Sold following the death of Baron Gérard, 27 - 29 April 1837; Collection La Caze, Paris; bequeathed to the Musée du Louvre, 1869.
Gérard took his first steps at the 1791 Salon as a history painter but quickly established himself in the portrait genre. During the Empire period, he was the official portraitist to the imperial aristocracy and it is thus hardly surprising that he was charged with producing the official portrait of the new empress, initially on her own (Schatzkammer, Vienna, with replicas hanging at Fontainebleau and Versailles), and subsequently with the Roi de Rome. These elegant full-length portraits are far more flattering than those painted by Robert Lefèvre (Versailles, Museo Glauco Lombardi, Parma, Chaumet collection). Prud'hon also missed out on the commission as his production rate was considered too laborious, despite a promising early preparatory drawing.
This lifelike study is probably one of the most authentic that we have of Marie-Louise, depicted here in the full bloom of youth. In contrast to the finish of the face, this sketch reveals a far livelier brushwork than was usual in Gérard's portraits. Indeed, it is just this "rough" character that attracted Dr. La Caze to the painting. It is likely that Gérard used this study in his large portrait featuring the Roi de Rome, completed in 1813, in which the empress is also dressed in white, with roses in her hair. With her ash blond curls, long nose, large pale blue eyes and a fresh complexion, this painting matches period descriptions of the empress. The Queen Hortense wrote of her, "Everyone was in agreement when they said that she had a good figure, was blond and fresh, but no-one dared say that she was pretty." For his part, Constant, writing in his memoirs, noted that "everything about her exuded youthfulness, health and freshness."
Hélène Meyer (tr. H.D.W.)
Curator, Musée national du Château de Compiègne
Exhibition curator, "1810: la politique de l'amour. Napoléon Ier & Marie-Louise à Compiègne" (28 March - 19 July, 2010)
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