France 1852 – 1929
Madame Valtesse de La Bigne
oil on canvas
canvas 200.0 (h) x 122.0 (w) cm
Musée d’Orangerie , Gift of Valtesse de La Bigne 1906
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Gervex met Edouard Manet in 1876, and began to fraternise with the Impressionists and frequent their haunts. He did not, however, fully embrace the ideas of this ‘new painting’. Instead, from early on in his career Gervex sought prestige, wealth and recognition by exhibiting at the Salon des Artistes and later the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. It was here that Gervex exhibited works of titillating mythological and modern day literary themes, as well as being a society portraitist of some note.
The subject of this portrait is Mme Valtesse de La Bigne. She was born in Paris in 1848, under the less salubrious name of Lucia Emilia Delabigne. With her father an alcoholic and her mother a prostitute, she launched her career as an actress. Her first stage appearance was as Hebe in Orpheus of the Underworld by Jacques Offenbach. She also became a noted courtesan in French society. In this portrait Gervex portrays her at the height of her beauty.
As well as taking aristocratic lovers who included Prince Lubomirski, Valtesse enjoyed contact with artistic circles of the day, becoming Gervex’s mistress for several years. Other liaisons were with Manet, Gustave Courbet, Eugène Boudin, Edward Detaille and Alphonse de Neuville—leading one wit to nickname her L’union des peintres. She also met Emile Zola and proved an inspiration for his novel Nana, first published in serial form in Le Voltaire in October 1879.
In this portrait Gervex shunned the idealising of form, fine brushwork and sombre colouring that was popular with the Salon. Instead, he borrowed the brighter palette and looser brushwork of the Impressionists. Madame Valtesse is depicted in a garden full of flowers and foliage, which is touched by dappled light and carefully cropped to surround this most fashionable of figures. The costume suggests a date for the subject’s dress between 1878 and 1880.1
The painting has been dated ‘1889’, but Madame Valtesse would have been in her early 40s in 1889, and the depiction here is of a fresh-faced younger woman. The artist may have originally shown the work ten years earlier, at the Salon of 1879 under the title of ‘Mlle V’.2 He may have dated the work later as 1889, when the painting went on display at the International Exhibition of that year.3 The earlier dating would accord with the style of the costume, and no doubt Madame Valtesse would have wanted to be seen and portrayed in the most up-to-date styles.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
- Robert Bell, Senior Curator of Decorative Arts and Design, National Gallery of Australia, advised in correspondence with the author, 3 August 2009: ‘The afternoon dress worn by the subject has a closely fitted round bodice reaching the hips beneath which a sheath skirt is decorated with tied back ruched draperies and frills, wrapping the legs. This style, fashionable from about 1875, restricted leg movement and was known in French as la femme ligotée … Ruching and pleating of the skirt, as in this example, was more pronounced from 1876 to 1880. By 1876 bodice necklines were cut high and straight plain sleeves with large decorated cuffs were worn. Sleeves began to shorten by 1878 … The depiction of these costume details in the painting suggests a date for the subject’s dress between 1878 and 1880.’
- Salon listing for Peinture, 12 May 1879, no. 1355, Henri Gervex 1852–1929, Paris: Paris-Musées 1992, p. 30.
- No. 643, listed in Henri Gervex 1852–1929, p. 47.