Wikimedia [from ArtNet]
According to Neil Jeffares (2004, p.17) this portrait is attributed to Nattier by Xavier Salmon and may perhaps show Mlle de Charolais's true face. If so she seems unrealistically young.
Who commissioned the portrait?
One tradition ascribes the initiative to the duc de Richelieu who was Mlle de Charolais's lover in the period c1716-20.
- According to the Princesse Palatine, Richelieu, who was still in his early twenties at this time, commissioned portraits of Charolais and other mistresses en travesti. On 31st March 1719 she wrote, "The Duc de Richelieu has had all his mistresses painted wearing the dresses of different religious orders. Mademoiselle de Charolais is painted as a Recollet and they say the likeness is striking. The Marechales de Villars and d'Estrees have Capuchin robes. . .". (Letters of Madame...vol. 2 (1925) , p.119. [Internet Archive ]). Sadly, no trace of these last two portraits has been found.
- There is another mention in the journal of the Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera, who visited Paris in 1720-21, when she painted pastels of both Mlle de Charolais and her sister Mlle de Clermont. In the entry for November 1720, she refers to "the famous collection of Richelieu, where each of his mistresses is represented in the costume of a religious order": Mme de Parabère, the mistress of the Regent, is portrayed as a carmelite; Mlle de Charolais "en capucine" and Mme de Villeroi "en récollette".[Journal, published 1865 p.253] Google Books)
Although rumour of the collection was evidently widespread, it seems that very few people had actually seen the paintings. Later, Richelieu's supposed memoirs embroidered the tale:
Mémoires historiques et anecdotiques du duc de Richelieu by Lamotte-Langon (1829) vol.3, p.35-36.[On Google Books]
Mademoiselle de Charolais?
Although Richelieu may indeed has suggested the conceit, it seems unlikely that he was actually responsible for the portraits of Mlle de Charolais. If his collection ever existed, it could not have been formed without the complicity of his mistresses. The couple shared a love of theatrical dressing up and elaborately staged love affairs.
A few scraps of information confirm the idea that Mlle de Charolais herself was responsible for the portraits:
- According to Melissa Perceval, account books at Chantilly record that Mlle de Charolais paid Gobert 100 livres for a portrait in 1717.
- In the grounds of her summer residence, the château d'Athis, acquired in 1745, Mlle de Charolais built a petite maison known as the "pavillon d'Aurore". In 1836 it was still inhabited by an old couple who had preserved the original decor. A visitor reported that the salon had six fine quality full length portraits representing members of the Charolais family "travestis en religion", including Mademoiselle de Charolais in the habit of a Cordelier (1836). In another book published in 1860 the portraits are again described, though two of them had by now been removed to Paris.
Athis-Mons, son histoire, ses souvenirs, par M. Pinard, 1860, p.16 [Google Books]
- Gaston Duchesne, Mlle de Charolais's early 20th-century biographer, assumes that the Franciscan fantasy was her own: See p.11: She was taken with religious ideas, and when at home in her petites maisons (at the château de Madrid in the bois de Bologne and later at Mons-Athis), she would dress up in the costume of a Cordelier and for several days she would follow a monastic rule that her imagination suggested to her. See also p.106: In June 1740, having lost credit with the king, she took refuge at Madrid and dressed as a Cordelier.
It is hard to come to definite conclusion, when provenance of the various paintings is so uncertain. However, Melissa Perceval is probably right to see Mlle de Charolais herself as the prime mover.
The link between sexual transgression and religion is clear enough. This probably accounts for Sade's attraction to the picture, although we are a world away in mood from his dark preoccupations with blasphemy and perversion. The image feels like a feminine conceit and, especially in the earliest versions, not a very sexually freighted one. One might contrast, for example, the far more risqué portrait of Mlle de Charolais's sister, Mlle de Clermont, "en sultane", commissioned from Nattier in 1733.
|Nattier, Mlle de Clermont "en sultane", 1733|
The costume, which is sometimes described as that of a Franciscan penitent, was perhaps intended - at least playfully - to signal contrition and renewed chastity. We know that in 1716, at the time of the first portraits, Mlle de Charolais's secret liaison with Richelieu was discovered, and she was compelled (if only temporarily). by her mother and the bishop of Condom to break off the affair. According to Gaston Duchesne, she affected Franciscan dress at times of retirement when she had fallen out of royal favour.
Melissa Perceval has it that the portrait is "a powerful statement about female emancipation". This is perhaps a little overstated, but the image may well be read as a piece of self-justification on Mlle de Charolais's part, one that was certainly not without an element of defiance and challenge.
Melissa Percival, "Portraits of Mademoiselle de Charolais as a Franciscan friar: gender, religion and cross-dressing", Art History (2014) Vol.37(5): p.832-1011.