The Wallace Collection

Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, Polichinelle
Treasure of the Month - March 2009

Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, Polichinelle

J.-L-E. Meissonier (1815-91) was one of the favourite artists of the 4th Marquess of Hertford, the father of Sir Richard Wallace and the principal collector of the paintings now in the Wallace Collection.

Although he had only a brief artistic training, Meissonier had an enormously successful career, his usually small-scale, meticulously detailed paintings being much sought after by the financial and social elite of mid-nineteenth century France. In all there are sixteen of his pictures in the Wallace Collection, at least fourteen of which were acquired by Lord Hertford (who lived in Paris). This one is particularly interesting, in part because of its personal associations with Richard Wallace.

The picture is painted on a pine panel which once formed part of a door, the raised knots in the panel can still be seen clearly. The door was in the Paris apartment of Apollonie Sabatier (1822-90), a famous courtesan who held regular salons attended by many artists and writers, including Baudelaire, Flaubert, Gautier and Meissonier himself. Richard Wallace (1818-1890) also went to these salons, and Madame Sabatier is said to have become his mistress in either the 1840s or the 1860s. The panel was cut from the door and retouched by the artist for the sale of Madame Sabatier’s collection in 1861, only one year after Meissonier had painted the picture. There Lord Hertford bought it for 13,000 francs (about £520), a considerable sum. Whether this was at Richard Wallace’s prompting is unknown, but it is perfectly possible as Wallace was an important influence on the formation of his father’s collection.

This is one of several whole-length figures of ‘Polichinelle’ (‘Punch’ in English) painted by Meissonier. As one of the main characters of the commedia dell’arte, the improvised and often lewd entertainment of Italian origin featuring professional actors in stock roles such as Columbine and Harlequin, the louche figure of Punch, with his pot belly and mischievous smile, was an appropriate decoration for the apartment of a celebrated courtesan. As with the cavaliers painted by Meisonnier (either side of this painting) which complemented Lord Hertford’s Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals, Polichinelle complemented the paintings by Watteau and his followers in the collection. These artists also depicted figures from the commedia dell’arte, but in a much more decorous manner (you can see pictures by them in the Small Drawing Room). Meisonnier’s Polichinelle is one of many nineteenth-century paintings to evoke the eighteenth century – An Artist showing his Work and Halt at an Inn are two other examples on this wall by Meisonnier himself – but Polichinelle, as is usually the case with Meisonnier, avoids the nostalgic charm so often associated with subjects of this kind (compare it with Roqueplan’s A Sentimental Conversation, on the other wall to the left of the Meisonniers).

Madame Sabatier can probably be seen in another painting by Meissonier, A l’ombre des bosqets chante un jeune poète (P326), painted in 1852-3, on the upper far left of this wall. She is almost certainly the lady standing on the right in the pink dress.

© The Trustees of the Wallace Collection, 2009.
Text by Stephen Duffy.

Further Reading

  • Stephen Duffy and Jo Hedley, The Wallace Collection’s Pictures. A Complete Catalogue, London, The Wallace Collection, 2004.