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  • Picturing Sisters: 1790 Portraits by J.-L. David
  • Jerrine E. Mitchell (bio)

In the early part of the year 1790 two women sat for their portraits before the painter Jacques-Louis David. The sitters, Anne-Marie-Louise Thélusson, Comtesse de Sorcy, and Robertine Tourteau, Marquise d’Orvilliers, were the only women for whom portraits were completed and signed by David in 1790. The pictures they ordered were of the same size and the same format, each woman appearing seated and shown to just below the knee. The two women were sisters. This was the second time David had painted portraits of sisters. The earlier pictures, painted for Françoise-Charlotte LeCouteaulx de la Noraye and Jeanne-Jacqueline-Henriette Hocquart, were destroyed at some point during the sitters’ lifetimes. Both pairs of sisters who sat for portraits by David were recently married daughters of very wealthy bankers.

The foregoing enumeration of facts recapitulates an existing state of art historical knowledge, to introduce a question: does the sister relation between portrait subjects in these two cases count as a significant factor inviting comment, interpretation, or further investigation? It is only one of the three familial positions which have been used to characterize the women in the brief comments above. The other two—daughter and wife—establish feminine identity by specifying women’s relations to men (father; husband). The sister relation, the only relation among these specific to women, is also the least scrutinized in the literature on the portraits by David. [End Page 175]

The foregrounding of the sister relation as an art historical issue, however, is justified by the fact that portraits of sisters constitute a small but significant subgroup within the European portrait tradition. Portraits of female siblings represented independently of other family members, visually extracted from the larger family group 1 differ from the imaging of a family group in which parents might appear with daughters (sisters) as well as sons, or from the representation of mixed-gender siblings, both of which also occur regularly. Sister portraits have received scant attention as a distinct type. Art history’s silence in this respect is not unique; a similar pattern of elision regarding sisters characterizes other disciplines and discourses as well. I shall hypothesize a rationale for this pattern by underscoring the ambiguity of a sister position in families. Distinguishing it from others commonly assigned to women (daughter, wife, mother), I suggest that a sister position constitutes a singular vantage point for viewing feminine identity as constructed within the institution of the family, offering the potential for unexpected perspectives and different ways of seeing. Viewing portrait paintings from such a position might similarly result in readings more nuanced and multidimensional than those produced through routine avenues of inquiry, which tend to result in narratives such as the one with which I opened—suggestive but stalemated. This essay will pursue perspectives accessible from a sister position in the specific case of the 1790 portraits by David, an apologia utilizing visual evidence: other portraits of sisters; other types of portrait similarly formatted; and other portraits of women.

Both the experience and the concept of a sister relation vary in different historical periods and across different cultures. At the most basic level, however, a sister relation between individuals is constituted by the factors of shared parentage and common gender. It originates within the framework of a family formation consisting of parents and children—the nuclear family—and describes a position gendered specifically as feminine within that unit. To speak of sisters, therefore, is to broach issues of family and gender as well, and to speak of sisters as represented in the past is to invoke a complex history. Since the middle of the twentieth century, historical investigations of the Western European family have produced a body of hypotheses which now underlie most views of the eighteenth-century period relevant to the portraits by David. These investigations cite the growing preponderance of the conjugal (or nuclear) family in western Europe between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, a family type which supplanted the large extended kinship group with its strong non-familial community ties. 2 The shape of this family has shaped thinking about women...

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