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Portrait of Madame Poullain-Dumesnil

Thomas Couture

(1815 - 1879) | 951.4.1

Date : 1842 | Medium : Oil on canvas

Mme Poullain-Dumesnil (1799-1842) was the friend and inspiration of Jules Michelet (1798-1874). At Michelet's request, Thomas Couture began to paint her a few weeks before her death. She died before the portrait was finished. So what we see here is a deeply moving picture of a woman with features made haggard by illness. Michelet wanted the artist to record the features of his friend from life, and partially explains why in his Diary. He notes on 21 February 1842: ‘There is also beauty in suffering and the loss of weight; the eyes are highly Raphaelesque. She is more suitable for painting than a few months ago.’ The unfortunate lady passed away on 31 May 1842 and Michelet immediately sent a message to the painter to come and make a few more sketches. Michelet's attitude was not unusual in the 19th century. This scientific age revered death and produced large quantities of realistic images in memory of its dead in the form of mortuary masks, funerary portraits, and after 1845, daguerreotypes. Monumental tombs were erected, and vows of fidelity to the dead were engraved in marble – perhaps as a kind of incantation against the doubt that was beginning to seep into people's minds.

However, the portrait of Mme Dumesnil avoids the sentimentality that usually characterised such effigies, thanks to Thomas Couture's reticence and elegance.