Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture
The Duke of Orléans showing his Lover
by Eugène Delacroix, c.1825-26
The Duke of Orleans has risen to dress, leaving his mistress in bed. Suddenly her husband, the Chamberlain, enters. The Duke quickly pulls the bedsheet over her head, protecting her identity and reputation but inadvertently revealing – indeed, displaying – her lower body to the Chamberlain. With bittersweet irony, the Chamberlain congratulates the Duke on his lover’s form…
Delacroix was around 25 when he painted this small piece, which is derived from a tale collected by Pierre de Bourdeille, Abbe de Brantome, in the 16th century. Both artist’s and writer’s works were often charged with sensuality and this highly erotic picture generates a real frisson. Its complex image of triple voyeurism – Duke and Chamberlain, Chamberlain and wife, wife and viewer – is constructed with great confidence, simultaneously sustaining and breaking down the picture plane through use of proportion and the placement of bed, cushion, sheet and drapery.
All three characters in this drama are clearly defined through their faces and body language, from the Chamberlain, ignorant of his cuckolding, to his wife, coy yet fully aware. Delacroix uses her as the fulcrum of the image, controlling his paint to modify the light on both halves of her body and define her creamy skin.
Oil on canvas, 35 x 25.5cm, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid (image wga.hu)
a work in 200 words