The Portrait of Debauchery


Jokes like that are illegal, but someone brought here a ladder and risked a hefty fine to tell me to turn left; so, I did and then continued to the end of the street where I saw an antique store whose window stylistically reminded the above sign.

The hand-written inscription underneath the picture informed me that behind the grill was an anonymous XVIII century portrait. I bent my head to the left then to the right, squatted and stared for a while at the asymmetrical face of the woman who has been dead for some three centuries — this circumstance, of course, made her look forever beautiful.

How could someone who makes a living as an antiquarian not recognize in this face the progeny of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan, the daughter of Duke of Orleans, the most debauched woman of the Regency — Marie Louise Elizabeth the Duchess du Berry, nick-named Joufflotte, the Plump one? She also liked to be called Mademoiselle, as well as the Venus of the Luxembourg Palace. The princess was known to choose her lovers among her domestics. She died in 1719 at the age of 24 after giving a still birth to a girl; the father happened to be one of the guards.


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This entry was posted in Court, Courtiers, Duke of Orleans, Louis XIV, Madame de Montespan, Regency. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Portrait of Debauchery

  1. anton erecinski says:

    Fascinating portrait but I wonder how you determine it represents the voluptuous Duchesse de Berry ? Or then it must be before her wedding to Charles de Berry. nyway she is a very fascinating character, still today most authors dealing with the period are embarassed with her explosive character. She is one of these very arresting characters of the early French18th century. And although she has almost been 300 years dead I can vey understand your emotion in thinking you recognized her in this portrait. AAerecinski

    • You are absolutely right, I only pretend to recognize her. Over the course of the XVIII century the portrait, especially the female portrait went through some serious changes. I would say that by the end of the century the male and female portraits meet; of course, the drift toward realism could never be as strong for women as it was men; we can see it in the fascinating story of Marie-Antoinette’s image making; but in the early XVIII century there is no great compromise, most of them seem to converge upon the late seventeenth century standard of beauty. What we see in the window is precisely that conversion point, which makes the picture perfectly anonymous and attributable to anyone.

  2. anton erecinski says:

    Recognising the Duchesse de Berry and her identifying her “authentic portraits”
    I very much like your point. Just like I found both the title of your piece and the pictures very arresting. As you put very honestly „You pretend to recognize her”. Also you don’t try to fit Berry’s biography into the „established” framework generally seen as proper for such persons of royal lineage. I think the short and scandalous life of this quasi allegory for folly, lust and debauchery makes her especially worthy of some recognition. My interest in the biography of this long dead princess of ill repute goes back the rather sensitive and moving portrait of her by Eerlanger in „Le Regent” then to a very short but inspiring essay found in Oliver Bernier’s „The Eighteenth Century Woman”, a short book published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1981 (in connection with an exhibition at the Costume Institute) – and which can be downloaded for free on the Met website.

    Bernier presents the Duchesse de Berry in chapter 1 (pp. 20-25), a short but honest and I feel very lucid short biography which quite matches what’s known from Saint-Simon or the „Chansons historiques” about Joufflotte’s alcoholism, bulimia and sex addiction. „Her lovers included servants, soldiers, noblemen : vigor was the only requirement.” Willing to sleep with anyone, the princess gets drunk every night. And yet in spite of her degrading behavior Mme de Berry also „revealed herself as a monster of pride”, behaving „exactly as if she were Queen of France”.

    I like Bernier’s interpretation of Berry’s notorious debauchery at the conlusion of his essay : ”At the onset of a century when, for the first time women became as good as men, the duchesse de Berry set a lasting precedent by claiming and enjoying the freedom which had for so long been denied to the supposedly weaker sex.” The brilliant royal-blooded princess ”was always unable to see why her behavior must differ from a man’s”. so that „If her father could sleep with maids, she could with footmen. If he had orgies, so could she.” The duchesse de Berry adopted thus a typical man’s behavior : drinking, philandering, taking pride in the number of men she bedded, and boasting about it. However, Berry’s portrait page 26, as a widow, painted by Silvestre is now attributed to the workshop of Pierre Gobert, and would really represent the Duchesse de Bourbon, Louise-Francoise de Bourbon (1673-1743) i.e. Berry’s aunt (see p43 in ”Les dames de Trianon” by Jeremie Benoit, 2012) !
    Likewise, a portrait long supposed to represent the Princesse Palatine and found in the Conde Museum (Chantilly) is now seen as a portrait of the Duchesse de Berry by Largilliere http://www.connaissancedesarts.com/marche_art/actus/portrait-presume-de-la-duchesse-de-berry-par-largilliere-88733.php
    And this happened because a sale in Drouot Richelieu where a similar portrait supposedly easy to identify was auctioned ????

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