Portrait of the artist’s wife 1

Carolus-Duran (1837–1917), The Kiss (1868), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, Lille, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Painting portraits is lucrative if dangerous. Striking the right balance between faithfulness and flattering the sitter can’t be easy, and on more than one occasion has got the painter into deep trouble. It takes an even braver artist to paint the portrait of the person they know best, their partner, historically almost always the wife. This weekend, in this article and its sequel tomorrow, I show some of my favourite portraits of the artist’s wife, and a couple of husbands too.

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Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Honeysuckle Bower (The Artist and His Wife) (1609-10), oil on oak, 178 x 136.5 cm, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

When Peter Paul Rubens married for the first time, to Isabella Brant in the autumn of 1609, he painted this touching celebration, the Honeysuckle Bower, which was the closest that he could come to the modern wedding photo of bride and groom. Honeysuckle was a well known symbol for faithfulness, and hands laid over one another (“dextrarum iunctio”) have symbolised matrimony since ancient times. Tragically, Isabella was to die of the plague in 1626, when she was only 34.

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Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), Rembrandt and Saskia in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (c 1635), oil on canvas, 161 x 131 cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Rembrandt had an even more unfortunate history. Rembrandt and Saskia in the Parable of the Prodigal Son from about 1635, when the artist was just short of being thirty years old, shows his young wife Saskia van Uylenburgh sitting on his lap as he raises a large fluted glass of beer at the viewer. It shows a young man revelling in his success, as they were moving into their first house in fashionable Nieuwe Doelenstraat in Amsterdam. But Saskia died in 1642, shortly after the birth of their fourth child Titus, probably from tuberculosis.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, A Woman bathing in a Stream (1654), oil on panel, 61.8 x 47 cm, National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), A Woman Bathing in a Stream (1654), oil on panel, 61.8 x 47 cm, National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

After a shorter relationship with Geertje Dircx, in the late 1640s Rembrandt lived with his former maid, Hendrickje Stoffels, who was the model for A Woman Bathing in a Stream, painted in 1654, when she was expecting their first child.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Bathsheba with King David's Letter (1654), oil on canvas, 142 x 142 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), Bathsheba with King David’s Letter (1654), oil on canvas, 142 x 142 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

That same year, Stoffels modelled for one of Rembrandt’s most brilliant late works, Bathsheba with King David’s Letter. Clutched in her right hand is a letter, the title tells us from the king himself. Her eyebrows are raised in surprise, and she stares dreamily down at her attendant. We must presume that this letter is the king’s invitation to her to join with him in adultery.

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Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702–1789), Portrait of the artist’s wife, Marie Fargues (c 1718-1784), in Turkish dress (1756-58), pastel on parchment, 103.8 × 79.8 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

The brilliant if eccentric pastellist Jean-Étienne Liotard painted his Portrait of the artist’s wife, Marie Fargues (c 1718-1784), in Turkish dress (1756-58) on parchment, perhaps giving us a glimpse of their private life together.

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Benjamin West (1738–1820), The Artist and His Family (c 1772), oil on canvas, 52.1 x 66.7 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven, CT. Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.

Benjamin West’s group portrait of The Artist and His Family from about 1772 gives insight into his peculiar circumstances. It shows, from the left, the Wests’ older son, Benjamin West’s wife Betsy, cradling their newborn second son in her lap, Benjamin West’s brother Thomas, and father John (who had been born in England), and standing in his lavender gown, holding palette and maulstick, is the artist himself.

Often compared with a traditional Nativity scene, it was described at the time as a “neat little scene of domestic happiness”. But looking at the directions of gaze, and the extraordinary detachment of Thomas and John West, who are staring into the distance, domestic happiness seems far away.

'Take your Son, Sir' ?1851-92 by Ford Madox Brown 1821-1893
Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893), Take your Son, Sir! (1851-52), oil on canvas, 70.5 x 38.1 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by Miss Emily Sargent and Mrs Ormond in memory of their brother, John S. Sargent), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported), https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/brown-take-your-son-sir-n04429

The dates and background to Ford Madox Brown’s incomplete painting Take your Son, Sir! remain unclear. It’s thought that Brown started work on this in 1851, although it shows his second wife Emma with their newborn son. Their first son, Oliver, wasn’t born until 1855, and their second, Arthur, in September 1856, which would suggest that Brown didn’t start this until at least 1855. It’s generally held that this shows not Oliver, who lived until 1874, but Arthur, who died aged ten months in July 1857, at which time Brown abandoned the painting.

