Maria Maddalena Balletti, known as Manon Balletti, was the daughter of Antonio Giuseppe Balletti, an actor in the Comédie Italienne. Her brother Stefano, also an actor, was friends with the Venetian adventurer and author Giacomo Casanova, who declared his love for Manon. She broke off her existing engagement to her music teacher for Casanova, but after a three-year on-off courtship gave up waiting for marriage and wed M. Blondel, the king’s architect, in 1760.
Casanova knew Nattier and may have commissioned this pastel portrait of Manon. She wears two violas in her hair or attached to her veil. In the language of flowers violas or pansies mean ‘thoughts of the beloved’. The rose she wears on her breast is associated with love. It may also refer to Manon’s mother, who was called Rosa.
Several other portraits by Nattier resemble this one. Repetition allowed him to produce portraits quickly and cheaply.
Maria Maddalena Balletti, known as Manon Balletti, was the daughter of Antonio Giuseppe Balletti, an actor in the Comédie Italienne. In contrast to her parents, aunt and brothers, who were successful actors and ballet masters, Manon appears not to have taken to the stage professionally, although she performed in amateur dramatics and was a keen amateur musician. Her brother Stefano was friends with the Venetian adventurer and author Giacomo Casanova.
By the age of 17 Manon was engaged to her music teacher, Charles-Francois Clément, who arranged music for the Comédie Italienne. When Casanova returned to Paris from Venice in January 1757, he and Manon fell in love. Manon broke off her engagement to Clément, which left Casanova in rather a bind as he had no intention of marrying her himself. After a three-year on-off courtship, during which Casanova promised Manon’s mother on her deathbed that he would marry her daughter, the pair were still no closer to being wed and Casanova was involved with ladies elsewhere. Finally, in 1760, Manon wrote to Casanova to tell him that she had married M. Blondel, the king’s architect. A widower and father of two children, Blondel was 35 years older than Manon. After her three-year giddy courtship with Casanova, Blondel must have appeared to Manon and her family as the essence of dependability.
Manon asked Casanova to return her portrait, and he obliged, although he never returned her letters. We know that the portrait Casanova returned was a miniature so it cannot be this pastel portrait by Nattier. Nevertheless, it is tempting to suppose that Casanova may have commissioned it as he knew Nattier. According to Casanova, the artist was among the few portraitists who could produce a perfect likeness while at the same time adding an imperceptible beauty to the face.
Manon wears two violas in her hair or attached to her veil, which was a fashion introduced by Mme de Pompadour (official chief mistress of Louis XV) in the mid 1740s. In the language of flowers, violas or pansies (pensées in French) mean ‘thoughts of the beloved’. The rose on Manon’s breast is associated with love. It may also refer to her mother’s name: Rosa. The portrait is signed and dated 1757 and it may have been one of the eight family portraits in gilded wood frames recorded in Manon Balletti’s room in 1758.
There are also a number of other portraits of women by Nattier that closely resemble this one. There is a virtually identical portrait of Mlle Marsollier (sold at Sotheby’s New York, 28 January 1999), the main difference being a bow rather than a rose in the corsage. The essence of the composition, with eyes looking directly at the viewer, a striped muslin veil attached to a point near the crown of the head and draped over the shoulder of a monochrome dress decorated with one or more strings of pearls had been adopted by Nattier in his half-length portrait of Madame Dupleix de Bacquencourt, née Jeanne-Henriette de Lalleu (private collection) and then used again with variations for numerous subsequent portraits. Repetition allowed him to produce portraits more quickly and more cheaply than constantly inventing new compositions.
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