Alexandre Cabanel

(1823 Montpellier – Paris 1889)

Portrait of Victoire de Clermont-Tonnerre, Clotilde de Savoie’s lady-in-waiting

71 7/8 x 54 3/8 in. (182.5 x 138 cm.)
oil on canvas
signed ‘-ALEX-CABANEL-’ (lower left); painted in ca. 1863


The artist. Comtesse Clermont-Tonnerre, née Victoire de La Tour du Pin Chambly de La Charce (1836-1915).

Thence by descent through her family; sale; Tajan, Paris, 15 June 2016, lot 118 as Portrait de Victoire de Clermont-Tonnerre Dame d’Honneur de Clotilde de Savoie, when acquired by the present owner.


C. H. Stranahan, A History of French painting from its earliest to its latest practice: including an account of the French academy of painting, its salons, schools of instruction and regulations, New York 1888, pp. 399-400.

Alexandre Cabanel, 1823-1889: La Tradition du Beau, ed. M. Hilaire and S. Amic, Paris 2010, p. 337.


Catalogue Entry

The almost full-length figure of a young lady is represented in an interior, standing against a wall decorated with a Rococo motif and delimited by a curtain on the right. The woman wears a long, black dress, which covers her body entirely, and has her hands crossed. Standing out against her dark costume are the cuffs of her white chemise and collar, which is elegantly adorned with a blue satin ribbon. Blue is also the almost imperceptible hairnet of the lady’s fashionable yet delicate coiffure. A gold ring on her right ring finger, a golden earring pending from her visible ear, and a matching necklace with blue and golden charms adorn her rather restrained outfit. The sitter looks out of the canvas: the slight inclination of the woman’s head and her languid gaze attract the viewer’s attention.

The lady portrayed in the present work is the Countess Victoire de Clermont-Tonnerre, born Victoire de La Tour du Pin Chambly de La Charce (1836-1915), as the plaque on the painting’s original frame suggests. She was the daughter of Louis-Berlion de La Tour du Pin Chambly de La Charche (1803-1866) and Gabrielle du Bosc de Radepont (1807-1888). After her marriage with Eynard-Francois Antoine-Aimé, Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre (1827-1884) in 1856, the woman became a member of one of the oldest noble families in France and started to be known as Madame or Comtesse de Clermont-Tonnerre.1 She was one of the Dames d’honneur, or court ladies, of Princess Marie Clotilde de Savoie (1843-1911). Born in Turin in 1843 to Vittorio Emanuele II (1820-1878) – the king who eventually united Italy – and his wife Adelaide of Austria (1822-1855), de Savoie moved to Paris in 1859 after her marriage with Prince Napoléon Bonaparte (1822-1891), the cousin of French Emperor Napoléon III. Not long after their arrival in Paris, the Princess’ trusted servants and lady-in-waiting, the Countess of Villamarina, left the city, finding the lifestyle at the imperial court too distant from that of Turin. Clotilde de Savoie was therefore assigned a new court of Parisian noblewomen: the pious Madame Hortense Thayer, the Countess Bertrand, the Baroness de la Roncière and the Comtesse de Clermont-Tonnerre herself.2

Fig. 1. Alexandre Cabanel, Portrait de Napoléon III, oil on canvas, 230 x 171 cm., 1865, Palais de Compiègne, Compiègne.

Considering that the Comtesse de Clermont-Tonnerre was a member of the court of the Second Empire, it should not surprise that she – or whoever on her behalf – chose Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889) to paint her portrait. By the early 1860s, Cabanel had established himself as one of the leading academic painters in Paris, winning most of the awards the French art establishment could offer and running one of the largest teaching studios in Paris. When he painted the present work, Cabanel was at the peak of his career. In 1863, he was made a member of the Institute and Professor at the École des Beaux-Arts. He was also promoted to the rank of Officer of the Légion d’Honneur. In that year, he painted what is now considered to be his masterpiece: the first version of The Birth of Venus (1863, Musée d’Orsay, Paris), which was acquired by Napoléon III at that year’s Salon. Between 1861 and 1868, the Emperor used to invite Cabanel, by then one of his “official painters,” to lesser formal court gatherings (the so-called “séries”) and, in 1865, he commissioned him with his State portrait (1865, Château de Compiègne, Fig. 1).3 Considering the painter’s familiarity with Napoléon III, it is very likely that the Comtesse de Clermont-Tonnerre met Cabanel at court and chose him for the reputation of superb portraitist, which he had gained among the upper class. In 1892, only three years after his death, Cabanel was indeed defined as “the best portraitist of our time.”4

Fig. 2. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Madame Armand Bertin, née Cécile Dolfus, 1843, graphite on paper, 34.5 x 26 cm., Private collection.

