release Mademoiselle Clairon retired from the stage, and then went on to teach other actors and write her autobiography, Mémoires d'Hippolyte Clairon which was published in 1798. The actress also had a very colorful personal life and had many lovers including the playwright Marmontel, the actor, Jean Maudit de La Rive (who had also been a former pupil), and Joseph-Alphonse-Omer, Comte de Valbelle (1729-1818) who had a hôtel particulier on the Rue du Bac in Paris. After her retirement she had an affair with the Margrave of Ansbach, a much younger German prince, and took up residence at the court of Bayreuth until 1791. She died in 1803 and is buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.