Princess Pauline Sander (1836–1921) was the wife of Prince Richard Metternich, the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador at the court of Napoleon III from 1860 to 1871. Known as the ‘ambassadress of pleasure’, she was a glamorous figure in Parisian high society during the Second Empire. A pioneer of fashion, she promoted new styles of dress, including the crinoline.
The Princess had already been painted by the society portraitist Franz Xaver Winterhalter, and by the French seascape artist Eugène Boudin. However, Degas, who was still a young artist, did not paint his portrait of the Princess from life. Instead, he made a partial copy of a full-length visiting card photograph of her and her husband taken around 1867.
This is one of the first painted portraits to have been based on a photograph, and Degas makes no attempt to disguise its origin. Unlike the sharply focused photograph, however, Degas’s painting conveys the effect of blurred movement, as if the Princess has just been caught turning her head.
The Princess had already been painted by the society portraitist Franz Xaver Winterhalter, and by the seascape artist Eugène Boudin, who showed her standing in profile on a beach. Degas may have seen the couple at the racetrack or ballet – the Prince was a leading member of the Jockey Club, which had an important role in both horse racing and in the running of the Paris Opera – but the young artist did not paint his portrait from life. Instead, he made a partial copy of a full-length carte de visite (visiting card) photograph of the Princess and her husband taken around 1867 by Eugène Disdéri (1819–1889). Disdéri had made his fortune by popularising the carte de visite, which he patented in 1854. These were made by gluing a small photograph to a card mount, which was the size of a standard visiting card.
In the photograph, Princess Pauline stands alongside her husband, her left arm entwined in his right. In his portrait, however, Degas has removed the Prince completely and also the Princess’s left arm. She is isolated against a background of floral wallpaper, which overlaps her right sleeve. The close repetition of the floral motif, which has been drawn with graphite pencil and then covered with a wash of paint, suggests that Degas may have traced the pattern directly onto the canvas. Unlike the photograph, Degas’s picture is in colour, albeit very limited in range. Two colours dominate – variations of a mustard or Naples yellow with a greenish tinge, which takes on an antique gold hue for the wallpaper, and variations of a grey-black for the dress and hair.
Degas has retained the military style of the Princess’s bodice, but the picture’s flat background helps project her forward in space, an effect enhanced by the thicker paint on her face, hair and clothes. The painting of the face itself is particularly striking, especially when compared with the photograph. Despite its small size, the carte de visite has a sharply focused clarity and strong shadows, but Degas has softened the Princess’s features, notably her eyes. In the photograph her mouth is made prominent by shadow, but Degas paints it using just a single thin line of black paint that is barely visible in places. Her nose is reduced to two judiciously placed – and slightly asymmetrical – black dots for the nostrils. Above all, Degas creates a remarkable effect of blurred movement – as if the Princess has been caught just as she turns her head – that is not present in the photograph’s more formal pose.
This is one of the first portraits to have been based on a photograph, and Degas makes no attempt to disguise its photographic origin. He remained deeply interested in photography, and a number of his paintings reveal his careful study of this new medium.
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