The present work visually supports such an affirmation. In his 1895 comprehensive History of French Painting, Clara Harrison Stranahan stated that the Portrait of the Comtesse de Tonnerre was perhaps “Cabanel’s masterpiece,” excelling “by its soft, sweet, womanly grace, perfect dignity, and infinite refinement.”5 In the present painting, Cabanel has indeed created a delightful image through a sober colour scheme and a skilful rendering of different textures, primarily that of the woman’s dress and jewellery. The elegance of the Portrait confirms Stranahan’s definition of Cabanel as “the master of every grace” and proves the painter’s “consummate skill in accessories; great judiciousness in rendering what his subtle reading of the human face gives him; great power and knowledge of hands, to which he ascribes much character; a tendency to poetic interpretation, which leads to his throwing a veil of mystery over the expression, and to giving to all women a tinge of interesting sadness; he avoids accentuation, even leaving in a softening vagueness the two marked characteristics.”6 Stylistically, the Portrait is still linked to Ingres’ style. The choice of an almost full-length three-quarter view, the representation of the sitter within an interior and with her hands crossed, along with the high degree of finish and the enamel-like rendering of skin derive from Cabanel’s knowledge of Ingres’ portraiture (Fig. 2).

Fig. 3. Nineteenth-century photograph of Princess Marie Clotilde de Savoie.

Fig. 4. Alexandre Cabanel, Portrait of of Miss Cornelia Lyman Warren, 1871, oil on canvas, 183 x 88 cm., The Davis Museum at Wellesley College.

At a time of great ostentation and use of luxurious outfits to convey high social status, Cabanel depicted the Comtesse de Clermont-Tonnerre in a surprisingly sober way. One should consider that the woman was the lady-in-waiting of a very religious Princess, whose piety was often praised by her contemporaries.7 According to some nineteenth-century sources, Clotilde de Savoie’s devotion was so intense that it often bothered her husband and the people around her, including the Comtesse de Clermont-Tonnerre herself. In his Les Femmes du Second Empire, Federico Loliée particularly recalls the latter’s annoyance at hearing the Princess constantly rubbing her rosary.8 The depiction of the Comtesse in a restrained outfit would have therefore been appropriate to the role she played at court. Her dress is closely reminiscent of the one worn by Clotilde de Savoie in one of her photos (Fig. 3) and of the garment of Miss Cornelia Lyman Warren, a wealthy American woman renowned for her religiosity,9 in her portrait painted by Cabanel (1871, Davies Museum, Wellesley, Fig. 4). In front of these images, without the distraction of a luxurious outfit, the viewer would have focused his attention on the women’s moral qualities, rather than on their appearance.

Despite the soberness of the sitter’s outfit, in the Portrait of Victoire de Clermont-Tonnerre, Cabanel has nevertheless been able to convey the nobility of the sitter. The high social status of the woman is suggested by her pallid skin, her discreet yet precious jewels, and the curtain’s decoration (Fig. 5). At its centre, the coat of arms displaying two crossing keys is that of the Clermont-Tonnerre family (Fig. 6). In the emblem on the right, the motif of alternating dolphins and towers is the one found on the coat of arms of the La Tour du Pin de la Charge family (Fig. 7), the Comtesse’s native family. Lastly, the room’s Rococo decoration, which is closely reminiscent of that characterising the setting of Cabanel’s Portrait of Napoléon III (Fig. 1), would have suggested that the woman belonged to the highest ranks of aristocracy, specifically to the Imperial court.


Fig. 5. Alexandre Cabanel, Portrait of Victoire de Clermont-Tonnerre, Clotilde de Savoie’s lady in waiting, detail.


Fig. 6. Coat of arms of the Clermont-Tonnerre family.

Fig. 7. Coat of arms of the La Tour du Pin de la Charge family.



1 La Princesse Julie Bonaparte Marquise de Roccagiovine et Son Temps. Mémoires Inédits (1853-1870), (Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1975), 222.  
2 Cristina Tessaro, Clotilde di Savoia. Il « si » che fece l’Italia, (Milan: Paoline, 2012), 95.
3  For biographical information on Alexandre Cabanel, see Clara Harrison Stranahan, A History of French Painting from its Earliest to its Latest Practice: including an Account the French Academy of Painting, its Salons, Schools of Instruction and Regulations, (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1895), 398-401.
4 Samuel Johnson in Roberta V. Rossi-Genillier, “Alexandre Cabanel. Un Approfondissement de son Oeuvre au Travers de Ses Portraits Américains,” in Alexandre Cabanel: La Tradition du Beau, ed. Michel Hilaire and Sylvain Amic, (Paris: Somogy, 2010), 334: “Cabanel est le meilleur portraitiste de notre temps.”
5 Stranahan, A History of French Painting, 399-400: “The Comtesse de Clermont-Tonnerre used to bite her lip near the Princess, who continuously rubbed the grains of her rosary.”
6 Ibid., 400.
7 Ernest Renan in Lodovico Giuseppe Fanfani, La Principessa Clotilde di Savoia, (Turin: Marietti, 1930), 49-50.
8 Angiolo Biancotti, Maria Clotilde di Savoia, (Turin: Società Editrice Intenazionale, 1955), 136.
9 Rossi-Genillier, “Alexandre Cabanel,” 336.
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The present work is in very good condition. Its original size has been preserved, and no major damages or repairs are visible. The frame is original to the piece.

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