A POORLY IDENTIFIED PORTRAIT
8 April 2008.
Christie's New York, presented a very fine portrait by Jacques-Emile Blanche in its 1984 auction of European Art of the XIXth century, which made the cover of the catalogue. This painting, lot 24, which measures 160 x 124.4cm, is shown there as Portrait of the Comtesse de Greffuhle (sic). It is accompanied by a fine four-page note entitled Proust's Countess – the Countess Henri Greffulhe (1), born Princess Elisabeth de Caraman-Chimay was, we understand, Marcel Proust's principal model for the Duchess of Guermantes character in A la recherche du temps perdu (In search of lost time) – and a sincere valuation of $400,000 to 600,000!
In fact the Christie's auction house reproduced a certain number of works in this elegant note, including a famous photograph of the Countess by Nadar in 1895, and a no less famous portrait of her by Philippe de Lazlo.
For its part, the online catalogue, says "painted circa 1890" then "We would like to thank Jane Roberts for confirming the authenticity of the work and for her help in preparing the note".
In an email sent on Sunday 6 April 2008, Mrs Deborah Coy, Senior Specialist of the XIXth century European Art department at Christie's New York, confirms this last point:
"I would like to add that the Blanche expert, Miss Jane Roberts, came here to Christie's to examine the painting and has confirmed its authenticity as Blanche's portrait of the Countess of Greffuhle (sic)."
ll would be well and good if, on the one hand the Christie's auction house hadn't systematically misspelt the countess' name, which should have been written Greffulhe without a handle – as we are reminded of in the title of the biography, which her great-great-granddaughter, Anne de Cossé Brissac, devoted to her in 1996 – and if, in the history of art like a lot of other domains, the truth sometimes didn't lay down its constraints. However, for this ravishing portrait to be that of the Countess Greffulhe is perfectly impossible!
First of all, in his memoirs entitled "La pêche aux souvenirs" (Fishing for memories) (Flammarion 1949), and more particularly page 201 of the chapter given over to the area "Côté de Guermantes" (Beside Guermantes), Jacques-Emile Blanche published a Letter to Madam the Countess Greffulhe, dated 2 December 1941, in which the painter asks his friend to photograph the family portraits painted by him:
"Dear Madam and friend,
Please may I ask for your authorisation to have photographed the portrait of your Elaine, as well as the pastel where you're arranging a bouquet of flowers at La Case villa (over half a century ago!)? I believe you'll have been informed that I'm gathering together my memories – which are somewhat intertwined with your own?
Are we to believe that Jacques-Emile Blanche had forgotten that he'd painted a portrait in oil of this importance?
His correspondence enables this hypothesis to be disproved because, though a letter dated 10 August 1887, fully testified to the fact that he painted a pastel of the countess in her villa in Dieppe – "... At 2 o' clock, session at La Case villa (4); I began a pastel sketch of Mrs Greff yesterday, which was very successful and something I'll continue with..." – no other letter penned by him alluded to such a portrait.
Secondly, the later date of 1890 for the painting presented by Christie's can in no way be retained, as much for stylistic reasons as for reasons linked to the model's attire. Indeed any portrait painted by Jacques-Emile Blanche at the start of the 1890s – and this is borne out by that of Yvette Guilbert dated 1891 – shows that women back then wore their hair pulled about the temples, tight hats and tailored clothes. This fact is further corroborated by photo of the Countess by Nadar which Christie's dates as 1895. In this way, the attire of the young woman represented on the painting put up for auction, leads us instead to date this work at around 1902 -1904, a time when such wide hats and such "leg-of-mutton sleeves" were worn. Indeed, such dating supports the technique and palette of the work.
The only thing is that during these years, the Countess Greffulhe, born in 1860, was over forty years of age, between 42 and 44 to be precise. Even though we're aware that the Countess looked young for her age, is this a portrait of a woman aged over forty?
Moreover, her portrait by Philippe de Lazlo, which Christie's reproduced in its note and which, we note, was painted in 1909, testifies to the fact that the Countess still wore her hair in her own unique way at that time, and had got into the habit of wearing her hats a long way back on her head.
