Rena Hoisington, Curator & Dept Head of Prints, Drawings & Photographs
In 2002, long before I ever suspected that I would work at the BMA, I made my first visit to the Museum. I was a graduate student in the midst of writing my dissertation on eighteenth-century French portraiture. I grew so attached to some of the portraits I was studying that my mother would jokingly refer to their sitters as “my friends.”
Then, as now, Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s beguiling c. 1759 oil painting of Anne-Marie de Bricqueville de Laluserne, Marquise de Bezons, did not disappoint. An image of a refined woman about to play her guitar, it offers us its own sort of visual music. The Marquise is dressed in sartorial splendor in a short, hooded mantle and dress decorated with ruffles, completed, of course, by fashionable accessories, hair, and make-up. A pearl necklace sets off her luminous skin while her powdered hair is adorned with a floral pompon – an ornament popularized at mid-century by Madame de Pompadour, the official companion to King Louis XV of France. As was customary for the time, the Marquise wears white powder and rouged cheeks, heavily applied to make the eyes look brighter.
In eighteenth-century France, musical training was an integral part of the education of women of the upper middle classes and the nobility. The guitar was a particularly popular instrument in the 1750s and here we see the Marquise displaying her musical accomplishment to charming effect. Instead of showing the Marquise merely posing with her instrument, Greuze depicted her tuning her guitar. Her left hand adjusts a tuning peg while her right hand plucks at the strings, her thumb poised on the top strings to balance the hand. Look closely and you’ll see that Greuze inexplicably painted five courses of double strings above her right hand but six courses of double strings at the bridge. The six-course guitar, however, did not come into use until later in the eighteenth century.
The Marquise draws toward us with her eyes and smile, even as her attention is pulled toward the sounds she is making as she listens for the proper pitch. This tuning action, combined with her welcoming smile, lend such immediacy to the portrait. It is as if we have interrupted the Marquise in her music-making, from which she turns to engage us; the moment of this encounter appears to unfold right before our eyes as rustling fabrics and vibrating guitar strings send their delicate sounds into the air.
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.