Last year I bought this lovely book: large, heavy, solid – but full of ethereal things, colors, beauty and thoughts. I swam through its luxury quite happily. Amongst its illustrations I found two portraits which were sisters in beauty, but strangers in personality.
The first one is a gossamer rendering of Charlotte Philippine de Chatre de Cange, Marquise de Lamure. Her name speaks of lands, country homes, acreages – a world of possession and contented wealth. Her beauty is gentle and soft, and the artist wisely chose pastels to capture her fairness.
The clothes she wears are fashionable and modest – a fur tippet circles her neck and subdues her breast. Modified gloves edged in fur warm her arms. Silver tassels decorate her corset. Rows of lace rest at her elbows. Pearl earrings glow at her ears. The painted fan is poised, ready to flick open and hide her heart-shaped face. The colors are cream, beige, faded rose and the coldest, most melting of blues.
But there is still something open and candid about her dark eyes. They gaze straight at me, daring me to enter the frame and interrupt her immovable goodness. She invites, but she provokes, too:
The subject in the second portrait has no name, but the painting does. Originally called A Lady In Masquerade Habit, it is now known as The Fair Nun Inmasked. The picture was engraved as well, with an inscription added beneath it - taken from Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock:
"On her white Breast a sparkling Cross she wore
Which Jews may kiss and Infidels adore."
In all probability, this pale 'nun' is a prostitute. In the 18th century – when both of these portraits were created – the rogues, the men who frequented the demimonde, the 'men of intrique' referred to prostitutes as nuns and their protective madams as abbesses. The 18th century was nothing if not ironic.
This little nun is dressed in russet, black and silver. A sheer veil belies her profession, and her lowered eyes – turned away from the viewer – mocks it. But her dress is wonderfully decollete, and the small ruff around her neck only emphasizes it, as well as emphasizing her demure seduction with its complete uselessness – worn only as shameless decoration.
She holds a mask, dotted with beauty marks – several more than any respectable woman would consider – and embroidered on the edges with painted flowers. The masquerade – such as the one our naughty novice (stop it, Aubrey) is attending – was considered scandalous by its critics. To hide behind a mask, to suddenly be free and able to behave as you would never dare – whether it be by act or word – under the guise of such a beautifiul, unknown facade, had a shy, seductive appeal which was exciting and dangerous:
These ladies were so lovely and evocative. I just had to share.