As you may judge from Firmin Massot’s portrait, Germaine de Staël (that’s the abbreviated version – her title in full is Anne-Louise-Germaine Necker, Baronne de Staël-Holstein) was not conventionally beautiful for those times or even ours. But she had a certain something – call it charisma, call it money, call it intelligence, call it needfulness, call it notoriety – it all came with her territory. She was always in the news, such as that was in those times, getting up the nose of the powerful. She took on Napoleon and saw him off. Her views on liberalism, divorce, the superiority of the British and German character and the virtues of Protestantism didn’t make her flavour of the month in Catholic France. In the end her ruffling of feathers saw her banished from the place. But despite this, or maybe because of it, she attracted men like moths to a flame. And she didn’t like letting go once she got her clutches in – all of her conquests were expected to tend to her sexually for life. It was not uncommon for her to have five live-in lovers on the go at once. These men were writers, philosophers, soldiers – even the occasional statesman. Her voraciousness in the bedroom became legendary, but it was through a granddaughter’s eye that I discovered her – out there in the ether.
There is what I consider to be a stunning Facebook page, that I am constantly exploring, called the ‘Musetouch Visual Arts Magazine’. It caters to those of us, probably the most of us, who are partial to timeless feminine beauty – and associated objects. On this day it was merely a segment of a work of art that caught my attention. There was a blue-irised eye framing a dilated pupil, with what I took to be a come-hither look. There was an abundance of alabaster skin and a finger crooked enticingly under chin. A folded digit wore a narrow gold band. There was the hint of a garment of blue satin. I had to know more.
From the fine print I established her name and a link to her portrait in full. The subject was Louise, Princesse de Broglie, Comtesse d’Haussonville – what fine titles these ladies possessed back then – and she was the granddaughter, the information was quick to point out, of Madame de Staël. I had vaguely heard of her, so I determined to investigate her more fully once I was done with Louise.
These days the granddaughter, if she has any fame at all, it is as the woman gracing a glorious Ingres’ 1845 rendering. Louise was born in 1818, married off at 18 to a member of the French Academy, thus, as with her grandmother, ensuring she moved in rarefied circles. Though she never achieved her ancestor’s high station in history, Louise was no slouch, publishing several tomes, most notably a biography of Byron. She devoured books herself, regularly attended the opera and was inspired by her acquaintance with Chopin to master the piano. She was also a dab hand with the paintbrush. And reportedly, she was down to earth and most approachable for a woman of her standing in society.
And as for the painting itself – well neo-classicist Ingres (1780-1867) was a perfectionist and prepared with numerous sketches of the lady before he committed to canvas. Even so, the great man considered this to be a side-project and kept interrupting its completion to attend to what he considered greater works. This was not aided by Louise’s travels combined with, to Ingres, an unfortunate pregnancy. The artist completed his first sketch for it in 1842 when the sitter was just 24. The whole shebang was not completed till three years later. It was immediately a hit with Louise’s family and her set – it is now regarded as one of the master’s masterpieces. If one reads the art-wank, the pose can be traced back to Roman times with ‘…the chin supported by the hand, the gaze that looks not so much at us but through us (so much for my come-hither assertion), the look of a privileged and uninterrupted abstraction.’ (John Russell, New York Times)
Much of what was on-line referred to the painting and not what I was I was really interested in – the woman herself – so my thoughts returned to the grandmother. Why was Louise’s relationship to her noted by every commentator I read under Google’s banner? She must be worthy of a look. Judging by my opening paragraph, she certainly was.
Massot (1766-1849) was certainly no Ingres, but this Genevan dauber was operating around Lakes Geneva and Lausanne at the time de Staël was in residence there, so he was the best to be had. The Madame invited him to attend to her villa and stay awhile in 1794. Were they lovers, given her proclivities? That is not recorded, but we do know that the following year Firmin, aged 28, took a seventeen year old as his bride. But, given the era, we cannot read too much into that. Interestingly, he and his subject were exactly the same age as she too was born in 1766.
Her father was a finance minister to Louis XVI, her mother an icily formal leading light in the salons of Paris with little interest in her daughter. Young Germaine grew up simply besotted with her father. At twenty she was married off to a Swedish diplomat, allowing her to attain the de Staël-Holstein part to her appellation. It was a loveless affair – he got his kicks elsewhere as did she in spades. He rarely shared her boudoir with only only one offspring being produced. She was frequently pregnant to other lovers but the good man was always by her side to keep up appearances out in public. She produced another four children in amongst miscarriage and stillbirth. The most intense relationship of her life was with Benjamin Constant, a Swiss writer who hung around her for twelve tumultuous years, most spent spatting with de Staël. He based his best known novel, ‘Adolphe’, on her.
As her hubby was ambassador during the Revolution, her diplomatic immunity enabled her to survive the Terror unscathed. To Germaine’s credit she was instrumental in organising the flight of many royalists away from the blades of Madame Guillotine. Many of these aristocrats were to join her in exile in Switzerland when her outspoken views enraged the Little Corporal. Even in a foreign country Napoleon’s spies kept watch on her, so dangerous was she perceived to be to the state. Her husband’s death did not slow her down as she remarried, this time to an Italian soldier twenty years her junior. On the demise of Bonaparte she returned to Paris but could raise little enthusiasm for the Restoration. By now she was addicted to opium and in 1817 all her excesses caught up with her. She died in her sleep of a stroke.
Her writing, of course, lives on – even recently, for the literary purists, coming back in vogue. Her best known publication is 1802’s ‘Delphine’. It was a huge success when it hit the stands, telling of a beautiful woman who sought happiness through love. Unfortunately its popularity caused the Emperor to read it. He was singularly unimpressed by the outbreak of feminism it contained, so it contributed to her banishment. These days her works are viewed by those in the know as from ‘…the struggle of an exceptional intellect trying to the transcend the social and creative constraints imposed on women of her time.’
These were two remarkable women, Louise and the Madame. One’s beauty will live forever due to the efforts of a great artist, the other’s creativity and zest for life will ensure history remembers her. And, as I cast my own eye back over that sublime image that first attracted me to their tales, I wonder what either would make of the advances of their gender in our own century – not that misogyny has been completely eradicated. I am sure, though, they would be rightly gobsmacked. They helped set the scene.