A Tranquil Confidence: Four Women of the Belle Epoque

Marie-Therèse Durand-Ruel Sewing, 1882


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:

Remembering the Countess Greffulhe

Wiki Article

Elisabeth Comtesse Greffulhe, 1909


Breakfast in the Loggia, 1910


3 thoughts on “A Tranquil Confidence: Four Women of the Belle Epoque”

  1. Thanks for these — I have long loved the Renoir; I have thought more about the era after my immersion in the later-set Downton Abbey and PBS’s The Great War — and Marie-Terese is like a captured jewel of a memory, no hint of drumbeats to come. The Comtesse seems remarkably modern to me; she looks as if she could step out of the picture and into contemporary garb — and one also wants to know what is going through her mind. The third picture: the light, the light! And as a senior who frequents a favorite coffee shop, I recognize the comfort these two women share in a special spot where they feel very comfortable.

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Jamie. Your assessment of the appearance of the Countess Greffulhe is right on the mark, as you can tell by reading the Wiki article I linked at the bottom of the post. She was a remarkable organizer, transforming the “good works” allowed to wives of her time into a veritable career as an impresario of all sorts, producing funds for many charitable causes, including specific artists and scientists, such as Serge Diaghilev and Marie and Pierre Curie.

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