Charles and Jayne Wrightsman acquired Nattier’s portrait of the 18th-century salonnière, the Marquise de Ferté-Imbault from the Gallerie Cailleux in Paris in 1963. It is one of the relatively few acquisitions that the couple made together that Mrs. Wrightsman would keep by her side throughout the remainder of her life.
Marie Thérèse Geoffrin (1715-1791), Marquise de La Ferté-Imbault, was born in Paris to a wealthy widower, mirror manufacturer and valet de chamber of the royal court, Pierre François Geoffrin and his much-younger second wife, Marie Thérèse Geoffrin (1699-1777), née Rodet, who baptized her first child with her own Christian names. Raised by emotionally distant parents trapped in what was, by all accounts, a loveless marriage, the young Marie Thérèse spent much of her adolescence adjudicating their icy quarrels. In February 1733, at age 18, she was wed at the church of Saint-Roch in Paris to the 21-year-old Philippe Charles d’Estampes, Marquis de La Ferté-Imbault, great-grandson of the Maréchal d’Estampes. She lived briefly with his family until his sudden death in 1737 left her a young widow with a seven-month-old daughter, Charlotte-Thérèse. Her marriage, too, seems to have been less than joyful, but her husband’s dukedom had promoted her into the ranks of the nobility. She soon returned to her parents’ home, the Hôtel de Rambouillet, where she was born and where she would continue to reside for the rest of her life. (The house still stands at 374 rue Saint-Honoré.) She eventually married again, to Louis Félicité Omer d’Estampes, Marquis de Mauny.
By the time the widowed Marquise de La Ferté-Imbault’s returned to her family home, her mother, Mme. Geoffrin, had launched the celebrated salons which would soon make her an admired figure throughout Europe. Although she had had little formal education, Mme. Geoffrin was bright and intellectually curious and in the early 1730s she was invited to attend the salons of Mme. de Tencin, an older neighbor she had befriended on the rue Saint-Honoré. At these weekly gatherings, she entered a new and congenial world in which she was introduced to many of the leadings lights of French intellectual and cultural life, including Montesquieu, Fontenelle and La Motte-Houtard. By the later 1730s, Mme. Geoffrin began her own Wednesday afternoon salon, distinguished by a lavish level of entertaining that Mme, de Tencin could not equal. Several of Tencin’s mainstays, such as Montesquieu, began attending Geoffrin’s luncheons as well, and they were soon joined by a stimulating array of writers, philosophers and aristocrats, including Voltaire, Horace Walpole, Melchior Grimm, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Marmontel, Lord Shelbourne, Stanislaus Augustus, (the future king of Poland), as well as many of the younger Encyclopédistes, such as d’Alembert and Denis Diderot, and prominent artists including Boucher, Carle Vanloo, Greuze and Hubert Robert.
Long-strained relations between mother and daughter were made more fraught by Mme. Geoffrin’s crucial and very public support of the controversial Encyclopédistes, of whom the Marquise de Ferté-Imbault disapproved. (The marquise herself later estimated that her mother contributed between 100,000 and 200,000 livres in support of the eventual publication of the Encyclopédie.) Although they resided in the same house, mother and daughter led independent lives, the marquise keeping company with deeply religious friends who opposed the Enlightenment principles espoused in her mother’s circle. From 1771 until 1777 (the year in which her mother died), the marquise sponsored her own counter-salon called the Order of Lanturelus, held in other rooms in the Hôtel de Rambouillet, which became a forum for an intellectual movement of anti-philosophes.
Jean Marc Nattier was only peripherally in Mme. Geoffrin’s orbit, but as the leading portrait painter of the Parisian beau monde in the middle of the 18th century, their paths inevitably crossed. The son of an obscure portraitist and the younger brother of a history painter, Nattier was elected to the Académie Royale in 1718 as a history painter – his diploma piece is Perseus Changing Phineas to Stone in the museum in Tours – but soon turned to the practice of portraiture. No artist of his time was better able to convey the delicacy and charm of feminine beauty without sacrificing the grandeur and physical presence required in the depiction of great ladies.
In one of her notebooks Mme. Geoffrin noted “I was painted by Nattier in 1738 and my daughter in 1740.” While the prime version of the portrait of Mme. Geoffrin has not been located, a fine, unsigned replica of it is in the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum (fig. 1). The portrait of the marquise, which remained with descendants of her second husband until 1985, is today also in the same museum (fig. 2). This large and ambitious three-quarter-length depiction of the Marquise de la Ferté-Imbault is one of the artist’s masterpieces. Ingeniously enlivened with a palpable sense of motion created by a swirl of satin ribbons, swaths of enveloping silk and billowing swags of velvet drapery spinning about the sitter, the painting features the elegant marquise dressed in an extravagant ball gown and holding a loup (a black velvet party mask), her face providing the placid and composed central focus that anchors the composition.
The modestly scaled, Wrightsman oval is signed and dated 1739 and, thus, precedes the large portrait by a year. It has been called a preparatory sketch for the Tokyo painting, but it is highly finished in a manner that finds no comparison among Nattier’s actual preparatory studies. (See, for example, the painted studies for the portraits of Marie Josèphe de Saxe and Madame Adélaïde, [Salomon 1999, nos. 59 & 60, respectively], which are loosely blocked-in likenesses with no indications of background or costume.) Rather, the Wrightsman painting is an independent, preliminary work which may have encouraged the subsequent commission of the more ambitious portrait which would follow. Certainly, Nattier referred to it when creating the Tokyo portrait: in both paintings, the marquise takes a similar pose, leaning back and reclining to the left, and her costume – a full, ivory-white silk gown trimmed with salmon-pink ribboning at the neck and bows on her right sleeve – is virtually identical in each.
However, many of the delights of the Wrightsman painting are particular to Nattier’s modest and domestic portrayal of its sitter. Her expression conveys a calm and direct openness and intelligence, and an inviting good cheer that accounts for much of the painting’s appeal. The beautiful, nuanced rendering of fabrics, subtle palette of rose, ivory and cocoa brown, and gently rendered fall of natural light all contribute to its allure. The warm sfumato that envelops the Marquise de La Ferté-Imbault heightens the creaminess of her skin, creating soft atmospheric effects that function as a metaphor for the often-cited charm of the sitter’s character and make for a uniquely seductive image.