October 20

Princess Rákóczi by Nicolas de Largillière

On the 20th of October 1656, the French Rococo painter Nicolas de Largillière was born in Paris. Brought up in Antwerp and Paris, he also lived and worked in London, gaining the admiration of kind Charles II, then James II, as well as the French king Louis XIV, all of whom he painted, alongside various men of culture from Le Brun to Voltaire. A well-respected leader of the French Academy, his style of painting was the Rococo, an 18th century French trend at its height in the 1730s. In painting, and specifically in portraiture, artists focused on the abundant lifestyles of the aristocracy. Their works were whimsical, using pastels and flowing ornate design in the backgrounds and captured the fine, delicate features of upper class women in lavish clothing, often unmasking the impurity in their behaviour; this set the Rococo apart from the Baroque, which still mainly focused on religious and state subjects.

The National Gallery in London has an intriguing portrait of Princess Rákóczi (c. 1720) by Largillière, the once 15-year old child bride of Rákóczi Ferenc II, the Hungarian leader of the uprising against the Habsburgs, Prince of Transylvania, and great national hero of Hungary. From celebrated and loved young princess, Charlotte Amalie’s life took an unfortunate turn caused by the political activism of her husband. She had a fraught life in exile, fleeing alongside her husband, taking refuge in Poland, then Russia and France. This new life was humiliating and far removed from her lavish beginnings – taking refuge in remote hideouts on farms, in mountain villages, caring for the wounded. Legend says that when her husband was imprisoned in the fortress of Wiener Neustadt (south of Vienna) after being caught by an Austrian spy, Princess Rákóczi helped him escape with the aid of the prison commander. At the age of 43, Charlotte Amelia died from a tooth abscess as she bled to death from its extraction in a Parisian convent.

Nicolas de Largillière: Princess Rákóczi, National Gallery (London), approx. 1720 AD

Nicolas de Largillière: Princess Rákóczi, National Gallery (London), approx. 1720 AD

In Largillière’s painting, Princess Rákóczi is pictured with an unknown black child servant, quite a common addition to Rococo portrayals of the aristocracy. Disturbingly, slave children were used as a social display of wealth and opulence of their white masters or mistresses. The power relationship between the two clearly reflected the centuries of political and economic relations between Africa and Europe. The two characters in the painting both appear to be putting on a mask. Knowing the background of Charlotte Amelie, this distant façade could be hiding several aspects of her life that needed to be left untold. Meanwhile, the melancholy eyes and half-smile of the obedient slave girl looking up at her mistress could hide fear of her unknown future. On close inspection, there is a definite outline of a neck brace on the slave girl, linked by a chain to the top of the Princess’s peacock feather fan, possibly at the back of the child’s neck, hidden from view. There is an irony in the parallel between the once child bride given away to a strange foreign husband and a slave girl possibly stolen from her family and country and sold into slavery. However, the Rococo artist’s role is to polish the façade and put them shimmer into the fabrics and the gold in the stitches and paint those smiles on, like a hired studio photographer who captures a strained, staged moment for eternity.

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