It’s most interesting for the detail seen reflected in the mirror, which shows a contemporary living room and a man, presumably a self-portrait. This is reminiscent of Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding (1434). The artist’s wife appears to be pale and flushed, as if her labour wasn’t free of incident either.

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John Everett Millais (1829–1896), The Eve of St Agnes (1863), oil on canvas, 117.8 x 154.3 cm, The Royal Collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, London. Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to John Everett Millais’ Eve of St Agnes (1863) referring to one of Keats’ poems, here about the elopement of Madeline and her lover Porphyro on Saint Agnes’ Eve, it’s an unusual portrait of his wife Effie.

Millais painted this in the King’s Bedroom in the Jacobean house at Knole Park, near Sevenoaks in Kent. His model is his wife Effie, formerly Euphemia Gray, who married John Ruskin. That marriage resulted in annulment on the grounds that it was never consummated. Millais found Effie totally beguiling, and was obsessed with her after he painted her in 1852, at Ruskin’s insistence. When Effie was finally free to marry Millais, they must have realised that her previous marriage would exclude her from many of the social functions which she loved, including any event attended by Queen Victoria.

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Carolus-Duran (1837–1917), The Kiss (1868), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, Lille, France. Wikimedia Commons.

The Kiss (1868) is a romantic double-portrait of Carolus-Duran kissing his fiancée Pauline, and perhaps one of the most touching paintings of any couple.

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Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), The Artist’s Wife and His Setter Dog (1884-89), oil on canvas, 76.2 x 58.4 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Eakins’ wife Susan modelled for some of his paintings, including (probably) as a nude figure in his Arcadia (c 1883). The sole portrait he appears to have painted of her is The Artist’s Wife and His Setter Dog (1884-89). Interestingly the one work hanging on the walls which can be identified readily is the artist’s sculpted relief of Arcadia, which features Susan as a model.

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Carl Larsson (1853–1919), A Studio Idyll. The Artist’s Wife and their Daughter Suzanne (1885), pastel, 66 x 50 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden. Courtesy of Nationalmuseum, via Wikimedia Commons.

Carl Larsson met his wife, the artist Karin Bergöö, in the artists’ colony at Grez-sur-Loing, which was popular among Nordic painters at the time. In 1884, a year after they married, the Larssons had their first child, shown in this intimate pastel double-portrait of A Studio Idyll. The Artist’s Wife and their Daughter Suzanne from 1885. Mother and child are sitting in Larssen’s studio. A talented artist in her own right, after their wedding, Karin Larsson concentrated on interior design, and was responsible for most of the household interiors shown in Larsson’s later watercolour paintings.

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Maurice Denis (1870–1943), Marthe Playing the Piano (1891), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Image by Rama, via Wikimedia Commons.

In October 1890, the Nabi Maurice Denis met Marthe Meurier for the first time; they became romantically involved the following year, eventually marrying in the summer of 1893. Marthe was a pianist and musician, and influenced Denis to look at the relationship between visual art and music. She was also the model for many of his paintings, starting with this, of Marthe Playing the Piano, in 1891. Although the music declares itself to be a minuet, her hands are posed over the keys rather than playing in earnest.

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Paul Signac (1863-1935), Woman with a Parasol (Op 243) (1893), oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Image by Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts Archives, via Wikimedia Commons.

Woman with a Parasol is Paul Signac’s portrait of his wife, and a Neo-Impressionist reworking of a popular Impressionist theme. Although Berthe Roblès had modelled for several of Signac’s previous paintings, this is the first in which he shows her face clearly. It’s also an exemplary demonstration of the principles of simultaneous contrast in action. For example, the dominant colours used in the handle of the parasol change from orange to green and back again according to the surrounding colour.

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Ferdinand Hodler (1853–1918), Portrait of Berthe Jacques, the Artist’s Wife (1894), oil on canvas, 33.5 × 28 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Ferdinand Hodler painted his Portrait of Berthe Jacques, the Artist’s Wife in 1894, the year that they met, and adopted this unusual pose, facing away from the viewer, with her head turned in profile.