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Louise Bouteiller Césarine de Houdetot, Baronne de Barante reading Paul et Virginie


In 2017 the National Gallery of Victoria acquired an important portrait from the French Romantic period by a recently rediscovered artist, Louise Bouteiller. Bouteiller, born to a wealthy French plantation owner in Haiti and trained in Paris, was one of a generation of talented female artists who benefited from strides made in the education of girls during the revolutionary and French Empire eras. Bouteiller was trained by the painter Pierre Bouillon, who was a pupil of the great Neoclassical master, Jacques-Louis David. During the Napoleonic years the young Bouteiller excelled in painting episodes from French history in the richly detailed and illustrative troubadour style. However, following the restoration of the monarchy, she gave full rein to her royalist sympathies and undertook life-sized portraits of contemporary royalist military heroes, such as the Vendéen general, Louis de Frotté and royalist heroines, such as the daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Marie-Thérèse, known as the Duchesse d’Angoulême.

Bouteiller’s accomplished and lusciously coloured paintings were treasured in French monarchy circles. She was a regular exhibitor at the Paris Salon and in 1824 Bouteiller was appointed Director of Painting and Drawing at the Maison de Saint-Denis, a school founded for the daughters of officers decorated with the Légion d’Honneur; the school was first run by the famous female educator, Madame Campan.

Bouteiller’s career has only been rediscovered in recent years, as French scholars and museums seek to restore the contributions of female artists to the rich history of French art. The sitter of this full-length portrait is the young aristocrat, Césarine de Houdetot, Baronne de Barante (1794–1877). The work was commissioned by her husband, Prosper de Barante, nine years after their marriage, and after his ascent in the new Restoration government (he was made councillor of state and after 1815 has Secretary-General of the Ministry of the Interior). Césarine was possibly a pupil of Louise Bouteiller and herself an accomplished portraitist; however, the connection between the sitter and the artist went considerably deeper having both spent their infancies in the tropics.

Until the age of four Césarine lived in the French colony of Mauritius, where her grandfather, Jean-François Céré, was director of the Botanical Gardens of Pamplemousses. Mauritius, located in the Indian Ocean 9,000 km from Europe, and surrounded by coral reef, was known until 1810 as the ‘Isle de France’. The remote island became adored throughout France, particularly thanks to a children’s book titled Paul et Virginie and written in 1788 by a predecessor of Césarine’s grandfather, the botanist Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. Since its first publication, the story captivated and inspired the French nation, artists and poets, with its intoxicating tale of a land of plenty, in which two French infants, Paul and Virginie, grow up surrounded by mountains, palm trees and lagoons, away from the corrupting effects of Ancien Régime France. Césarine de Houdetot, born in the moment of Paul et Virginie’s phenomenal literary success, was something of a ‘nouvelle [young] Virginie’.

Bouteiller links Césarine de Houdetot with the idyllic origins of the young Virginie, who in the book drowns in a shipwreck, dragged under the waves by the clothing that she modestly refused to shed. In Césarine de Houdetot, Baronne de Barante reading Paul et Virginie, 1818, Césarine is shown aged twenty-three, lost in reverie with a copy of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre in her lap. Her thoughts turn to Virginie’s fate and her burial place in the église de Pamplemousses (the building by the lagoon shown in the background). In her Indian muslin gown and paisley shawl she resembles an exotic bloom in a tropical paradise setting. Around her the native flowering vines – ‘Mauritian blue’ morning glory and orange thunbergia – encroach upon her seating place, as if to reclaim the lovely reader as one of the island’s own.

For two centuries this portrait was the central focus of the Grand Salon of the ancestral home, the Château de Barante, in Dorat, France. Although never exhibited, the work was locally famous, and is visible in postcards and published photographs of the house, displayed in its own panelled surround in the centre of the main wall. The frame is a new addition, made in the period late Empire style.

Sophie Matthiesson, former Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria