Alice de Lancey chose the famous painter Carolus-Duran to paint her portrait. He has depicted her lying on a chaise longue which is lavishly decorated with fabric and cushions. Referred to in the Salon of 1877 as “the lady with the red cushion”, she was one of the great courtesans of Paris during the Belle Epoque era.
The model is wearing an elegant ball gown in white silk satin; her bodice in pearl embroidered lace is brought out by the imposing red cushion beneath her. Lying in a nonchalant pose, evocative of the portrait by François Boucher of his wife (1743, New York, Frick Collection), she is gazing directly at the viewer while holding her fan. This elegant and eroticised position is accentuated by an “armoured” bodice with a low neckline and a skirt outlining a slender figure very close to the body. The gold heels of her shoes, in a different colour from the rest of her clothing, were unusual for the time and emphasise the bold nature of the outfit.
The young Alice, known as Countess de Lancey, was born in 1851 in Baltimore under the name of Julia Tahl. Upon her arrival in Paris she began to attend Parisian soirées and led a wild society life, like those who were then nicknamed “les horizontales”. One of her lovers was Baron Antoine d’Ezpeleta. The portrait of the Baron and the one of her dog “Chinois” by Carolus-Duran, were bequeathed to the Petit Palais museum by Mademoiselle de Lancey, with her portrait in 1913. However, it was above all her liaison with Count Nissim de Camondo which caused a scandal at the time.
The young American woman had acquired part of the estate of Louveciennes, a property formerly owned by Madame du Barry. She furnished the estate by investing in a costly collection of artworks which clearly reflected the enthusiasm at the time for 18th century art. Edmond de Goncourt, in his Journal, was clearly amused by the intriguing couple of Mademoiselle de Lancey and the rich banker, making mention of: “the ironic interior of Louveciennes, once home to Mme du Barry and now lived in by Mme de Lancey, and where Louis XV is replaced by the banker Camondo”.
It was, in fact, the large bright red pillow on which Countess de Lancey is resting in the picture that created the controversy. This work is all about fabric and colour: white satin, green drapes, a scarlet cushion and crimson silk which shocked viewers at the time. Carolus-Duran would have done better to “refrain” from “setting off fireworks”, remarked the critic of the Salon in 1877. The model’s white dress likewise gave rise to comments such as that it was “blotched with shadows”, the “folds are artificial" and the "colour is dirty". The Salon’s critics were unanimous in their disparagement of the painting. Nevertheless, this extravagance of colour and luxury corresponded perfectly to the model.
When Paul Mantz, an art critic writing in the conservative Republican newspaper Le Temps, remarked that the painting lacked “a certain temperance”, he was without a doubt thinking the same thing about the model. Echoing the scathing words of Edmond de Goncourt, the critic also seems to be referring to the model when he highlights the “garish” nature of the work. The same year at the Salon, Carolus-Duran exhibited a second portrait of a child “sparkling with life”. Unlike Mademoiselle de Lancey, this work was well received by the critics. He was only reproached for the “gaudy proximity of the lady with the red cushion”, so it wasn’t just Carolus-Duran’s style which was displeasing, but the model’s personality also played a part.
This portrait of Mlle de Lancey is a clear illustration of the career of Carolus-Duran, who knew how to attract the very wealthy of his time through his talent as a portrait artist. He perfectly expresses the beauty and daring of this young wealthy American in a setting of unabashed luxury. Countess de Lancey, with a fresh flower in her hair, was an iconic figure of the era and of easy living, and is still just as seductive today with her “little feet shod in fine shoes with gold heels”, also noticed by Paul Mantz in 1877.
H. V. de S.
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