The sitter in this portrait is Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron, Duchess of Polignac (born in 1749, died in 1793). She is best remembered as the favourite companion of the infamous Queen of France, Marie Antoinette (born in 1755, died in 1793). Gabrielle (as she was known) was considered one of the great beauties of pre-revolutionary society. She was the subject of several portraits by prominent artists of that time, such as Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (born in 1755, died in 1793).
Gabrielle was born into an aristocratic family, encumbered with debts. She was married off as a young women to Jules François Armand, comte de Polignac (born in 1746, died in 1817). Despite their privileged position within the French ruling class, the couple had limited financial means and considerable debt. This changed in 1975 when Gabrielle was invited to a formal reception at the Court at Versailles. Marie Antoinette was so drawn to her easy-going nature that she invited Gabrielle to move permanently to Versailles. Gabrielle initially refused because of the costs involved in living at Court. However, the young Queen was so determined to keep her new favourite by her side, that she agreed to settle her whole family’s debts.
Once installed in the palace Gabrielle’s elegant, calm and sophisticated manner ensured she quickly became the leader of the Queen’s intimate circle. She gained the approval of King Louis XVI. In 1780, her husband was given the title of duc de Polignac, making her the Duchess of Polignac. However, Gabrielle’s quick ascent to such a prominent position attracted great resentment within the Court. The French public also became suspicious of the favouritism bestowed on the Polignac family.
The Queen’s intimate relationship with the Duchess became the frequent subject of the defamatory stories and prints, called ‘libelles’, that flooded the streets of Paris in the 1780s. Revolutionaries produced these prints to further discredit the monarchy. They often capitalised on the deep-rooted suspicion of homosexuality (then known as the ‘German Vice’) in France. Several suggested that the Duchess and the Queen were lesbian lovers and some were pornographic. One famous print, for example, pictured the pair locked together naked in a lesbian embrace. In the face of intense public hatred, the Duchess was one of the first courtiers to flee Versailles on July 16, 1789. She died in exile, in Austria, in December 1793.
Though there is little evidence to suggest that Marie-Antoinette and the Duchess of Polignac were having a sexual relationship their letters demonstrate at least an intense and loving attachment. A letter, written 1790, from Marie-Antoinette to the Duchess, declares, for example, that ‘only death can make me stop loving you’. Indeed, the idea of the pair as a lesbian couple has persisted. Recent films such as Farewell My Queen (2012), directed by Benoit Jacquot, have focused on the intense relationship between the pair. Such images have helped to inspire Marie-Antoinette’s recent resurrection as a lesbian icon.
Lord Lever had a large collection of miniature portraits such as this one. They were normally encased in gold lockets or elaborately framed. Several of them featured members of the French royal family and aristocracy. Lever bought existing miniature collections from other collectors. He was advised by the London art dealer Frank Partridge who bid at auction sales on his behalf.