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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Madame de Pompadour's Hands

"As someone who has used tambour frames since childhood (I love embroidering) I have to jump in. Tambour frames ("tambours a broder") are still sold today in embroidery supply shops. Here's a link:

A tambour is a round musical instrument made of an animal skin stretched between two concentric circles made of wood or metal. The embroidering tambour frame has the same shape, hence the name. The fabric is stretched between the wooden circles, and the tension makes it easier to get even stitches. It is round, no more than a foot in diameter, and very portable. Now what Madame de Pompadour is using in this beautiful (and posthumous) portrait is a fixed "metier". She is embroidering all right, but certainly not with a tambour frame. Catherine [Delors]"


Thank you for that concise explanation! I do not doubt you for a second, but the title of that portrait refers to a tambour frame--you'd imagine that the National Gallery in London would get the title correct, right? They say nothing in the website blurb about an error:

And look at this gloss by a Franco-American blogger discussing the details of the painting:

"Drouais has rendered her demurely at traditional lady's work with her tambour and embroidery silks, among luxurious fittings that include a Sèvres-mounted table with a goat's mask in the latest goût Grèc."

I see the goat's mask hanging there to her left (the viewer's right), and I suspect that the table further to her left (our right) is that Sevres-mounted table? There is a book resting on one of its tiers. So it seems like Frogblog-guy thinks there is a tambour frame there, but of course, he probably never actually used such a device, as you have done, so perhaps he is just assuming there is a tambour frame there, that actually is not there.

But...I think the key is to zoom in on Madame de Pompadour's hands. I have done just that, and have cropped the original image of the whole painting down to show just that detail of the painting--her hands. I have attached (twice, by accident) that cropped image above!

Catherine, you speak so authoritatively that the lady is indeed stitching--is that thing we see in her hand the top of the hook which the various websites describe as the proper tool for stitching with a tambour frame? Is there ANY chance that there actually IS a small tambour frame BEHIND what you call the "metier", and that Drouais for some reason chose to obscure the tambour frame referenced in the title of the portrait?

Or is this a case where somehow, in translating the original title given by Drouais, an error has been made which has escaped the notice of countless art historians?

Why I have devoted all this attention to these questions is that I remain highly suspicious of the closely-linked chain of apparent coincidences that...

(i) there just happened to be one famous portrait of a very famous real life woman, which refers to a tambour frame in its title, a portrait which JA (via her aesthetically sophisticated cousin Eliza who had lived in France and....

(ii) just happened to be one of the real life sources for the character of Mary Crawford, or otherwise) could easily have been aware of, if not actually seen (I would like to know, e.g., when and how that portrait of a French king's favorite mistress wound up in the National Gallery in London!), and....

(iii) it also just happens to be a portrait of the mistress of the grandson (and, more important, the immediately successor) of the French king whom Mary Crawford just happens to mention in connection with describing herself, a description which...

(iv) just happens to be echoed chapters later in MP by an unusually descriptive narrative portrait of a beautiful domestic scene set to music, a kind of "dance" in which Mary Crawford's gracefully moving hands generate music, which seems, to Fanny's sensitive eye and ear, to set the rhythm for Mrs. Grant's gracefully moving hands stitching on a tambour frame, and even (JA cannot resist some subtle humor at the expense of the corpulent and therefore surely lumbering Dr. Grant) Dr. Grant's service of the sandwich tray, which must be the furthest thing from graceful, hence the word "even"!

So I cannot help but think that JA had THAT portrait of Madame de Pompadour in mind, if not in her actual visual memory, when she wrote those two subtly linked passages in MP.

What a rich and entirely unintentional irony it would be if JA was going only by the title (in words) of that portrait, in conjuring Mrs. Grant as a Regency Era Madame de Pompadour--after all, the one person JA knew in the world who probably had actually been to Versailles and could have looked at that portrait with her own eyes, was Eliza de Feuillide, who just happened to die of cancer on April 24, 1813, less than three months after JA wrote to CEA about writing her next novel about "ordination", and probably therefore not someone JA was going to write to at that very moment and ask questions about the details of a French portrait, the way JA asked CEA about Northamptonshire's hedgerows in January 1813.

In fact, I now strongly suspect that JA only made the decision to base Mary Crawford's character so heavily on Eliza BECAUSE Eliza had died, and therefore there was no longer a risk that Eliza might be unhappy about being used in this way. Or maybe, Eliza, if she really was like Mary, would actually have asked, as a deathbed wish, to be commemorated in her favorite cousin's next novel?

Curiouser and curiouser....

Cheers, ARNIE

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