Robert Lefèvre’s Portrait of Pauline Bonaparte, Princess Borghese

Eleanor Garthwaite

Robert Lefèvre’s portrait of Pauline Bonaparte, Princess Borghese (1806). Apsley House, Historic England Archive.

Hanging on the wall of the Striped Drawing Room at Apsley House, a room filled with portraits of military men, we can find a charming likeness of Pauline Bonaparte. Instead of catching our eye or imposing her presence, she looks past the viewer into the distance. Pauline was the younger and favourite sister of Napoleon and was his lifelong supporter. Born in 1780, she was known as a great beauty and married Generel Charles Leclerc in 1797. After his death in 1802, she remarried Camille Borghese. This portrait is one of many painted by Lefèvre of Pauline (others can be found in the Musée de Versailles and Château de Malmaison). Yet, this one is of particular interest because of Pauline’s attire: the cut, fabric and detail of her dress all bear historical significance. Why is she wearing a translucent gown that reveals her breasts? And why is she dressed in the classical style? In order to understand this in full it is useful to turn back to the final years before the French Revolution of 1789.

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Marie-Antoinette in Court Dress, 1783. Musée de Versailles, Wikimedia Commons.

The Transformation of Women’s Fashion:

In 1783, Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun painted two portraits of Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France. Marie-Antoinette was renowned for her style and for its extravagance, yet in 1783 she made popular a new fashion in France, the robe à l’anglaise. In the first portrait, Marie-Antoinette is depicted in full court dress (or robe à la française). It has three layers: for structure underneath there is a long petticoat with side hoops and a decorative corset, next a matching dress is overlaid that leaves the corset exposed, third a train is attached to the back (shown by the brilliant blue silk flowing behind Marie-Antoinette). In contrast, in the second portrait, all pomp is removed and the body of the Queen is liberated from hoops and corsets. The light unadorned material falls loosely and is held together by a simple bow at the back. This style was based on English dresses (hence robe à l’anglaise) but is taken to an extreme in this portrait. Such a portrayal of the Queen, in what was considered to be little more than an undergarment, scandalised the French court. However, it begun a trend for simpler and freer moving dresses that would be emulated over the coming decades.

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Marie-Antoinette in a Chemise Dress, 1783. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Web Gallery of Art.

Initially during the French Revolution (1789–94), women were granted a number of freedoms including the right to divorce. In terms of sartorial choices, corsets were prohibited and the wearing of high-heeled shoes much frowned upon. In a state that promoted the equality and freedom of its people, looser clothing that allowed unrestricted movement or a literal freedom of the body was a natural extension of these principles. In 1795, when the Directory government began to rule over France, new fashion trends emerged that were known for their eccentricity, such as the wearing of short hair (imitating how it was cut for victims of the guillotine) and of a red ribbon tied around the neck (hinting at a decapitated head). In particular, fashion was pushed to the extremes by the male Incroyables and their female counterparts the Merveilleuses. As much a cultural phenomenon than a real group of people, their style was popularised in caricatures, such as in Louis-Léopold Boilly’s print. The Incroyables typically looked bizarre and unkempt, they carried outdated adornments such as canes and monocles. Elizabeth Amman has argued that the ridiculousness of this attire was a deliberate attempt not to belong to a political affiliation and writes that the Incroyables costume was ‘an emblem of its own meaninglessness’.

Louis-Léopold Boilly, Point de Convention, c.1797. Wikimedia Commons.

The Merveilleuses shocked in a different way and were known for wearing skin-coloured tights overlaid with thin, sometimes completely transparent, muslin dresses. Boilly’s drawing depicts a lady wearing a white undergarment that stops just above her knees, with a semi-transparent material overlaid through which her legs are revealed. When adopted by fashionable ladies, this style was known as à l’antique or à la greque. The simplicity of this style was detrimental to French dressmakers (who numbered up to 20, 000 prior to the revolution) but also to lace-makers and wigmakers. These industries were largely destroyed, and France’s chief dressmakers emigrated. After Napoleon assumed power in 1799, he attempted to reintroduce the formality and grandeur of the Old Regime’s court costume, hoping to simultaneously protect French silk from being usurped by British muslin. However, his wish was not fulfilled.

Antonio Canova, Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix, c.1808. Gallery Borghese, Rome, Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of Pauline Bonaparte

Pauline is wearing either muslin or white lawn, materials that became popular with the expansion of the British Empire. Her sleeves are attached to the dress by a gold ribbon wound around the arms, which mimics the colour of her headdress. The dress itself is secured by two opal sheened medallions. She also wears her hair pushed back from her face and plaited tightly to her head, indicating the fashion for short hair. The jewelled headband and gauze bonnet that wraps her head echo the fashion for the antique. Furthermore, an exquisite sheer embroidered shawl is draped over her right arm. A number of society women also posed in similar dress, such as Juliette Recamier and Josephine Bonaparte. Yet, it seems that Pauline’s semi-nudity is particularly pronounced since her nipples are clearly visible through her gown and certainly more so than in other painted portraits of her.

In an even more risqué depiction, Antonio Canova carved Pauline in the pose of Venus Victrix (Victorious) in which she lies semi-nude upon a chaise. It emulates a trend also borrowed from antiquity in which prominent men and women would have their facial likenesses carved onto the body of a god or goddess. The sculpture of Pauline postdates that of Canova’s Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, found in the stairwell of Apsley House, but both evocations were unusual for the time. While Napoleon rejected Canova’s sculpture of him, Pauline kept hers in private and it is said that she allowed select guests to view the sculpture by candlelight. Pauline’s bold display of her sexuality in both the portrait and the sculpture can be understood as signs of her power as a woman. Freed from the restraints of a corset or strict court dress, the robe à l’antique liberates her body. It was a radical moment in women’s fashion, which ended with the fall of Napoleon.

If you are interested in reading more about fashion, I would recommend these exhibition catalogues or books:

· Chrisman-Campbell, Kimberley, Fashion Victims, Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015)

· Fashioning Fashion: European dress in detail, 1700–1815, Exh. Cat., (Prestel: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 2010)

· Ribeiro, Aileen., The Art of Dress, Fashion in England and France 1750–1820, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995)

· The Age of Napoleon: Costume from Revolution to Empire 1789–1815, Exh Cat. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989)

· Stariobinski Jean et al., Revolution in Fashion: European Clothing 1715–1815, exh. cat. (New York: Abbeville Press, 1989)

Apsley House and the Wellington Arch are home to outstanding works of art, and are cared for by an enthusiastic team of staff and volunteers.