Madame de Loynes by Amaury Duval hangs at the d’Orsay. It is a simple portrait, a woman dressed in black sits on a sofa. Her left hand is at her chin, supported by a gold cushion on the armrest. She has white lace sleeves under the dress, and wears a simple bracelet, wood or maybe amber, and a pair of dangling earrings, perhaps bronze. Her hair is marcelled, perfectly coiffed. She looks directly at the viewer from under smoky eyes.
This is what people mean by a penetrating gaze. She seems to be appraising us, as we stare back. Unlike much of Duval’s work, which seems decorative and banal, this is a wonderful picture. She is the famous Madame de Loynes, who held an influential salon in Paris beginning in 1860 until her death in 1908. . . .
She was born Marie Anne Detourbay, in 1839,in Montrouge. She moved to Paris at the age of 15, where she became a part of the Paris demimonde, upper class men and women who ignored middle-class sexual values, and lived on the fringes of fashionable society. Her first significant lover introduced her to Prince Napoleon, the cousin of the Emperor Napoleon III, the ruler of the Second French Empire from 1852-70. The Prince, known as Plon-Plon, set her up in an apartment on the Champs Elysees. There she became engaged to Ernest Baroche, who held several important posts in the French government. He died in the Siege of Paris in 1870, leaving her a considerable fortune. She married the Comte Edgar de Loynes, who bestowed the title Comtesse de Loynes on her, and promptly disappeared into America. She kept his money and position, and became respectable.
She was a leader in conservative French politics, meaning that she supported the old aristocracy. In 1912, The New York Times reviewed a book (.pdf) by Arthur Meyer, editor of Le Gaulois, which centers on her:
… one of those singular and charming women who are rarely found outside of France. In other countries women may be fascinating, clever, ambitious, nobleminded, good-hearted, or shrewd in high degree, but seldom all together in an astonishing mixture, such as Madame de Loynes presented.
She and her Salon became active in the Dreyfus Affair. Dreyfus was a Jew, accused falsely of turning over state secrets to the Germans, convicted and exiled. It turned out that the Army conspired to cover up the fraud, in part because he was a Jew. The matter divided French society, and involved a number of complications. The pro-Dreyfusards were led by Zola, whose pamphlet J’accuse was grounded in the principles of honor and justice. Madame de Loynes was a leader on the other side. Her group claimed that its sole intention was to uphold the glory of the French Army. I’m sensing some parallels to modern times here, but this is an art post, so I’ll stop with that.
You never know what you’ll find when you go to the museum. These were real people, with real lives. Not all, of course, some are boring regular people, but many portraits are an invitation to learn some new history.