Book Review: Gabriel Badea-Päun, The Society Portrait: Painting, Prestige and the Pursuit of Elegance

Badea-Paun Society Portrait 2007Sunday, 8 July 2012

Book Review: Gabriel Badea-Päun, The Society Portrait: Painting, Prestige and the Pursuit of Elegance (London: Thames & Hudson, 2007).

Gabriel Badea-Päun’s The Society Portrait: Painting, Prestige and the Pursuit of Elegance (London: Thames & Hudson, 2007) is an elegant publication, beautifully presented, and lavishly illustrated. It traces the history and development of society portraiture over the two-hundred year period, from the late eighteenth to the late twentieth century. As such, it is a major and commendable feat. For most of the volume, the author does not deviate much from the major portrait painters active during the nineteenth-century, and talks of Jacques-Louis David, François Gérard, Francisco Goya, Thomas Lawrence, J.A.D. Ingres, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Gustav Klimt, John Singer Sargent, J.A.M. Whistler, Philip de Laszlo, Giovanni Boldini, etc.

However, he also includes relatively lesser known names, such Claude-Marie Dubufe and his son, Edouard Dubufe, Hippolyte Frlandrin, Alfred de Dreux, Théodore Chassériau, Léon Bonnat, William Bouguereau, Alexandre Cabanel, Jean-Jacques Henner, Carolus-Duran, Alfred Stevens, James Tissot, Valentin Serov, Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, Paul-César Helleu, Antonio de La Gandara, and others.

The treat for a portraiture enthusiast like myself is contained in the last quarter of the volume, where Badea-Päun focuses on society portraiture of the twentieth century, a very under-researched and underappreciated area of scholarship. He includes discussions on Paul-Albert Besnard, Jacques-Emile Blanche, Jean-Gabriel Domergue, Edouard Vuillard, Kees van Dongen, Tamara de Lempicka, Bernard Boutet de Monvel, Salvador Dali, Pietro Annigoni, and Andy Warhol, and mentions important society photographers, Cecil Beaton, Richard Avedon, and David Seidner.

Though the volume is rather on the Francophile side (and apart from Valentin Serov, no Eastern-European artist made it into the book), it shows the breadth of the author’s knowledge, awareness of the current and emergent studies on these artists, and an ambitious intention to survey society portraiture across political and geographical frontiers.

Franz Xaver Winterhalter features prominently in the book. His splendid portrait of Maharajah Duleep Singh of 1854 is illustrated on the back jacket cover; seven portraits are illustrated inside, including two lavish double-page spreads of The Royal Family (1846) and Empress Eugénie with her Ladies-in-Waiting (1855). At the very beginning of his volume, Badea-Päun virtually credits Winterhalter’s retrospective exhibition of 1987-1988 with the resurgence of interest in nineteenth-century society portraiture (33). However, I found the actual essay on Winterhalter riddled with numerous inaccuracies. For example, he claims that “in 1828 Franz Xaver suddenly received a commission to paint the portrait of the Grand Duke of Baden” (86). This is clearly erroneous, as Winterhalter enjoyed the patronage of the Grand Duke of Baden from 1824. The identity and the date of the portrait is also clearly confused, as Winterhalter did not paint a portrait of Grand Duke Ludwig I in 1828, but rather that of his successor, Leopold I, and not until 1831. It was neither “sudden” nor “stroke of fortune”, as Badea-Päun claims, but a steady progression of the Grand Ducal patronage.

The statement that Winterhalter was introduced to Louis-Philippe, King of the French, by Louise-Marie, Queen of the Belgians, is also debatable (88), as it is the King’s sister, Mme Adélaïde, who is credited with instigating Winterhalter’s first portrait commissions from the French Royal Family. The suggestion that Winterhalter’s invitation to Compiègne by the Emperor and Empress of the French in 1853 was “prompted by his recent portraits of the imperial couple,” is also erroneous as the completion of the portraits in late December clearly post-dates Winterhalter’s sojourn in Compiègne in October. Winterhalter was awarded the Gold Medal at the 1855 Exposition Universelle not for his Imperial portraits, as stated in the article (93), but rather for his contribution to the pavilion of (and as a representative of) Baden. Winterhalter did not travel to St Petersburg in 1857 to paint Alexandra Feodorovna, Empress of Russia (96). Rather, the portrait was painted a year earlier, in 1856, and much closer to home, in the German spa town of Wildbad. Further inaccuracies are to be found in his captions to illustrations of Winterhalter’s works.

It truly makes me wonder how accurate is the information contained in the rest of the book, and whether scholars and experts on other artists discussed in the book have also come up with a list of similar inconsistencies in the respective areas of their expertise. This mars an otherwise beautiful volume and a valuable overarching source on the last two hundred years of society portraiture.

© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2012.

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