However, the only comparison of the portraits of the Countess, about which Robert de Montesquiou writes "The Countess Henri Greffulhe / Deux regards noirs dans du tulle (Two black looks in tulle)", with that of this young woman with dreamy eyes, the only comparison in their lines, describes one with a sovereign look and the other with a mischievous air. Doesn't this speak volumes about whether or not this can be the same person? Thirdly, Jacques-Emile Blanche grouped into two large albums the photographs he annotated by hand of some of his works and these are kept today by the Musée Blanche in Offranville. Now folio 72 of the second album, which displays a fine archive photograph of the portrait offered up for auction by Christie's, bears no note; not the smallest piece of information... Are we to believe that the painter, overcome by severe amnesia, found himself incapable of recognising his friend's portrait (5)in the photograph of the painting...!?
What's even more interesting, and will enable us to understand what move Miss Jane Roberts pulled in order to make us believe in her fanciful identification, is that a precise inventory of these two albums was published as an appendix to the exhibition catalogue "Jacques-Emile Blanche painter (1861 - 1942)", which was kept at the Museum of Fine Arts in Rouen from October 1997 to February 1998. However, no photograph was attached to it. As such, solely a person with access to the photographic archives contained in the albums would be in a position to establish the link between a painting from the albums and the published inventory, which couldn't be the case for Christie's...
The introduction to the precise inventory:
"The captions in square brackets have been pointed out by way of information and don't appear in the albums.
The words in bold are in Jacques-Emile Blanche's hand, according to the information put forward by Mireille Bialek and Adeline cacan de Bissy".
Now, opposite folio 72 of the second album, we can read, in square brackets and in light-faced lettering: "Portrait presumed to be of Mrs Greffulhe".
Even though this reasoning is regrettable, we cannot hold it against the authors of this list, to have wanted to put a name on this portrait at all costs. After all, they took the precaution of indicating that this identification, designed to fill a gap, was 'presumed'.
On the other hand, how are we to view the move made by Miss Jane Roberts to take on this proposal in her own name, to present it as an established fact, prepared to bring the supposed date for the completion of the painting forward by around fifteen years, so as to make it totally incoherent?
Is it possible to be so lacking in scruples?
To be so mocking of artists?
To take buyers for imbeciles to this extent?
Fortunately one has to believe that this isn't the case, since the painting wasn't sold...
However, Mrs Deborah Coy, Senior Specialist of the XIXth century European Art department at Christie's New York, and Mr Etienne Hellman, her counterpart at Christie's France, alerted by an email dated 14 April 2008 about the points that I've developed here and about Miss Jane Roberts' methods, didn't believe anyone was to be held accountable...
In the distressing work which Miss Roberts recently devoted to Jacques-Émile Blanche (6), she shows us on page 31, probably as much to do with getting the reader involved in her obsessions as her wobbly, tentative steps – the highly scientific manner in which she proceeds with her assessments about another portrait in which she was already keen to see Countess Greffulhe:
“We’d really hoped that this imposing portrait depicted Countess Greffulhe (1860 - 1952) as we know that Jacques-Émile Blanche had painted it – which is wrong, he drew it with pastels: it’s not exactly the same thing! - in Dieppe that same year – which is wrong again as the painter’s writings tell us that it was two years earlier in 1887, but you do have to take the trouble to read them – however his grandson assures us that the Countess had brown eyes! Unfortunately then, we know nothing of this strong, majestic woman with blue eyes...”
The reader will agree with us that such a flimsy argument and, let’s be honest, such incompetence, speaks for itself!
(1) Jacques-Emile Blanche explains to us on p 202 of "La Pêche aux souvenirs" (Fishing for memories) that the Greffulhe, bankers ennobled in Restoration, used a name which was pronounced "Greffeuille". (↑)
(2) Armand, Duke of Guiche, then Duke of Gramont (1879 - 1962). (↑)
(3) Robert, Count of Montesquiou-Fézensac (1855 - 1921) (↑)
(4) "La case" was the name of Countess Greffulhe's villa in Dieppe. (↑)
(5)However we know that in the very early years of the XXth century, Jacques-Emile Blanche painted portraits to order, notably in London, and sometimes he forgot the name of the casual models, who'd headed back to their native countries. America for example... (↑)
(6) Jane Roberts Jacques-Emile Blanche Paris editions Gourcff Gradenigo 2012 (↑)
Dernière modification par Stéphane-Jacques Addade, le 23/03/2015