Portrait de la Reine Hortense
(Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson)


Girodet had first worked for the (then future) Imperial family in 1800, but the results had not been uniformly well received by the public. [1] Nonetheless, through Napoleon’s wife Josephine, he had met her daughter Hortense, since 1802 unhappily married to the future Emperor’s younger brother Louis. Hortense de Beauharnais (1793-1837) was the daughter of General Vicomte Alexandre de Beauharnais, guillotined during the Terror in 1794, by Josephine de Tascher de la Pagerie. Adopted along with her brother Eugène by her stepfather, the Emperor, she and her husband received the titles of Imperial Highness and French Prince and Princess. In 1806 her husband was made King of the newly formed Kingdom of Holland, abdicating in 1810, by which time they had already separated. Following the fall of Napoleon in 1814 she received the title of Duchess of Saint Leu from Louis XVIII at the request of the Czar, Alexander I, who briefly fell in love with her; as she remained loyal to Napoleon during the hundred days the Czar subsequently broke off his friendship. By her husband Louis she had three children, of whom only the youngest survived to adulthood, eventually becoming President of France and then Emperor, as Napoleon III, in 1852. She also had an illegitimate son, the future Duke of Morny (who served as a Minister in the government of the Second Empire), by her lover the Count de Flahault, himself the natural son of Marie-Antoinette’s admirer and near savior, Count Fersen.

In accepting portrait commissions Girodet had not hesitated to reject those sitters who did not “show any defined psychological quality”, [2] as he considered the depiction of the sitter’s character the artist’s primary aim. To achieve the most accurate portrayal of character, the artist must “eliminate all traces of affectation, [and be] as direct and as simple as possible”. [3] This ideal was not uncompromising, however, and while he was anxious that his portraits should be honest and penetrating, he advised others to avoid the depiction of strong emotions or vices which could disfigure and to stress their sitters virtues. Neither did he rule out flattery, in his words, a successful portrait painter should “be an obliging liar in attenuating a defect and, without hiding the simple truth, to alleviate ugliness and embellish beauty ….[a portrait must be] always true, but flattering; as it is, but embellished”. [4]

Our portrait shares some similarities in compositional form with another of Queen Hortense by Francois Gérard, now hanging at Malmaison. In both paintings the sitter’s body is turned to the left while she looks straight at the viewer, and in both paintings there is a restricted view of a landscape to the right. Gerard’s composition is altogether more conventional, however, the Queen being seated before a curtain while here she is apparently placed in a deeply shadowed cave. Girodet did not need to flatter Hortense, whose beauty and charm are attested to not only in other surviving contemporary portraits but also in the descriptions of those who knew her. What Girodet has noticed and managed to capture here with exquisite subtlety, is a hint of melancholy, hardly surprising bearing in mind her bitterness at being forced into an unwelcome marriage with an abusive boor. Only twenty-two years old, she had experienced imprisonment during the Revolution, the execution of her father, years of living in uncertain poverty before her mother’s second marriage and the jealousy of her husband’s sisters. Ironically, although she enjoyed a high position at the heart of the Empire she did not find real happiness until after Napoleon’s downfall, when she retired to the beautiful Chateau of Arenenberg on the shores of lake Constance, the gift of her cousin, Stephanie, Grand Duchess of Baden. A portrait of her husband, Louis, signed and dated 1805, is in the collection of the Earl of Roseberry at Dalmeny House, near Edinburgh, and was probably painted contemporaneously with our picture. A second, studio version (dated 1813) of this composition in which Hortense wears a green dress, is on loan at Malmaison from the Louvre.


[1]Although unsympathetic to the Republic, Girodet had been seduced by the hopes for a restoration of civilized values that the rise of the young General Bonaparte still encouraged. In early 1800 the decorators Percier and Fontaine, who had been commissioned to decorate the First Consul’s private palace at Malmaison, asked Girodet to provide a major painting for the large reception hall. The artist’s initial idea, an allegory of Napoleon as Hercules trampling on his opponents, was abandoned for the splendid Ossian or The Apotheosis of French Heroes who had died for their country during the war of Liberty, still at Malmaison. Macpherson’s great literary fraud, the Tales of Ossian, was as yet undetected and it was known to be the First Consul’s favorite book. Girodet’s painting was both a sincere attempt to glorify France’s recent military successes and compliment the First Consul in a more subtle fashion than in his original conception. Unfortunately the painting was not received well by the critics and Girodet failed to obtain the recognition he sought as the leading history painter of his day.

[2]Levitine, 1952, p.304.

[3]Levitine, 1952, pp.305-6.

[4]Levitine, 1952, pp.306-7.

24 by 19 11/16 inches (61 by 50 cm)
Oil on canvas

Provenance: Collection Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson (inventory after death 11 April 1825); Collection Rosine Becquerel-Despreaux, niece and only heiress of the artist (mentioned in the inventory made at the chateau de Bourgoin by M. Salouzes, Notary, the home of her husband, March 4th, 1835, no. 32); Collection Edmond Filleul (mentioned in his own inventory, 1850); by descent to the heirs of the Peyriague family, 1991.


Literature: P.A. Coupin, Oeuvres posthumes de Girodet-Trioson, Peintre d’histoire, suivies de sa correspondance, precedée d’une notice historique, Paris, 1829, t. I, p. LXI; Frond, Panthéon des illustrations françaises au XIXe siècle comprenant un portrait, une biographie et un autographe de chacun des hommes les plus marquants, Paris, 1865, p. 2; G. Bernier, Girodet 1767-1824, 1975, p. 207, reproduced; G. Levitine, Girodet-Trioson. An Iconographical Study, 1952, published 1978, p. 310, and illus. fig. 77.


Exhibited: Gros, ses amis, ses élèves, Paris, 1936, no. 322, with incorrect dimensions: 175 by 60 cm), sold by the Commandant Filleul (a label of this exhibition is found on the back of the painting); Konigin Hortense Ausstellung, Schloss Arenenberg, 1938

Where is It?
Acquired by the Rijksmusuem, Amsterdam
Historical Period
Neoclassicism - 1780-1820
Price band
Sold or not available