Who are those people in the paintings? 

Between the departure of the King Tut exhibit March 28 and the arrival of the Musée d’Orsay Impressionists on May 22, there remains a wealth of art in The City, in the permanent collections of the de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor, where “Cartier and America” runs through May 9.

What should the spring visitor look for?

Fine Arts Museums’ Robin Wander calls attention to the “people in the paintings.”

In the Legion’s European Gallery 7, look at the boy in Joseph Boze’s 1785 portrait of Louis-Antoine de Bourbon, the Duke of Angoulême, who eventually became the king of France — for less than half an hour.

He was 10 when he posed for the painting; King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were his godparents. Two years later, they decided he should marry his cousin, their daughter, Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte de France, who was 9 at the time.

With the French Revolution came the execution of the king and queen, but the wedding finally did take place in 1799, making the boy in the painting the last crown prince of France.

In 1830, Charles X, Louis-Antoine’s father, was forced to abdicate, which he did, crying copiously. At that moment, Louis-Antoine automatically became King Louis XIX — for 20 minutes. That’s how long it took his wife — afraid of her mother’s fate befalling on her — to talk Louis-Antoine into giving up the throne. As a consequence, he retains the title of “shortest-ever reigning king” to this day.

Back to Marie Antoinette: The queen’s favorite painter was Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, one of the most successful French artists of the 18th century. The official portraitist of the royal court escaped with her life as the revolution began.

A treasure in the Legion’s European Gallery 16 is her appealing 1791 painting of Hyacinthe Gabrielle Roland, created in Rome where the artist and subject sought refuge from the reign of terror in their country.

The painting’s story is the stuff of which romance novels are made. At the time of the portrait, Roland was the mistress of Richard Colley Wellesley, brother of the Duke of Wellington. The affair produced five children before the two tied the knot in 1794, and Roland became Marchioness Wellesley, ranking below a duchess and above a countess.

One of their daughters became the great-great-grandmother of the present Queen Elizabeth II of England.

In the opposite vein is a scary portrait by James McNeill Whistler called “The Gold Scab” or “The Creditor” in the American Gallery 24 at the de Young.

The 1879 painting was the result of a dispute with his patron Frederick R. Leyland, a British shipping magnate. Having created an unusual interior for Leyland’s London townhouse, but forced into bankruptcy, Whistler took revenge on his creditor with this mocking work.

Leyland is depicted as a hideous peacock, sitting upon Whistler’s house as if it were an obscene egg. Using the same colors as he had for Leyland’s Peacock Room, Whistler caricatures Leyland’s miserliness, piano skills and habit of wearing frilled shirts.

 

IF YOU GO

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

  • Where: De Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive; Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 34th Avenue and Clement Street, S.F.
  • When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. daily, except closed Mondays
  • Tickets: $10 general; extra for special exhibits
  • Contact: (415) 750-3600, www.famsf.org

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