Mademoiselle d'Orléans Taking a Harp Lesson (exh.1791). Jean Antoine Théodore Giroust (French, 1753-1817). Oil on canvas. Dallas Museum of Art. 

Giroust’s large and elegant conversation piece à l’anglaise is a masterpiece of portraiture at the start of the French Revolution. It depicts the daughter of Louise Philippe Joseph de Bourbon, Duc d’Orléans, taking a music lesson from her governess Madame de Genlis, while her English companion, Mademoiselle Paméla, looks on. The portrait was exhibited at the newly democratized Salon, where its presence was far from fortuitous.

Portrait Of Madame De Genlis (1781). Marie-Victoire Lemoine (1754-1820). Oil on canvas.

The sitter is presumed to be Madame de Genlis (1746-1830), teacher, artist, author, mistress, and governess, one of the more fascinating women of the ancien régime. During the revolution she became a hostess and embraced many of the ideals of the new regime, but was eventually forced into exile. Napoleon later used her as a spy, and she lived long enough to see one of her charges, Louis-Philippe, become King of France.

Les harpistes aka Les Mademoiselles d'Orléans. Jean-Antoine-Théodore Giroust (French, 1753-1817). Oil on canvas.

The girl, age 14, playing the harp is Louise Marie Adélaide Eugènie d'Orléans, the daughter of the Duc d'Orléans. She wears the Phrygian hat, a symbol of the French revolution. The harp teacher is Madame de Genlis, celbrated harpist, writer, educator and governess. Turning the pages is la belle Pamela, Madame de Genlis’ adopted (or possibly actual) daughter.

Portrait of Mrs. Chinnery (1803). Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun (French, 1755–1842). Oil on canvas. Indiana University Art Museum.

The painting marks a connection among three remarkable 18th-century women: the sitter, Margaret Chinnery, a highly cultivated Englishwoman who devoted herself to the arts; the French writer, Madame de Genlis, whose book Mrs. Chinnery reads; and the celebrated Vigée Le Brun, who negotiated her career against the backdrop of the French revolution and its aftermath.