Nicolas Lancret, Mademoiselle de Camargo Dancing, c.1730 (P393)
Nicolas Lancret’s portrait of Mademoiselle de Camargo Dancing (fig. 1) has been chosen as this month’s Treasure of the Month as a unique work in the newly-refurbished Small Drawing Room, a room dedicated to French fêtes galantes.
Marie-Anne Cupis de Camargo (1710-1770) was one of the most famous ballerinas of the eighteenth century and the first great virtuoso of the Paris Opera. Born in Brussels, the daughter of a dance master, Mademoiselle de Camargo was brought to Paris at a young age to study under Mademoiselle Prévost. Famed during her lifetime for her athleticism as a performer, she introduced the simpler, shorter ballet skirt and ballet slippers which enabled her to move onstage with greater freedom and ease. Camargo was also well-known for her colourful personal life and was reputed to count many noblemen among her lovers. Camargo’s spirited style of dancing was markedly different to the demure Mademoiselle Sallé, her contemporary rival, who was also painted by Lancret.
Nicolas Lancret portrayed Camargo on several occasions. The Wallace Collection picture, executed by August 1730, is probably the earliest of these depictions. It is unusual in its fusion of two types of painting: the portrait and the fête galante, a type of outdoor feast in an idyllic setting. Equally unusual is its representation of Camargo. She is portrayed in terms of her features as well as in terms of her character. The painting thus became known as a portrait historié, (or an “historiated portrait”) and served as a prototype for dance-portraits by other artists of the same period.
Mademoiselle de Camargo is depicted in the very centre of the painting, her arms outstretched and her left foot lifted off the ground à demi-pointe. Through these gestures, Lancret effectively conveys the dynamism of her movement. Her costume is exquisitely detailed, with bows on the ruffled sleeves and flowers adorning the white skirt. Lancret in fact based both the pose and the setting of the portrait on contemporary costume prints (fig. 2) in which he was especially interested.
Her gaze leads the viewer towards the musicians in the shadowy background, accompanying her dance with music. These figures, rendered in earthy brown tones, contrast starkly with the pale whiteness of Camargo’s dress and skin and add to the sense that she is occupying centre stage. Comparisons with theatre are entirely valid since Lancret, like Jean-Antoine Watteau, had trained with Claude Gillot, a painter of theatrical scenes. Lancret, himself an admirer of the theatre, emphasizes the fantastical element of ballet while skillfully convincing the viewer of the picture’s veracity. Unusually, the picture was not acquired by the 4th Marquess of Hertford but by his son, Sir Richard Wallace, in 1872.
- Mary Taverner Holmes, Nicolas Lancret 1690-1743, exhibition catalogue, The Frick Collection, 1991
- Mary Taverner Holmes & Mark Leonard, A Dance Before a Fountain, Getty Publications, 2006