THE COLLECTION
Mademoiselle de Clermont en sultane
  • Date: 1733
  • Object Type: Painting
  • Medium: Oil on canvas
  • Image size: 109 x 104.5 cm
  • Inv: P456
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Description
Provenance
Marks/Inscriptions
Further Reading
  • Little is known of this group portrait showing a seated white female figure, currently identified as Marie-Anne de Bourbon (1697–1741), better known as Mademoiselle de Clermont, and several unidentified Black models.
    The painting aligns with the genre of historicised portraits, that is, representations of actual sitters in a fantasy or allegorical setting. The seated woman at the centre was the youngest child of Louis III de Bourbon, Prince de Condé and of Mademoiselle de Nantes, an illegitimate (though subsequently recognised) daughter of Louis XIV.
    Nattier shows Mademoiselle de Clermont in the guise of a Sultana in a harem, an erotically charged space in the Western imagination. The painting is thus an early example of 'Turquerie' — a depiction in an imaginary 'Turkish' vein — that slowly emerged as a new fashion in the years around 1720. This setting provided the artist with an excuse to include Clermont’s exposed lower legs and knees, elements that would have been unacceptable in a formal court portrait.
    The fantasy setting may also provide some rationale for the presence of the other women in this painting: six Black figures who are grouped around the seated Clermont. As people of colour, such women would not have been typical habitués of the eighteenth-century French court; their presence here thus enhances the exotic mood created by the ‘Turkish’ allusions. Today, their identities are unknown, though given the specificity with which the artist has rendered their features, we might suppose he worked from actual models or print representations, rather than purely from his imagination. It is also worth noting that the painting was made only a few short decades after the establishment, by Clermont’s ancestor Louis XIV, of the Code Noir. This notorious document codified slavery in the French colonial empire. It is likely, therefore, that the women represented here would have been understood by contemporary viewers as enslaved. Alluding to power dynamics that make the today’s viewer uncomfortable, the presence of these women of colour in relation to Clermont would have reinforced the eighteenth-century viewer’s perception of her wealth and status.
    The fact that the image is so dominated by Clermont may suggest that she was deeply involved in constructing its iconography. Yet Nattier’s painting contrasts markedly with Clermont’s public image and her official function of Surintendante de la maison de la Reine (senior lady-in-waiting to the Queen) from 1725. It may have been intended for her private collection, or as a gift from her to a close associate. Unfortunately, the early provenance of the work is unknown. The painting was only shown at the Salon of 1742, nine years after its creation, a clear indication that its public display was not acceptable while Clermont was still alive.
    In the context of our ongoing equity, diversity, and inclusion initiative here at the Wallace Collection, research on this painting, its making, and its meanings is still ongoing. If you have any information to share, we invite you to contact collection@wallacemuseum.org.