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 (The Met, 50.135.2
) 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; The Met, 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 (The Met, 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]