In this tour de force double portrait, two sisters sit on a sofa reading a letter. They are Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte, Napoleon's nieces, and the letter is from their father, Joseph Bonaparte. David captures here not only the intimacy of siblings – the protective way they hold each other – but also a sense of their individual personalities. Zénaïde, the elder sister, sits tall in her black dress, meeting the viewer's eye with an air of confidence. Charlotte, by contrast, shrinks behind her sibling, her long-sleeved dress more modest and less worldly than Zénaïde's, with its short sleeves and exposed décolletage.
Painted in Brussels in 1821, exile runs through this work for both its subjects and its artist. David, political painter par excellence, had preferred exile in Brussels after Napoleon's fall to working for the newly-restored Bourbon monarchy in Paris. Zénaïde and Charlotte likewise found themselves exiled in Brussels, and the letter they read is from their father, the former King of Spain, who had fled France for the United States. The portrait is painted with David's characteristic realism and attention to detail, and it is even possible to make out the Philadelphia address on the letter in Zénaïde's hand. Exile was clearly comfortable for the sisters: both wear tiaras and sumptuous dresses, and they are seated on a red velvet sofa embroidered with golden bees, one element of the Bonaparte iconography. Yet the monochrome background disrupts this otherwise harmonious portrait of beautiful women in a luxurious setting. It is so plain as to create the sense of their having been taken out of context, removed from some other setting. Bluntly juxtaposed with the brilliance of the foreground, it emphasizes their closeness too, their embrace made more poignant by the suggestion of its displacement.
The portrait was commissioned by Julie Clary, the girls' mother, who assumed the title of Comtesse de Survilliers after 1815. An autograph receipt, also in the collection of the Museo Napoleonico (inv. MN 923), confirms that David was paid 4,000 francs for the original portrait, and 1,000 francs each for two autograph copies of it. All three versions of the painting are known: one, thought to be the original, is in the collection of The Getty Museum in Los Angeles, while the second copy (which differs from the Museo Napoleonico example by depicting golden crosses rather than bees on the sofa) is in the Musée d'Art in Toulon.
Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, August 2014.