Gérard, a student of David, was first painter to the empress Joséphine while the sitter, born Catherine Verlée, was one of the celebrated beauties of her time. She seduced her first husband, George Francis Grand, in one of a series of liaisons that culminated in her becoming the wife of the statesman Talleyrand. However by the time this portrait was painted, about 1805, he had tired of her frivolity, and the couple had separated. Thus the picture is not a pendant to either of the portraits of Talleyrand (by Gérard and by Prud’hon) that hang nearby.
Noël-Catherine Verlée (sometimes spelled Worlée) was born in 1761, to a French minor official and his wife posted to the Danish colony in Madras. At the age of sixteen she married a civil servant of Swiss descent working in Calcutta, George Francis Grand. Embarrassed by a scandalous affair, in about 1782 she moved to Paris, where she flaunted her youth, beauty, and inexplicable affluence in fashionable salons. The portrait that Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun painted of her in 1783 (MMA 53.225.5) attests to her lively personality and stunning looks at the time.
Madame Grand entered into a highly visible affair with Charles Maurice de Talleyrand Périgord (1754–1838), prince de Bénévent, the brilliant statesman and former bishop of Autun, who had become a principal figure in the emerging government of the Directory (see the portrait of him painted by Pierre Paul Prud’hon in 1817; MMA 1994.190). When she was arrested on suspicion of espionage in March 1798, Talleyrand secured her freedom by declaring his interest in her to Paul, vicomte de Barras (1755–1829), then one of the three Directors of the eponymous government.
Estranged from her husband for ten years, Madame Grand, in 1798, obtained a divorce in absentia. Elaborate negotiations with Napoleon and the Vatican were required before the former bishop was allowed to marry at Neuilly on September 10, 1802; despite the First Consul's strong reservations, Napoleon and Josephine signed their marriage contract. Upon their first official reception at the Tuileries, Napoleon is alleged to have remarked, "I hope that the good conduct of citoyenne Talleyrand will cause the fickleness of Madame Grand to be forgotten." Madame Talleyrand rebounded smartly, "In that respect, I cannot do better than to follow the example of citoyenne [Josephine] Bonaparte" (see W. Charrière de Sévery, "George-François (-Francis) Grand, premier mari de la princesse de Talleyrand: Quelques lettres de lui écrites de 1802 à 1808," Revue historique vaudoise 33 [January 1925], pp. 14–15). Napoleon ensured that Madame de Talleyrand was rarely at court.
François Gérard, who had been a favorite pupil of Jacques Louis David (1748–1825), demonstrated a youthful solidarity with the Revolution, but his political views became more moderate thereafter. Portraiture, an ascendant genre during the Directory, was Gérard's primary métier, and as a result the painter was showered with honors and sought out by royalty and nobles under every administration for the remainder of his life. Although the terms of this commission have not been found, it is unlikely that the portrait of Madame Talleyrand was ordered before the sitter’s marriage in 1802 or after 1805, by which time Talleyrand was preoccupied with other women. (He already had taken an official mistress, Madame Dubois, when he married in 1802 [Waresquiel 2003, p. 310].) A commission date of 1804–5 accords well with Talleyrand's prominence in Napoleon's new imperial court, where he served as both minister of foreign affairs and grand chamberlain. The princess's costume, sheer, gold-embroidered silk voile over white satin (tunique en grande parure), worn with slippers without heels, is similar to those worn by Empress Josephine in her 1801 portrait by Gérard (State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg) and in her 1805 portrait by Prud'hon (Musée du Louvre, Paris); Prud’hon also drew a bust-length portrait of Madame Talleyrand in profile around this time, in ca. 1806–7 (Hermitage). Thrown over the chair in the Museum’s picture is a cashmere paisley shawl, made fashionable after the 1798 French campaign in Egypt, a highly desired and expensive status symbol throughout the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The costume thus cannot be dated any more precisely than the first decade of the nineteenth century.
The interior in which Madame Talleyrand is depicted has not been identified. The distinctive window over the firebox, achieved by deviating the flues around the window frame, points to a Paris salon. The up-to-date furnishings are elegant but restrained: the velvet upholstery and custom-woven carpet in complementary colors would have been expensive, and the gilt-painted klysmos chair very fashionable—the one surviving preparatory drawing (Musée des beaux-arts, Besançon) shows sketches of alternative chairs—but the room, with its loosely-draped walls in the neo-grec mode, is neither sumptuous nor nouveau riche. The vases on the mantle, tôle rather than bronze, point to economy. But the muted pea green of the room provides a splendid foil for the elongated figure of Madame Talleyrand. Her chaste white dress alludes to propriety and grace, while the suggestive transparency of the silk sheath and the tight-fitting bodice underscore her sensuality. By placing her next to the chimney, Gérard achieved a tour de force of illumination, lighting her smiling face with the pale gray Parisian daylight but highlighting her long legs with the warm light of the unseen fire.
Evidence surrounding the dating of this painting and the fact that Gérard completed a portrait of Talleyrand (MMA 2012.348) in 1808 have served as bases for the presumption that the two pictures were commissioned as pendants (Tinterow 2005), but this has now been ruled out. By 1809 Talleyrand's affection for his wife had diminished. He banished her in 1815, but she returned from London and Brussels in 1817 and lived quietly in the French capital. The whereabouts of the portrait during this period are not known, but as Madame Talleyrand predeceased her husband, he must have inherited her belongings. The canvas subsequently descended in the family of Talleyrand's brother. There is a reduced and rather summary repetition of this portrait that the artist executed for himself (oil on canvas, 12 5/8 x 8 5/8 in. [32 x 22 cm], Musée national des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon).
