When I was 17, I visited the Frick Collection in New York with my friends Mary and Laurance. The Frick is just the right size to visit the whole of it in one day, and has the prettiest women’s bathroom in the city.
My favorite way to enjoy a museum is to focus on only a few special pieces that draw me in, and pass the rest. We wandered the galleries each at our own pace, staying just about within one room of each other. Mary got caught up in the marvelous light effect in The Education of the Virgin by de la Tour. I got stopped by Comtesse d’Haussonville by Ingres.
Comtesse d’Haussonville is a portrait of a nineteenth-century French countess, Louise d’Haussonville, the granddaughter of the writer Madame de Stael. It hung in a little hallway between galleries all by itself. I stopped, just stopped and stared.
Louise was clearly lovely, and rich. She wears a blue gown, its shine and pleats and crinkles perfectly captured, and gold jewelry, and her fancy hairstyle is reflected in the mirror behind her. Luxurious things–vases and opera glasses and visiting cards–surround her. She stares directly out from the canvas, challenging the viewer. Despite her relaxed pose, her gaze is defiant, knowing, smug, even pushy.
I felt like I knew her. I felt like she and I might be a lot alike. I couldn’t walk away, and willed for no one else to pass through and disturb us. For whole minutes she and I stared at one another.
I was determined to bring home a postcard, and (this was pre-internet) try to find out more about her from the library. But I didn’t need to. It turns out that a lot of people are as fascinated by her as I was. The gift shop didn’t just sell postcards; they sold a whole book.
Louise was a writer, which wasn’t an easy thing for a woman to pursue in her time and place. She needed encouragement, which she didn’t get. Her prettiness was fussed over, which distracted herself and others from the gifts of her mind (side note: for more on this, read Deb Sarah’s The Opposite of Me!!). She wrote in her diary: “If at that time my mother had taken a firm hand in the direction of my life, I would have had sufficient interest in my studies. But I was abandoned to myself, and I lacked the strength to struggle against an insuperable wave of daydreams and indolence. I languished at my piano, at my drawing table. I read novels, which were easy and dangerous reading for me. Despite my interest in gaining new talents, and though I was gifted with an artistic temperament, I had to struggle against certain difficulties of organization. I needed to be helped, encouraged–and I was not. I worked little and badly.” And, “It was said that I played with my wits like a kitten with a ball of yarn.”
She kept personal journals, about her youth, about philosophy and about politics. She became disciplined enough as an adult to write for others. She completed several manuscripts before writing the biography of Irish revolutionary Robert Emmet that was her first to be published, and was published anonymously, for a recompense of 300 francs worth of other books. (Similarly, her husband published books in exchange for hunting dogs and a horse.) Subsequent publications were attributed to “the author of Robert Emmet“. Her Youth of Lord Byron earned her 1500 francs, in money.
But it’s not her books, which were never as original or bold as she might have wished, for which she’s remembered. It’s her portrait. Ingres captured the ambition in her eyes. (And this spark is definitely from Louise herself, not imposed by Ingres; in his portrait of her much more staid sister-in-law there is nothing of this spirit in her eyes.)
The Frick Collection is located at 1 East 70th Street, New York, NY 10021 and is open Tuesday through Saturday: 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.; Sundays: 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
What’s your favorite museum?