Alexander Pavlovich Bryulov
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Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
|Portrait of Marie-Amélie, Queen of the French,
Watercolor and bodycolor
43.1 x 29.5 cm
Purchased (Hope Fund), 1992
At first glance, Alexander Pavlovich Bryulov’s Portrait of Marie-Amélie, Queen of the French is strikingly ordinary. An aging woman, slightly hunched at the waist, stands in an off-center position beside what appears to be a window. Cut off from full view, the window, or painting on the wall, reveals a glimpse of an abstracted landscape, showing a distant blue mountain that fades into a pale-blue horizon. Aside from the figure of the woman, a hint of colorful cloth behind her, and the window, this composition is spare; its space is absent of furniture or any decorative adornment. The window has no curtains or other covering. If, in fact, a painting of a landscape, rather than a window, then its flat, wall-colored, light-brown frame appears to be entirely functional, hardly fit for the company of a queen.
Considering that this is the portrait of a queen, Bryulov’s watercolor is strikingly intimate and informal. Unlike earlier portrayals of the Queen of the French, such as an unidentified portrait from circa 1825, an 1828 engraving by Franz Stober, and an 1842 oil painting of her by Franz Winterhalter, Bryulov’s portrait makes no effort to display signs of Marie-Amélie’s wealth, power, or beauty. The aforementioned portraits depict ornate details of Marie-Amélie’s costume and jewels, particularly the Winterhalter work, which shows the queen in a richly decorated room with a detailed carpet pattern and an elaborately carved gold-gilded table. Bryulov’s watercolor resists such decorative ornamentation. Rather, the artist engages the viewer though the gray-blue eyes of Marie-Amélie, whose focused gaze immediately meets the viewer’s. A regal strength of character thus emanates from this powerful look.
Marie-Amélie Thérèse persevered through a long and difficult life, which is visualized in Bryulov’s veristic portrayal of her wrinkled skin and bent posture. Still, her commanding position dominates the space of the portrait. Born in Naples in1782, she belonged to the royal house of Bourbon through both her father, King Ferdinand IV of Naples, and her mother, Archduchess Maria Carolina. Marie-Amélie became the “Queen of the French” by marrying Louis Philippe, the Duke of Orléans, who became known as the Citizen King.[i] Her lifetime was filled with a number of exiles, beginning in 1798 when the Bourbons were driven from Naples to Palermo, where she met and married Louis Philippe. The couple moved to France in 1814, but was driven into exile soon thereafter, whereupon they sought refuge in England with their four children. In 1817, Marie-Amélie and Louis Philippe returned to France. In 1830 they were crowned Queen and King of the French. Once again, however, they were forced to flee to England at the outbreak of the 1848 Revolution, when Louis Philippe abdicated the throne. After his death in 1850, Marie-Amélie lived the remainder of her life of exile in England, where she died in 1866 at the age of 83.
As a result of her marriage to Louis Philippe and many exiles Marie-Amélie never returned to live in her birthplace of Naples, the subject remained integral to her identity despite her absence. In fact, I would argue that the sloped blue mountain in the abstracted landscape of the watercolor alludes to Vesuvius, even if the portrait did not take place in Naples. Pictured at a distance much further than it would be seen from Naples, Mount Vesuvius is perhaps more of a reference to the recesses of memory and personal history of Marie-Amélie, than an actual place in the moment of the portrait’s execution.
