The best of both worlds
Organised every year since the mid-1980’s, the European Heritage Days aim to shed light on works and places that are usually unknown to the public. The ideal opportunity for the curious, as well as for experienced Tintinophiles, to discover the hidden face of a painting – not a background painting, but rather a first-rate one – preserved in the very private cellars of Marlinspike Hall.
A picture within a picture
This is the special feature of vignette D3 on page 60 of Red Rackham’s Treasure. And this vignette is far from anecdotal, since it features the discovery of the hiding place housing the loot of the famous pirate from The Adventures of Tintin.
The statue of St. John the Evangelist, the cross he holds in his hand and his totemic eagle help the young reporter and his unfailing sailor friend to solve the enigma bequeathed to them by Sir Francis Haddock.
If you look closely, Hergé is effectively superimposing two visuals here: the composition featuring his heroes, of course, but not only that, since he is surreptitiously slipping in another image, largely obscured by the captain in the front row.
But more focused on what they've come for, the two men forget to look at what they have in their hands. In this case: a work of art.
A work of art, yes, but which one? That's the question!
In search of clues...
The painting appears at the beginning of the second strip, before Tintin points in its direction six frames later. And if this figurine is in a good position, it's because it partly hides the alcove they're interested in.
The two friends quickly get closer to the figure to examine it, but, despite the new viewing angle and the close-up, it's difficult to learn more because the intriguing painting is sitting on the floor, with its pictorial face against the wall.
One obvious clue is its size. This is a large-format painting, taller than it is wide. Proportions usually reserved for genre works – in particular, history paintings and portraits.
Finally, we should note in passing the perfect state of conservation of this canvas mounted on a stretcher, magnified by a frame with a thick, flat moulding, presumably gilded or made of light wood. There is no doubt that Hergé's two heroes are in the presence of an oil painting.
Mystery and a fur ball
Once turned over, the investigation continues.
Although it's not very easy, it's still possible to make out a number of significant pictorial details.
But one thing is certain: the image depicted is a portrait.
The subject stands out clearly against a plain background, painted in a pale, subtle pink-grey monochrome. The silhouette – cinched at the waist – indicates that it is a female figure in profile. The model is dressed in a two-tone pink and blue-mauve dress that blends perfectly with the background.
The model also wears a soft shawl-like stole over her shoulders and a large top hat topped with a feather and ribbon plume on her head. Proof that the artist behind this composition attached great importance to the dress and fashion of the time.
As for the hairstyle, it provides a good indication of the period, as the hair is worn long, curly and, above all, loose. According to research by historians and art historians, wigs were gradually abandoned from the 18th century onwards, in favour of natural, powdered styles. This hair fashion was introduced by Queen Marie-Antoinette herself.
A final detail that really catches the eye: the wearer's left arm is folded over the chest, ending in a thick, luxurious fur muff.
Question for champions
After careful examination of the work, here are the clues and pieces of information we now have to help us identify it:
- A large-format oil painting
- A subtle, pastel palette
- A portrait of a richly dressed woman
- A hairstyle characteristic of the 18th century
- A fur muff
The final "hint at home":
Fine and delicate, this pictorial style of painting is none other than that of… a woman!
The creator of the painting we're looking for was, in fact, an official painter – and renowned pastellist – who pursued her career at the time of Marie-Antoinette.
A talented portraitist, her paintings were always intended to sublimate the beauty of women and their finery.
Now it's time to solve the mystery by answering one final question: which portrait from this artist's output did Hergé draw inspiration from to bring his cartoon to life?