Portraying the Ancien Régime

Unfamiliar with Alexander Roslin? So was I. Nevertheless, like me, you may be familiar with a few of his portraits. Some have been used on the cover of Penguin and Oxford Classics, as well as French and other pockets.

Born in Sweden, talented Alexander Roslin left his country to make a name in France. Paris was the cultural centre of Europe. Roslin became one of the most succesful and richest portrait painters of the last decades of the Ancien Régime.

Roslin was successful not only because he was extraordinarily talented. He painted his aristocratic and bourgeois clients as they wanted to be seen. Yet, he also managed to include his impressions of their real character and personality. At the height of his career, he apparently painted a portrait a month.

Alexander Roslin not only painted portraits in France, during the reigns of Kings Louis XV and Louis XVI. He was invited to return to Sweden to paint aristocrats and rich citizens there, during a two-year-stay he described as sheer slavery. He was also invited to Russia, where customers included Tsarina Catherine the Great. Apparently, she complained she looked like some Swedish milkmaid in this portrait.

Catherine’s portrait is not included in this exhibition. Of the many portraits Roslin must have painted, there are only between twenty to thirty to be admired at the Rijksmuseum Twenthe till the 12th of April. The portraits could earlier be admired in Sweden. To commemorate that many years of diplomatic ties with the Netherlands, the Swedish exhibition is now on show in Enschede.

This is a town close to the German-Dutch border. That the German border is near, is clear because all the exhibition texts are only in Dutch and German. I didn’t come across a single English one. Nevertheless, I was completely captivated: these portraits are truly beautiful and were certainly worth the journey.

The first room contains portraits of Roslin’s family and friends. He not only painted contemporaries like Boucher and others. His paintings include portraits of female artists, who at that time, could become members of the prestigious “Académie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture“, just like male artists.

One of these talented female artists, Marie-Suzanne Giroust, became Alexander Roslin’s wife. The room contains three portraits of her by her husband. The exhibition’s feature image used to market this exhibition, is one of them.

Another one shows the couple (see above). Roslin stands behind his wife, while she’s working on a pastel portrait of one of their Swedish friends. After seeing this and a picture of her work, one wonders how much her pastel portraits have influenced his way of painting and vice versa. Unfortunately, this exhibition focusses on him alone.

In a third portrait, Madame Roslin wears a fashionable pink dress and looks like a court beauty á la Madame de Pompadour. Silk and lace have been painted exquisitely by her husband. Small wonder, society ladies loved to be painted by him.

The story of Alexander and Marie-Suzanne’s courting and marriage is a sad one. When they met and fell in love in Paris, her family managed to block their marrying for six years. A few years after the “pink” portrait was painted, Madame Roslin died of breast cancer.

Other rooms show portraits of important aristocrats, society beauties, businessmen, scientists. They include friends of Madame de Pompadour, as well as upper-class Russian, English, Swedish, and other nationals and royalty.

That Roslin painted flattering portraits becomes clear from the story behind the portrait of Natalya Petrovna Chenyshev. When you “meet” her, it’s clear she is no fudge. It’s also clear, she’s no beauty. But while people nicknamed her “Princesse Moustache” and “Fée Moustachine”, there’s no hairy upperlip in Roslin’s painting (shown in the linked wikipedia entry). Her portrait by Roslin is a case of 18th century “photo-shopping”.

Contrary to Natalya Petrovna, Hedvig Elisabeth Charlotta looks angelic. Aged fifteen, she married into the Swedish Royal Family. Roslin painted the anything-but-angelic Hedvig in her marriage dress. It’s unbelievable, but this very same, original 18th century bridal gown, still shimmers and shines next to Hedvig’s portrait.

There are also a few portraits of members of the French Royal Family. The most moving ones are two portraits of the aunts of Louis XVI, in one of the last rooms of this exhibition. The portraits are placed on either side of an enlarged copy of their letter to the King. In it, his aunts humbly ask permission to leave the country: the French revolution has erupted.

Unlike many of Roslin’s French clients, Madame Victoire and Madame Adelaide escaped just in time. They survived. In Paris, Roslin himself witnessed how the decadent world, which had made him rich, abruptly ended. He was lucky: he died peacefully at home, shortly after Louis XVI was guillotined.

More information about this beautiful exhibition, as well as other current ones at this museum, can be found at the website of the Rijksmuseum Twenthe.
The exhibition on Alexander Roslin terminates 12th of April 2015.

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