The Countess of La Fayette

The Countess of La Fayette

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Madame, Countess of La Fayette

© Palace of Versailles, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Palace of Versailles image

Publication date: December 2017

Academy Inspector Deputy Academic Director

Historical context

The lost portrait of a precious

Son of the Flemish painter Ferdinand Elle, famous portrait painter naturalized under the reign of Louis XIII, Louis Elle, himself known as Ferdinand II, was born in Paris in 1612. Painter to the king, he was part of the circle of founders of the Royal Academy of painting and sculpture in 1648, then taught there from 1659, despite his Reformed faith. Upon his death, he is said to have continued his father's portrait painting, using a formal freedom that favors the natural expression of the face or poses, according to the tradition of realistic portraiture of which he is an illustrious representative in Paris.

Among his many models is the Comtesse de La Fayette. Woman of the world and of spirit close to Madame de Sévigné, Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne (1634-1693) is part of the society of these learned women or those precious women that Molière stages. She frequents literary salons where she stands out for her culture and intelligence. Like other precious ones, she refuses to be assimilated to ordinary women and participates in « a female avant-garde at a time when we are witnessing the birth of women of letters »(Philippe Sellier). Coming from a lesser nobility of dress, she frequented the enlightened circles of Paris and became maid of honor to Anne of Austria after the Fronde. Among her works, she published anonymously in 1678 a successful novel, The Princess of Cleves, by inscribing its narrative framework in the history and in the depth of romantic feelings. Her (Platonic?) Friendship with the Duke of La Rochefoucauld left her unhappy after the latter's death (1680), and the death of her husband in 1683 completed her conversion to God, whom she joined in 1693.

Image Analysis

A noble woman of letters and spirit

Represented three quarters and slightly turned to the left, seated on a chair that disappears under the fabrics of the dress, Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne takes a melancholy pose. Leaning on her elbow, she seems to be dreaming or giving in to the imagination, her gaze absorbed and lost in an elsewhere that can easily be linked to the culture of which she was believed to be the bearer, although later readers will be able to find it. see above all an allusion to her function as a writer of romantic prose. Her hair, held together by a series of pearls, gives way to the fashion of the mid-17th centurye century. This portrait portrays the woman of wit and letters in a form of modesty and simplicity (no jewel comes to dress her chest, her arms or her dress) that the Countess de La Fayette seemed to really like: only the spirit takes the place ceremonial for this woman who complained of not being beautiful enough.

The judgments of her contemporaries have left the Countess de La Fayette with a positive appreciation, although they did not know for a long time that she was the author of her novels since she made a point of remaining anonymous to the point of denying the motherhood of The Princess of Cleves when suspected of being the writer. Charles Sorel saw behind the anonymous author of The Princess of Montpensier (1662) "a person of high standing and excellent mind, who is content to do beautiful things, without his name ever being published" (French library, 1667). Jean Donneau de Visé, for his part, is more physiognomist when he writes in Love escaped in 1669, making up the identity of the person concerned under the pseudonym of Hyperide: "Hyperide has a pleasant size, and a lot of pleasures in the face […]. Never has one had more wit and discernment than she has. She not only knows everything witty women need to know, but also everything that can make men look gallant and skillful. Besides her language where she is admired, she knows five or six others, and has read all there is beautiful books in all these languages. She writes perfectly well, and is not eager to show off her works. "


A reproduction engraving to tell posterity

Louis Elle has devoted himself to reproduction printmaking, allowing his portraits to be shown to a select audience. In the XVIIIe century, the desire to highlight the glories of France, including Madame de La Fayette, gives Louis Elle's portrait of the woman of letters a real posterity, to such an extent that engraving, widely distributed by the drop in costs of manufacture in the XIXe century, retains the trace of the initial portrait, now lost. It was the engraver Étienne Jehandier Desrochers who fixed the print after the portrait of Louis Elle before 1741, and it was the latter who then served as a model to duplicate the portrait of Madame de La Fayette.

With the engraving, the portrait changes meaning: initially a traditional mark of the presence in the world of a noble woman who wanted to leave in the society she frequented the mark of her intelligence and her culture, the portrait of the Countess of La Fayette quickly embodies the archetype of the woman writer whose pen contributed to the glory of the Grand Siècle - the anonymity of The Princess of Cleves will not really be raised until 1780. However, no precise attribute comes to guide such a reading; it is simply the effect of an outward projection of all that the literary imagination carries on the portrait of Madame de La Fayette.

  • Louis XIII
  • Anne of Austria
  • Molière (Poquelin Jean-Baptiste, known as)
  • living room
  • Paris
  • Sling
  • women
  • Acadamy of Arts
  • portrait
  • Great Century
  • feminism


Roger DUCHÊNE, Madame de La Fayette, Paris, Fayard, 2000.

Madame de LA FAYETTE, Complete Works, edition drawn up, presented and annotated by Camille ESMEIN-SARRAZIN, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Gallimard, Paris, 2014.

Elodie VAYSSE, The Elle “Ferdinand”, a heritage painting. A Parisian workshop in the Grand Siècle (1601-1717), thesis of the École des Chartes, 2015.

To cite this article

Jean HUBAC, "The Countess of La Fayette"

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