[Asher Ethan Miller 2012]
the sitter's husband, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand Périgord, Prince de Bénévent (until d. 1838); his niece, Georgine de Talleyrand Périgord, Duchesse d'Esclignac (1838–d. 1868); Georgine de Preissac d'Esclignac, Marquise de Persan (1868–d. 1911); Boson Doublet, Marquis de Persan (1911–d. 1928); Marguerite Doublet de Persan, baronne Maurice Eschasseriaux (from 1928); her son, baron Jacques Eschasseriaux; his son, baron Philippe Eschasseriaux, Château de Maureilhan, near Béziers (until 2002; sale, Sotheby's, New York, January 24, 2002, no. 76, to MMA)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions," October 24, 2008–February 1, 2009, online catalogue.
THIS WORK MAY NOT BE LENT, BY TERMS OF ITS ACQUISITION BY THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART.
Joachim Le Breton. Rapport sur les beaux-arts. 1808, p. 79 [reprinted (including edits made between 1810 and 1815) in "Rapports à l'Empereur sur le progrès des sciences, des lettres et des arts depuis 1789," vol. 5, "Beaux-arts," Paris, 1989, p. 124], mentions this portrait and one of the prince de Bénévent as among Gérard's principal portraits.
Ch. Lenormant. François Gérard, peintre d'histoire. Paris, 1847, p. 182, lists it as Mme de Talleyrand among full-length portraits of 1805 and notes that it was engraved by Dickinson.
H[enri]. G[érard]. Œuvre du baron François Gérard, 1789–1836. Vol. 1, Gravures à l'eau-forte: Collection des 83 portraits historiques en pied. Paris, 1852–53, unpaginated, ill. (etching by Adam), includes it under 1808.
baron [Henri] Gérard, ed. Lettres adressées au baron François Gérard peintre d'histoire par les artistes et les personnages célèbres de son temps. 2nd ed. Paris, 1886, vol. 2, pp. 405, 417.
H. Vollmer inAllgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Ulrich Thieme. Vol. 13, Leipzig, 1920, p. 436, dates it 1805.
Vicomte de Reiset. "Le roman de la princesse de Talleyrand." Historia (May 1953), ill. p. 548 (detail).
Annette Joelson. Courtesan Princess: Catherine Grand, Princesse de Talleyrand. Philadelphia, 1965, p. 206.
J. Bertaut. "L'extravagante." Historia (April 1967), ill. p. 57.
Pierre Viguié. "Le mariage de Talleyrand." Revue de Paris 77 (March 1970), p. 119, dates it 1808.
Alain Latreille. "François Gérard (1770–1837): catalogue raisonné des portraits peints par le baron François Gérard." PhD diss., École du Louvre, Paris, 1973, pp. 34, 111, no. 50, dates it 1808.
Claire Constans. Musée national du château de Versailles: Les peintures. Paris, 1995, vol. 1, p. 367, under no. 2081, mentions it, together with a preparatory drawing at Besançon, in connection with the replica at Versailles, dating both paintings 1808.
Yveline Cantarel-Besson inNapoléon, Images et histoire: peintures du château de Versailles (1789–1815). Paris, 2001, p. 82 under no. 65, as the source for the ricordo at Versailles.
Christopher Apostle. "Revolution in Art." Sotheby's Preview (January 2002), pp. 6–7, 124–26, ill. (color, overall and detail), dates it about 1805; comments on its exceptional quality, unlined condition, and unbroken provenance.
Gary Tinterow in "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 2001–2002." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 60 (Fall 2002), pp. 5, 27, ill. (color).
Gary Tinterow. "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 2002–2003." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 61 (Fall 2003), p. 29.
Emmanuel de Waresquiel. Talleyrand: Le prince immobile. [Paris], 2003, pp. 301, 672 n. 2, colorpl. XX.
Gary Tinterow inThe Wrightsman Pictures. Ed. Everett Fahy. New York, 2005, pp. 276–81, no. 75, ill. (color), notes that it may have been commissioned as one of a pair with the portrait of Talleyrand exhibited in the Salon of 1808; comments that the setting appears to be the interior of a Parisian salon.
Emmanuel de Waresquiel inTalleyrand ou le miroir trompeur. Ed. Emmanuel de Waresquiel. Exh. cat., Musée Rolin, Autun. Paris, 2005, p. 80, under no. 59, ill. (color).
Olivier Blanc. Portraits de femmes artistes et modèles à l'époque de Marie-Antoinette. Paris, 2006, p. 42.
Everett Fahy inPhilippe de Montebello and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1977–2008. New York, 2009, p. 33.
Kathryn Calley Galitz. "François Gérard: Portraiture, Scandal, and the Art of Power in Napoleonic France." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 71 (Summer 2013), pp. 5, 13–14, 20, 22–23, 25–32, 34–35, 37, 43, 46, 48 n. 66, ill. on front cover (color, detail), figs. 1, 17, 21, 23, 29, 30 (color, overall and details), reproduces the preparatory study (fig. 26, pencil, 5 3/8 x 8 7/8 in.) in Besançon; notes that traces of a sketch suggest that Gérard may have altered the placement of the sitter's feet; quotes from a letter of August 29, 1804, in which Gérard writes that he is finishing his portraits of Madame Récamier (Musée Carnavalet, Paris) and Madame Talleyrand.
Xavier Salmon. Peintre des rois, roi des peintres: François Gérard (1770–1837), portraitiste. Exh. cat., Château de Fontainebleau. Paris, 2014, pp. 17, 230, fig. 4 (color).
Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell. Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. New Haven, 2015, p. 308, fig. 242 (color), ill. p. 304 (color detail).