A Painting a Day: Liotard's Marie Adelaide of France in a Turkish Dress (1753)


A painting of the day to remind us how vitally important art is under a president (and a larger culture) that doesn't value the humanities and sees it as "useless" to the business of society.
Today we have Jean-Etienne Liotard's Marie Adelaide of France in a Turkish Dress (1753). another one of my favorite paintings for its sense of whimsy, unpretentiousness, and sumptuous colors. Actually, we don't know whether or not this is really Marie Adelaide (daughter of Louis XV, who escaped Versailles on the eve of the Revolution) and not an anonymous noblewoman enjoying her favorite pasttime--reading. Whoever she is, she's certainly in style, as she's indulging in the mid-18th century rage for all things "Turkish," which mean quasi-Turkish clothes, hats, and wigs (Mozart would celebrate this mania in his Rondo alla Turca, the last movement of his Piano Sonata No.11). The young woman is no doubt reading a romantic novel which takes place in Turkey or Persia as well, another genre that flourished and was inspired by works such as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Turkish Embassy Letters (1716-1718), which suggested that women in Turkey had more freedom as anonymous subjects of a seraglio than they did in England, where any man could view them and restrict their movements.
But back to the painting...if this is Marie Adelaide, I love how he's caught her in such a casual, unguarded moment--as if she's totally in private, not acting, not playing a role. This could be a modern woman in a fancy dress, just chilling out and reading a book. She seems comfortable, relaxed, and completely engrossed in the book. So much so, that she's forgotten that women in 18th century portraits are supposed to be seductive! What, no looking longingly at the viewer? No show of skin at all? No looking like a thoughtless and desirable match (and Marie Adelaide never married--probably because she read too many books!). In short, Liotard is simply painting the woman as she was, not when exposed in public, but simply as herself. It was a tremendous compliment to pay a woman at this time, to suggest that she had her own space and time and freedom, and didn't need to display herself to the male gaze or the marriage market. Sometimes, damn it, you just want to read a good book!

Comments