This remarkable painting is compositionally unique within the context of late sixteenth century French portraiture. Though simply executed, with a chic monochromatic palette, the painting nonetheless has a complexity that belies its ostensible minimalism, for the viewer is presented with a fascinating interplay of identities and relationships between the sitters.
Private collection, from a chateau in the Dordogne, France.
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Jeanne de Bourdeille was born near Brantôme in Perigord, the youngest of three children of Jean de Bourdeille, lord of the manor of Bourdeille, and his wife Claude de Gontaut-Badefol. Jeanne’s older brother Pierre de Bourdeille was to become the Lord of Brantôme, as well as governor and Sénéchal de Perigord. She was married first on 12 July 1575 to Charles d’Aydie, Vicomte de Riberac and Lord of Monbazillac (1527 - 1584), with whom she had two children, both boys. After the Vicomte’s death in 1584, intriguingly she was remarried in haste the very same year with a special dispensation from Rome to Antoine de Beaupoil de Sainte-Aulaire, Sénéchal de Perigord (c.1560 – 1593). With her second husband she had four children, two boys (Marc Antoine and Maranthon, who died at birth) and two girls, Jeanne and Claude, one of whom is depicted here in this portrait which is almost certainly painted shortly after her second husband’s death in 1593.
In this portrait Jeanne is dressed in a rich black silk damask dress – her widow’s weeds. The portrait that hangs behind her to the left portrays her as a younger woman, also in widow’s weeds, in reference to her first deceased husband, Charles d’Aydie. In her second, later incarnation as widow, instead of the simple black mourning chord shown around her neck in the framed portrait, she is adorned in costly jewels. She is dressed less demurely, and thus the earlier portrait may also be interpreted as a ricordo of her former life before she became elevated to court through her relationship with her second husband. Renowned as a ‘grande dame’, Jeanne famously had the most exquisite clothes and jewelry in Perigord, an inventory of which still exists in the Bibliothéque Nationale. From her ear hangs an indistinct cameo, presumably classical, from which drops a large pearl, while her necklace is made of a gold chain with enamelled flowers, also suspended with pearls. The flowers in the necklace include white marguerites (symbols of purity), perhaps to represent the young daughter, a single white rose, and most significantly black enamelled pansies – pensées (thoughts) – to symbolise remembrance – ‘pensez à moi’.
Her daughter is shown clasping an exquisitely bejewelled miniature portrait of her father, Antoine de Beaupoil. The elaborate gold filigree frame is decorated with scarlet and black enamel and lavishly set with fine-cut lozenge-shaped rubies and seeded with pearls. It is completed by a single large hanging pearl that echoes Jeanne’s earring and necklace. The inherent intimacy of the miniature is heightened by its juxtaposition between the mother and child. It hangs from the Jeanne’s waist on a golden chain, and is grasped by her daughter, who in turn is held at the arm by her mother – an uninterrupted sequence that mirrors their familial bonds.
Jeanne’s impressive décolletage, with a hint of her left aureole, can be interpreted as a symbolic extension of her role as a mother. It is also a sexually powerful statement which brings to mind the famous double portrait by an artist of the Fontainbleau School, c.1595, of the mistress of Henri IV of France, Gabrielle d’Estrées, depicted in a bath with her sister who pinches her nipple, a reference to her status as the King’s concubine, and indicating that she is pregnant with his child (The Louvre, Paris).
A likely painter for our portrait could be François Quesnel. He was born in Edinburgh in 1543, the son of Pierre Quesnel (d. c.1574), a French artist then in the service of James V of Scotland. François and his two brothers Nicolas and Jacques were all to follow their father’s profession. By 1572, François must have left Scotland and settled in Paris, for he is then recorded designing the medals to commemorate the entry of Charles IX and Elizabeth of Austria into Paris. In 1609 he drew a map of Paris which was engraved by Pierre Vallet in twelve plates and dedicated to Henry IV. However, it was as a portraitist in crayon that Quesnel established his reputation. In contrast to Elizabethan England, where the tradition in portraiture was dominated by three-quarter-length portraits painted in oils, the predominant fashion in France was for head-and-shoulder portraits drawn in crayon on paper. Though Quesnel rarely signed his work, some two hundred drawings have been attributed to his hand consisting of portrait figures from the courts of Henry III and Henry IV. Of the small number of portraits in oils attributable to the artist, only one is signed. It is a half-length portrait painted on panel, which reputedly depicts Mary Ann Waltham, one of the attendants of Mary Queen of Scots, monogrammed ‘FQ’ and dated 1572 (Althorp). Three other portraits are also attributed, those of Madame de Cheverny (Versailles), Madame de Laval (Le Mans Museum) and another portrait on canvas of an Unknown French Noblewoman, formerly with the Weiss Gallery in 2002. The latter work shares a similar palette and execution, as well the usual truncated, off-centre positioning of the sitter.
 Anselme de Sainte-Marie, Histoire généalogique et chronologique de la maison royal de France…. P. 861.
 See H. de Montégut, ‘Inventaire des bijoux de Jeanne de Bourdeille, dame de Sainte-Aulaire de de Lanmary’, Bulletin de la Société historique et archéoligique du Périgord, VIII, Périgueux, 1881 and Joan Evans, A History of Jewellery 1100-1870, 1989.
The Courtly Image: early portraiture: 1550–1680, 2002, no.6.