Catherine-Thérèse de Matignon Thorigny (1662 - 1699) married Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Colbert (1651 - 1690), Marquis de Seignelay in 1679. He was the eldest son of the great Colbert and immensely wealthy. The marriage produced five sons.
The marquise was widowed the year before this picture was painted. The children shown in this portrait are probably the eldest, Marie-Jean Baptiste (1683 - 1712) and possibly the youngest Théodore-Alexandre (1690? - 1695?). The marquise is shown as the marine deity Thetis, and the elder child as Achilles, the son of Thetis. The child at the right is shown as Cupid, but it is not certain that he was meant to represent Théodore-Alexandre or any of the marquise's other children.
Miranda Hinkley : Although now little known, Pierre Mignard was one of the most successful artists at the court of the French king, Louis the Fourteenth. He painted portraits of the great, the good – and the plain old socially ambitious - as I discovered when I met up with Jacqui Ansell...
Jacqui Ansell: Well, this is the Marquise de Seignelay – I’m sure she’d love it if we used her full title because it was quite hard fought for – and she married the Marquis as his second wife, when she was aged only 17. As you can see, she’s looking a bit sad because this was painted after her husband had actually died.
Miranda Hinkley: She’s looking rather pensive as you say, but there’s also quite a lot of display going on here – I mean they’re in the most gorgeous costume – the child on her left is dressed up as a soldier and we’ve got little cupid there on the right – what’s going on?
Jacqui Ansell: Well, I always think when I look at this painting, ‘What does she think she looks like?’ I mean clearly as you see the artist has given us all sorts of clues that this is a boy on the left, not a girl dressed up as a miniature soldier, and a little cupid looks up fondly there at a woman who’s clearly her mother, and then you notice there’s an awful lot of water around. There’s sea in the background and there’s sea in the foreground and you wonder what’s going to happen next really.
Miranda Hinkley: And also we see that there’s coral and seaweed in her hair...
Jacqui Ansell: Yes, so there’s clearly a very strong link with the sea. And she’s dressed up as a princess perhaps. She’s got the things that you recognise in her hair; she’s also holding up a pearl, a very elaborate pearl, that might explain her pensive expression, because that probably contains a portrait of her dead husband, who was not just a sailor but he was in control of the whole of the French navy, so he was a rather important character. So she’s clearly dressing up in homage to her dead husband, but what as? For many years people wondered – people wondered if she was Venus? If so, there’s something a bit dodgy about being shown with those two sons or two children because although Venus did have two sons they were by two different fathers. Other people have wondered if she was perhaps dressed up as Poseidon, the god of the sea, but that also doesn’t quite sound right in the politics at the time, because the king was usually shown as Poseidon, so it would look as if she was rather over-reaching herself.
Miranda Hinkley: So who in fact is she trying to show herself as?
Jacqui Ansell: Well, the clue lies in the little boy who’s dressed up as a soldier, because he’s not just dressed up as any soldier, he’s dressed up as Achilles, and in that case she’s dressed up as his mother, the sea-nymph, Thetis, and according to Homer, she wanted to protect her little boy so much that she had special armour made for him, and she had that made from Vulcan’s forge, which of course was in the volcano in the background. You can see him there in his armour, but there was another thing that specially protected Achilles. She wanted him to live forever, so she had special connections that told her if she dipped him in the river of the Styx then every part of his body that the water touched would be invulnerable. So she did this – she dipped the little baby in, but she had to hold onto him, and she held onto him by this heel, so of course that’s why we all know the story of Achilles, or at least we know the story of the Achilles heel, the idea that we’ve all got that one fatal weakness.
Now Thetis was very proud of her little boy and it was prophesied that he was going to grow up and do even greater deeds than his father. And that I think is very important in the context of the whole painting because we want to think about not just what she’s dressed up as, but why? And you might think that a painting like this, built for the heart of 17th century court culture would not be able to speak to people today, but I had a group of Hackney school children come and look at this and one seven year old piped up and said ‘well, she’s putting it out miss, isn’t she?’ Now I don’t know if you understand that slang, but what the child picked up on is that what she’s doing is that she’s touting for a new husband. She’s got used to a certain lifestyle, she’s lost her husband and the father of her children, but she’s also lost her wealth and status and she wants to get a new husband.
Miranda Hinkley: So perhaps showing herself as Venus would have been laying it on a bit thick, but there clearly are overtones of that in the image...
Jacqui Ansell: Yes, that’s a very good point because there’s under-drawing here, under-painting, there’s painting over that tells that originally she had one breast bare that certainly would have been laying it on a bit thick, so the idea that she’s Thetis...
Miranda Hinkley: Would have been a rather clearer message, wouldn’t it...
Jacqui Ansell: Yes, I think so. I mean at the moment she’s showing us that she’s fertile and she’s very pretty, and she’s more than a pretty face, she’s very intellectual as well.
Miranda Hinkley: So I have to ask, what happened? Did she in fact find herself a new husband and did the little boy go on to be even greater than his father?
Jacqui Ansell: Well, clearly she’s got ample charms and her charms had effect. She managed to attract some very memorable suitors, one of them being the Duke of Luxembourg, who unfortunately jilted her at the altar, but she went on to make a very good match, thank you very much, and unfortunately she died, just a couple of years after her wedding. But what about the little boy? Did he grow up to do greater deeds than his father? Well, he did have a military career but it wasn’t all that sparkling and glittering, I’m afraid.
The only comment we have after his death from apoplexy was that he was extremely fat but he did excel in dancing, so that’s quite a sad little note to end on perhaps, although you can perhaps see the seeds of his elegant deportment in this painting.
Miranda Hinkley: And indeed of his chubbiness in those beautiful round cheeks.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Jacqui Ansell talking about ‘Mignard’s Marquise de Seignelay and Two of her Sons’. If you’d like to see the painting for yourself, come along to the Gallery. Or if you can’t make it in person, you can find the portrait – along with all the other works in the Collection – on our website.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Forty Eight, October 2010