Do you ever see people whose faces echo another era?
I’ve seen women with the round faces, sparse brows and high foreheads of medieval illuminated manuscripts.
Men with dark brows that meet in the middle, olive skin, strong noses and jaws–Byzantine men, ghosts of Constantine, reanimated faces from the Fayum Mummy Portraits.
Women with soft figures and the large eyes and prim, petaled mouths of the 19th century.
Grizzled men whose brows predicate their gaze, whose wrinkles track into their thick beards and read like topographical maps of hardship and intensity–the wanderer, the poet; Whitman, Tolstoy, Carlyle.
Faces sculpted into the perfect, deified symmetry of the pharaohs–almond eyes, full lips, self-assurance 3,000 years in the making staring at you at a stoplight.
Plump, curved white wrists curled over purse handles in the waiting room and you think Versailles, Madame Pompadour, Marie Antoinette, Catherine the Great. Wide cheek bones, courage and sorrow in the scrunched face of the old man in line behind you and it’s Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Tecumseh. Reddened skin, thick forearms, hair and beard and brows burned by the cold into a reddish corn silk and you think Odin, the forge and the hammer and skin stinging from the salt of the ocean.
Virginia Woolf’s quiet brand of gaunt frankness surveys you in passing in the parking lot. Queen Victoria’s heavy-lidded stare and beaked nose are firmly, uncannily fixed on a sixth-grade classmate’s face.
Renaissance voluptuousness on the boardwalk by the beach. Boticelli’s caramel androgyny in a youth smoking on a bench outside the mall.
Jazz age looseness spurs the tripping gait of the man who watches you paint with his hands in his pockets, and he smiles a Sammy Davis Jr. smile and tells you that you look familiar, that he’s sure he’s seen you somewhere before, but he doesn’t know where or when.
Last weekend, I took a trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts for their new exhibition, Bitter|Sweet: Coffee, Tea & Chocolate, which explored the history and evolution of coffee, tea and chocolate, especially through its role as an import into Western culture. It was an interesting exhibition which utilized items from the DIA’s collection and several loaned items, music, video demonstrations, and a chocolate tasting (2 small cups of historically inspired recipes based on Aztec and 18th century French drinks) at the end. One of my favorite items to see–center picture–was a golden coffee grinder owned by Madame Pompadour.
The exhibition’s title, Bitter|Sweet, was reflected in various pieces which highlighted the slave labor required to produce the vast quantities of coffee, tea, chocolate and sugar for European import.
Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour (December
29, 1721 – April 15, 1764) was the official cheif mistress of Louis XV
from 1745 until her death. She claimed that at the age of nine, she was
taken by her mother to a fortune teller and told that she would someday
reign over the heart of a king. Apparently, her mother believed the
prophecy and accordingly nicknamed her “Reinette” (meaning “little
queen”). At adolescence, her mother took personal charge of her
education at home by hiring tutors who taught her to recite entire plays
by heart, play the clavicord, dance, sing, paint and engrave. She
became an accomplished actress and singer, and also attended Paris’s
famous Club de l'Entresol. The marquise had many enemies among the royal
courtiers who felt it a disgrace that the king would thus compromise
himself with a commoner. She was very sensitive to the unending libels called poissonnades, a pun on her family name, Poisson, which means “fish” in French. The Marquise de Pompadour was an incredibly
intelligent and accomplished woman. She was responsible for the
development of the manufactory of Sèvres, which became one of the most
famous porcelain manufacturers in Europe and which provided skilled jobs
to the region. Reinette had an eye for architecture and
design, planning buildings such as the Place de la Concorde and the
Petit Trianon. She had a keen interest in literature and was a close
friend of philosophes of the Lights, like Voltaire throughout her life. Her influence over Louis
increased markedly through the 1750s, to the point where he allowed her
considerable leeway in the determination of policy over a whole range of
issues, from military matters to foreign affairs. Ther reasons for the Marquise’s influence over Louis were many: she decidedly established a cordial relationship with Marie Leszczyńska, the King’s wife ; she also put all of her effort into bringing fun into the King’s melancholy life ; she threw dinner parties for him and put on plays that exalted him and of course, she was a woman of verve and intelligence with whom the King sensed an intellectual equal. In her later years, although they had ceased being lovers, the King and Jeanne remained very close friends, and Louis was devoted to her until her death from tuberculosis in 1764 at the age of forty-two. Even some her enemies admired her courage during the final painful weeks. Voltaire wrote: “I am very sad at the death of Madame de Pompadour. I was indebted to her and I mourn her out of gratitude. It seems absurd that while an ancient pen-pusher, hardly able to walk, should still be alive, a beautiful woman, in the midst of a splendid career, should die at the age of forty two." (source of the text)
Mlle. Marguerite Catherine Haynault, later the Marquise de Montmelas in Turkish Costume (1762). François Hubert Drouais (French, 1727–1775). Oil on canvas. MFA, Boston.
Drouais painted many members of the court, including the mistresses of Louis XV: Madame de Pompadour, Madame Du Barry, and the likely sitter for this portrait, Mademoiselle Haynault. Haynault’s fantastical costume—with its ermine, embroidery, and yards of pearls—reflects a contemporary French vogue for all things Turkish, a phenomenon known as turquerie.