I want to share with you an appreciation for the paintings of Marie-Therese Durand-Ruel by Renoir; Elisabeth, Countess Greffulhe, by De Laszlo; and two others, Lady Richmond and Jane de Glehn, by Sargent. To me they represent an essential characteristic of the civilization they lived in: a tranquil confidence.
The Renoir picture of the daughter of the famous art dealer Durand-Ruel is now in the Clark Museum at Williamstown, Massachusetts. It is a side view of a young woman sewing in a garden, crowned with a brilliant orange-red bonnet. It is of course much more than that. It makes a statement about an era, about the habits and interests of a whole generation.
The De Laszlo shows the Countess Greffulhe, the most famous Parisienne of her time, who although faithful to the philandering Henry Greffulhe, conquered the hearts of numerous eminent Europeans of the 19th and 20th century, notably Marcel Proust, who borrowed from her to create the Duchess and the Princess of Guermantes in his great novel In Search of Lost Time. She seems to look at us over her shoulder. Engaging with her across more than a century now, one can believe in her gleaming intelligence and love of beauty, science, and art. This picture is in a private collection (De Laszlo Archive Trust).
The Sargent picture evokes a place, in which the women play an important but anonymous role, engaged in a private conversation over a table in a gloriously lit loggia at an Italian villa. The women were part of a group of friends, including Sargent. This picture is about the place, the atmosphere, but also about the women, showing a respect for them despite the lack of any attempt at rendering their features. This picture can be seen at the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C.
These three pictures carry to me the spirit of a bygone era – one that produced a horrible war at the end, but one that also produced a panoply of brilliant artists and authors, who still have a lot to offer us.
For more about the Countess Greffulhe: