For a well-connected and competent artist, painting portraits may look like easy money, but as many like John Singer Sargent would have told us, it can get very tricky. Striking the right balance between verisimilitude and flattery, honesty and deception, can tax the most experienced, and cause the client or sitter to refuse the portrait and payment – the ultimate rejection of the artist’s work.
Before looking at paintings rejected from exhibition, this article looks at a couple of examples of portraits rejected by their clients.
The first involves the highly talented French painter Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767-1824), known for short as Girodet, and his model Anne Françoise Élisabeth Lange (1772-1816), known to her public as Mademoiselle Lange, a beautiful actress and, for want of a better word, courtesan.
Girodet 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 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. She 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 released to return to work at the Théâtre Feydeau. With the 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.
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’s 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 detail.
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, 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’s 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 in 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’s 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. Girodet has, I think, made his point that refusal offends.
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.
The other story ends more sadly, in death. It concerns Gustav Klimt, the brilliant and often controversial Viennese artist, and a posthumous portrait which was almost the death of him.
Maria Munk, known to her friends as Ria, had been engaged to the actor and writer Hanns Heinz Ewers (1871-1943); when he called off their engagement just after Christmas in 1911, she committed suicide by shooting herself in the chest. Klimt was commissioned by Ria’s family to paint a posthumous portrait of her the following year. Painting a portrait of someone who is now dead and buried for their immediate family is undoubtedly one of the toughest tasks to be undertaken by any painter.
Klimt’s first painting of Ria Munk on her Deathbed was initially completed in 1912, but he seems to have worked on it again in 1917-18. She is manifestly dead, and surrounded by floral tributes. The family rejected the work, which they found too distressing, and asked Klimt to paint her from photographs taken when she was still alive.
A second portrait, which Klimt completed in 1916, two grim years into the Great War, was also rejected, although there’s doubt about the identity of the painting, and the reason for its rejection.
Klimt started his third Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk in 1917, and was still working on it early the following year. It was clearly going to be another of his richly decorated works, with abundant colourful flowers in the background, and brilliant peppers and other vegetables, which should surely have been more acceptable to her family.
In early January 1918, Klimt is thought to have caught the deadly influenza which was just starting to spread across Europe at the time. He quickly developed pneumonia, suffered a stroke, and died on 6 February 1918, at the age of only 55. He never completed Ria Munk’s posthumous portrait.