Vesuvius and the excavations of Pompeii were also of particular interest to Bryulov, who had studied art and architecture in Italy during the 1820s with his younger brother and fellow painter, Karl.[ii] Famous for his gigantic 1828 history painting relating to Vesuvius, The Last Day of Pompeii, Karl Bryulov was the first Russian artist who was commissioned by the Uffizi to paint a self-portrait.[iii] Though Last Day was his best-known work, Karl had already established himself as a portraitist in the early 1820s while the Bryulov brothers lived in Rome. Alexander, now credited for having painted Marie-Amélie, Queen of the French, was widely known as the accomplished architect and designer of a variety of Greek, Romanesque, and Gothic revival style buildings in and around St. Petersburg, but he, too, was a portrait painter.[iv] The painting styles of the brothers are not particularly distinct from one another, although Alexander usually painted in watercolor, while Karl also worked in oil. Their stylistic similarity and the fact that Alexander was mostly prolific as an architect, not a portrait painter, has led to questions of attribution in the case of the unsigned portrait of Marie-Amélie. The answer might lie in the context found within the painting itself.
Marie-Amélie wears a black shawl atop a matching black dress, with broad, billowing sleeves, a full skirt, and fitted bodice. Though with a gold band on her wedding finger, Marie-Amélie’s black garments are probably the costume of mourning, which indicates that the portrait was painted after the death of Louis-Philippe in 1850. Moreover, her old age is emphasized by wrinkles in her forehead and bags around her eyes. The artist makes no attempt to edit these signs of aging or idealizing her visage in any way. Though his portrait of Marie-Amélie shows her characteristic features of a long nose, attenuated lips, and eyes slightly too far apart, Bryulov accentuates her homeliness. The elderly queen’s insufficiently powdered chin shines garishly and is flecked with small lines of dark facial hair.
In this portrait, Marie-Amélie is probably older than seventy, her age when Karl Bryulov died of tuberculosis in 1852 after more than three years of illness. Further, Marie-Amelie’s mourning costume indicates that this portrait could have been painted no earlier than 1850, the year of her husband’s death. Since Karl was already ill by 1850, it is unlikely that he was able to execute this portrait. Instead, Marie-Amélie was most likely painted by Alexander, who outlived both Karl and the queen.Rather than focusing on royal accoutrements or physical beauty, Alexander Bryulov shows the inner strength of an aged queen. Disinterested in the details of her own appearance, Marie-Amélie gazes directly at the viewer. Though elderly and slightly bent, she stands resolutely, confidently grasping a closed white fan in her right hand. While such a fan is utilized as a decorative element in the earlier Winterhalter portrait, here it seems to draw attention to the queen’s strong grasp. She holds the fan tightly, despite her age. The theme of exile that has permeated Marie-Amélie’s life can be seen first from that distant vision of the Naples of her youth, the first place she had to leave behind, and then, in the unadorned space in which she now stands, exiled again, far away from her queenly home in France. While this the intimate informality of Marie-Amélie, Queen of the French seems oddly ordinary for a royal portrait, this work ultimately encapsulates the queen’s character and her internal sense of dignityeven in the final years of a life of exile and upheaval.
[i] Though a significant figure in nineteenth-century French history, Marie-Amélie is rarely described in discussions about her husband’s reign as “King of the French,” from 1830 to 1848. For more information on Marie-Amélie, see “Louis-Philippe,” Encyclopædia Britannica, 2003, Encyclopædia Britannica Online; “Maria Carolina.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2003. Encyclopædia Britannica Online; and “Ferdinand IV.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2003. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. For a more in-depth analysis of the July Monarchy and Marie-Amelie’s role in it see, Jo Burr Margadant, “Gender, Vice, and the Political Imaginary in Postrevolutionary France: Reinterpreting the Failure of the July Monarchy, 1830-1848,” The American Historical Review, vol. 104, no. 5. (Dec., 1999),1461-1496.
[ii] Alan Bird, A History of Russian Painting (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1987), 77.
[iii] Larissa Haskell: “Karl (Pavlovich) Bryullov”, The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, (Oxford University Press, Accessed [December 18, 2003]) <http://80www.groveart.com.proxy.brynmawr.edu>
[iv]Ye. I. Kirichenko: “Aleksandr (Pavlovich) Bryullov”, The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, (Oxford University Press, Accessed [December 18, 2003]) <http://80www.groveart.com.proxy.brynmawr.edu>