The Mysterious Armenian Woman from Napoleon III to The Present Day

In these difficult and politically complex post-war times, it seems absurd to present an art history review of a random painting in some museum in a distant city, even though that city is London. The museum I am talking about is Wallace Collection, Lord Wallace’s art collection.

What is the Wallace Collection? The history of the collection dates back to the 18th century, when Francis Seymour-Conway (1719-1794), 1st Marquess of Hertford, who was England’s ambassador to France, began looking for works of art. He bought six Canaletto paintings, as well as many treasures of Dutch Fine Art which are still in the Collection.

His son, 2nd Marquess of Hertford (1743-1822), acquired Manchester House in the centre of London, the house where the family’s works of art and paintings began to be installed, and the collection is still there today.

There was also the 3rd Marquess of Hertford, Francis Charles Seymour-Conway (1777-1822), or Lord Yarmouth as he was known in society. He began to collect works of art especially after he married the daughter of the Duke of Queensberry, who was quite wealthy. He was an aesthete and thanks to him, the collection was enriched with paintings of the Dutch school, oil paintings by Titian and Rembrandt, and the famous French Boulle furniture of 18th century, for which French furniture makers used tortoise shell and bronze inlays, as well as magnificent terracotta dishes, jugs, old gilded clocks, porcelain dinner sets made in Sevres, marble statues, ancient weapons and armoury of medieval knights.

The Meeting of Elephants

Nonetheless, the greatest influence on this collection was left by the 4th Marquess of Hertford, Richard Seymour-Conway (1800-1870). He was associated with the English embassy in Constantinople for some time, which explains his love for weapons and paintings on oriental themes. Over the years, thanks to him, the works of Fragonard and Boucher, Murillo and Velazquez, Antoine Watteau and Poussin were also added to the collection. The collection includes magnificent Van Dycks and Rubenses, that he acquired together with Rembrandt’s

‘Titus, the Artist’s Son’, and the famous ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ by Frans Hals. And the subject of our discussion ‘An Armenian Woman’, was also bought by the 4th Marquess of Hertford.

After the 4th Marquis the work was continued by Sir Richard Wallace. He was the illegitimate son of the Marquis (1818-1890) and bore his mother’s surname, Wallace. Having no other heirs, the 4th Marquess bequeathed the collection to Richard Wallaces, after whose death the collection passed to his widow, Lady Wallace, by his will. Lady Wallace, in turn, donated the entire collection to the nation and England in 1897, on the condition that nothing must be moved and the collection never travels. Because of this, the pieces of art have remained exactly where they were before Lady Wallace’s death.

I told all this to assure you that the picture of the unknown Armenian woman is in safe hands and has been displayed in the museum for about 150 years, enchanting the visitors.

I honestly want to admit that when I first saw the picture many years ago, I felt extremely proud. And I still feel proud. Perhaps that pride was created because I am also an Armenian woman, like the woman in the picture in this important collection. ‘Armenians are even here’ I thought back then.

The painting can be called ‘The Mysterious Armenian Woman’ because absolutely nothing is known about the art model. And why the author called the painting ‘Armenian woman’, no one knows. I talked with Christie’s auction house oriental art specialist Arne Everwijn and researchers from the Wallace collection. Unfortunately, they did not have enough information about this painting.

And now, I think, it’s time to describe this beautiful and unique work of art. ‘An Armenian Woman’ is the work of Charles Zachary Landell (1821-1908), a French 19th-century artist, painted in 1866. Who was Charles Landell? In 1852, he received the Legion d’honneur, the highest and most honourable order of appreciation in France, and in 1859, commissioned by Napoleon III, he painted the drawing room of the Elysée Palace. He travelled a lot in the Middle East and North Africa, lived in Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco, and it is very possible that he met Armenians there.

Landell brought to France various things from his travels to use in his works later: clothes, shawls, oriental objects and jewellery.

However, the interesting part is that the painting ‘An Armenian Woman’ was made in Landell’s Parisian studio. After discovering this fact, I began to think: if so, maybe the native woman was an Armenian living in Paris. Or if we go deeper into conspiratorial speculations, perhaps Landell admired an Armenian woman so much during his travels that he felt the need and demand to make a painting of her in Paris, picturing her from memory.

The painting has a brief biography. Napoleon III bought ‘An Armenian Woman’ at the Paris Salon auction, beating other buyers.

The Meeting of Elephants

Then the painting was acquired by the 4th Marquess of Hertford. And since then, ‘An Armenian Woman’ has been in the collection of  Hertford family, in the Wallace Collection, in London. It’s a 128 x 80 cm oil painting, on canvas.

In the painting we see a noblewoman depicted in bright colours on a dark background. The painting is a unique specimen of the so-called “oriental” art, which became very fashionable in the 19th century. In my opinion, it is unique for the noble and feminine appearance of the depicted woman. The picture is beautiful and tasteful, without exaggerations, typical in oriental paintings. The woman is calmly and vaguely looking somewhere far, but it seems that she should turn around and look at us any minute. There is peace in her big dark eyes, and a small wrinkle in the corner of her red-painted lips, ready to turn into a smile. The beautiful left hand gracefully rests on the chest. The bright red dress, the matching white headscarf and gold jewellery create harmony.

I am overly proud of the painting, and as a matter of fact, I have visited the museum for many times just to see this very painting. The woman in the painting, beautifully and tastefully dressed, looks proud as well. She is holding her head high in a noble posture, looking kindly at the unknown. The viewer can feel her strength and confidence.

Well… it’s not surprising… it is exactly how Armenian women are: proud, noble and strong.

Nouneh Sarkissian