The Countess's father was the Baron Alfred Renouard de Bussière (1804-1887), banker and captain of industry in Strasbourg ; her mother was Laure Sophie Mélanie de Coehorn, daughter of a General at the service of the French Empire, who died in 1813, at the Battle of Leipzig. In 1857, Mélanie married Edmond de Pourtalès-Gorgier (1828-1895), who also came from a family of financiers from Switzerland. The couple had five children, including Hubert (1863-1949, see lot 162), who married Marguerite de Schickler (1870-1956), owner of Martinvast.
Mélanie de Pourtalès lived with her husband in the famous Hôtel de Pourtalès, built in 1820 by Félix Duban. The Countess hosted one of the most fashionable and brilliant Salons in Paris. She was a good friend of Princess Pauline de Metternich (1836-1921), whose Salon competed with hers, as well as of Empress Eugénie, who often invited her to her "Mondays" and to her receptions in Compiègne.
However, her reputation did not only stem from her position as a hostess and figure of the Parisian high society. Generous, gentle, and gifted with a sense of humor, she was also renowned for her elegance and legendary beauty. As it happens, her beauty was the subject of many stories : one of these tales tells of a soirée hosted by the Minister Duchâtel, just after he bought Ingres's famous Source. As the guests were admiring the beautiful nudity of Ingres' nymph, one of them exclaimed, while pointing both at Mélanie and the painting,"Ah! Here is Madame de Pourtalès in her daytime clothes and in her night-time clothes"
According to tradition, Winterhalter's portrait was executed in 1857, the year in which the Countess and Edmond de Pourtalès married and were expecting their first child. This splendid painting was most likely commissioned to commemorate one of these two events, and the artist pours all his virtuosity into his depiction of the seventeen years old Countess's gracious beauty.
In a skillful rendering of precious fabric such as silk and muslin, Winterhalter recalls the XVIIIth century golden age of French aristocratic portrait. Set against a background of barely distinguishable foliage, the Countess gazes out softly at the viewer.
Kept in the family until today by her descendants, the Portrait of the Countess Mélanie de Pourtalès is an admirable testimony of this young woman's remarkable beauty, the rich intellectual and socialite life in Paris during the Second Empire, and Winterhalter's talent at his best.
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