Plenty of artists have found themselves at the wrong end of a partner’s fury, but once in a while, a painter manages to get the better of the situation. This is the story of two paintings of Anne Françoise Élisabeth Lange (1772-1816), a beautiful actress and model for the French painter Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767-1824), whose name I will abbreviate to Girodet, as is traditional.
Girodet was very talented, had trained in Jacques-Louis David’s studio, and won the coveted Prix de Rome (for history painting) when he was only twenty-two. From 1789 to 1793, he painted in Italy, and produced a series of highly successful paintings which had been praised when shown at the Salons in Paris.
He returned to Paris just as the Reign of Terror was getting underway, during the French Revolution. However, his relationship with David – a key figure in the Revolution who was adept at protecting himself against all the odds – and his popular following, ensured his safety. When the rule of the Directory (Directoire) was established in 1795, Girodet continued to flourish.
Mademoiselle Lange, as she was known to the public, made her official debut as an actress at the Comédie-Française in 1788, and by 1793 had risen to take the title role in the popular Pamela or Virtue Rewarded, by Nicolas-Louis François de Neufchâteau. Unfortunately that play fell foul of the revolutionaries, and the Committee of Public Safety shut it down and arrested the actors and author.
Mlle Lange had a tense few months afterwards, spending some time in prison, but friends in high places kept her well away from the guillotine, and she was eventually released to return to work at the Théâtre Feydeau. With coming to power of the Directory, she started an affair with the supplier to the French army, who kept her in style in one of his houses. She was also the mistress of a banker, by whom she had a daughter. There were rumours of an affair with Paul Barras, a Director of the Directory, but those may not have been true.
In 1798, Girodet painted Mlle Lange’s portrait as Venus, but his model decided afterwards that his painting was unflattering. She refused to pay the artist, and demanded that the painting should be removed from view at the Salon where it was being exhibited in 1799.
It is hard to understand her case. Perhaps Girodet had been a little too obviously ingenious in not showing her face in the mirror being held by the putto, but the rest of the portrait is surely as flattering as possible, and free of any critical elements.
Girodet’s revenge was swift and sweet. In a matter of a few days, he had painted a second portrait which, the story says, was hung in the Salon in place of the original. It shows Mlle Lange as a money-grabbing prostitute, unable to see her own faults.
Mlle Lange’s new role as Danaë was perhaps not as biting as it might have been. Danaë was the daughter of King Acrisius of Argos and Queen Eurydice, whose father wanted a male heir. To keep Danaë childless, he locked her up in an underground chamber. But Zeus wanted her, so he impregnated her in the form of golden rain which fell from the roof of her cell. The resulting son was Perseus.
As a motif in painting, Danaë had come to be represented as a reclining, beautiful, nude woman, on whom a stream of golden coins was falling, and it was that stream which Girodet wanted to exploit. It could have only one reading in this context: that Mlle Lange sold her body in return for money. And Girodet was happy to go into even fuller details too.
At the lower left of the tondo is a turkey, representing Michel-Jean Simons, her final lover by whom she had a son in 1797, and who married her – hence the ring on the turkey’s foot. A scroll by that is apparently the script for the play Asinaria, by the Roman Titus Maccius Plautus, whose title means the one with the asses. It is a comedy about mistresses, lovers, and money.
At the lower right is the severed head of one of Mlle Lange’s previous lovers, and a white dove, wounded on one wing by one of the falling coins, and being strangled by a gold collar bearing the word Fidelitas, meaning fidelity.
In its upper reaches, there is a spider in its web, catching some of the coins. Mlle Lange herself wears peacock feathers, symbolic of vanity. But most barbed of all, she holds up a mirror which is cracked, and in which there is no reflection at all. With her gaze concentrated on the falling coins, she has no interest in looking at what she has become.
Mlle Lange, now Madame Simons, lived in his Château de Bossey in Switzerland, her stage career over. Her husband died a decade later, a ruined man, and she died in solitary obscurity six years afterwards.
Girodet went on to paint some of the most famous portraits of Napoleon and his family, and to teach many pupils, including Alexandre-Marie Colin and Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury, who were to be influential in painting in the nineteenth century. I don’t think that anyone tried to mess with Girodet again.