19th Century European Paintings

Belle Epoque: Exhibition Champions the Era of Jane Lady Abdy

By Claude Piening

A s I walked through the Musée d’Orsay’s current lavish exhibition, Spectaculaire Second Empire, I was immediately struck by how much Jane Lady Abdy would have enjoyed the show, and by how it chimed with her own tastes and collection, selections of which form the core of Sotheby’s Online Sale, La Belle Epoque.


While as an art dealer Lady Jane championed Scandinavian art to an international clientele, her personal collection reflected her penchant for the elegance of late nineteenth-century France, and in particular of the Second Empire reigned over by Emperor Napoleon III (1852-70). Herself a grande dame of London society, and one of the last of her generation to host regular salons at her home in Pelham Place, many of her drawings and prints, of notable personalities and depicting the fashions of belle époque France, would have sat perfectly in the exhibition.


The main theme of the show is the fête impériale - Imperial celebration - ranging from lavish events hosted by the court, to fashions, and the burgeoning theatre and opera scene of those hedonist decades. Paintings, sculptures, photographs, architectural drawings, objets d’art and jewellery create a mesmerising portrait of this gilded era. Portraits by the court painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter (a grand portrait of whose hung over Lady Jane’s fireplace) include not only those of Napoleon and Eugénie, but of social celebrities and the bourgeoisie too, among them renowned opera singer Adelina Patti.


Lady Jane’s collection includes a watercolour by Walford Graham Robertson of Sarah Bernhardt, another star of the time whose appearances at the Comédie française and at the Théâtre de l’Odéon in the 1860s enthralled audiences, and whose fame outlived her and persists to this day; while a suite of prints by James Tissot (Lots 18-29) is particularly evocative of the period, none more so than L’Ambitieuse, of the belle of the ball decked in a flowing silk dress reflecting the latest Parisian haute couture, seeking to make an impression in an age in which appearance meant everything.

It is timely that the era Jane championed is now the subject of such a comprehensive retrospective.

Spectaculaire Second Empire is on view at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, until 15 January 2017.

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