Monday, October 29, 2012

Whiskered Wonder

Maison Tavel is Geneva's oldest still-standing house, dating back to the eleventh century. Due to the small size of Geneva's historic Vieux Ville and the fact that it costs nothing to get in, the house has been a regular spot on my Chateau Lockett Visitor tour.

Despite assuming a familiarity with the permanent exhibits, two pictures leapt out at me during the last visit.

The first lady was found in the kitchen, near the enormous wood fireplace. Portrait de la mere Lacroix, painted by Jean-Baptiste Bonjour around 1840.



She's no oil painting (tish boom) but her self satisfaction is as evident as her enjoyment of the restaurant meals she supposedly made with her husband.

There's no readily-available information on Mrs Lacroix or the painter in English, but the museum curator said that she was well known in Geneva for her homely and generous cooking. No argument there - the portrait depicts a woman who loves her work. And licking a ladle or two.

In the same room, but almost missed due to being placed in the doorway, was this one:



No, it's not Paul Simon in disguise, but La mere Robineau, poissonniere a Geneve a l'age 72 ans, painted in 1847.  Hang about - la mere - Missus. With a mo and a goatee any hipster would be proud of.

Why did Monsieur Bonjour (hello...? Why is his surname 'Hello'?) paint her with such, um, honesty?

If she'd been Queen Anne - who had been described by her lady-in-waiting and supposed best friend Sarah Churchill as 'exceeding gross and corpulent' and was later buried in a square coffin - the artist would have merely made her slightly on the husky side and kept any uncomely features out of his mind and off the canvas.

But if you're a seventy two year old fishwife with good scaling skills and facial hair to make any 1970s action star envious, then every single imperfection is ripe for the painting. I felt sorry for her; this woman I'd never met who'd been born a couple of years before Captain Cook proudly plonked a flag of arrogant ownership in the sand of Sydney. On second thought, there seemed to be very few greys for someone entering their eighth decade on earth.

A few floors away was an enormous panoramic picture of La place du Molard en 1843. My first reaction was to scowl: this was the spot where my wallet had been stolen, so it harbored no nice memories for me. But, seeing as the picture was so large - at least three metres wide - it became apparent that the people in the street weren't just scenic fodder, but had been depicted extremely well, ensuring that famous Genevan personalities were deliberately featured.

And there, on the left, I saw her: la mere Robineau, at work. Black dress, white cap and that unmistakable goatee.  This is merely the postcard I purchased before leaving, so you'll have to take my word for it that, in full size, Goatee Gal was instantly spotted.

Despite her pungent-smelling poisson pursuits and lowly origin, she was clearly a person of note in Geneva during the 19th Century. Apart from the old guy in the white Santa Claus beard on the far right, she had more facial hair than any other person in the painting, male or female.



Frustratingly, I was unable to find a single morsel of information on La mere Robineau or the artist. Was her portrait commissioned by a proud Monsieur Robineau or was she a figure of fun in the town, or famed for pursuits and deeds beyond gutting a guppy in record time ....?

I don't know. But I like her and reckon she'd have had some stories to tell.

..... she might also have brandished her knife ala Crocodile Dundee and scared away the pick pocket who fancied the contents of my handbag.....

17 comments:

Anji said...

An interesting tour, thank you. I looked for La mère Robineau on Google and came up with.... your post. Now you see you've internetized her for future generations.

Kath Lockett said...

Thanks Anji. I think I might see if I can chat to one of Maison Tavel's staff to find out if they know anything more about her.

River said...

Someone is playing tricks I think.
And very cleverly too.
Take a closer look at the second painting.
He/she has man hands and appears to be holding an electronic device. I-pod? Phone?

Andrew said...

River, are you suggesting the painting is not authentic? Surely that is a gin flask 'she' is holding.

diane b said...

You were observant to find her in the painting of the square. I should have lived then and I wouldn't have to be worrying about removing facial hair. She certainly looks like an interesting character. Find out more. Liked your play on words hee hee.

Kirstie said...

I love the idea that La Mere Robineau was a well-known/important woman and didn't seem to care about her facial hair. Screw you modern ideas of beauty!

Suki-joshi said...

I love the idea that La Mere Robineau was a well-known/important woman and didn't seem to care about her facial hair. Screw you modern ideas of beauty!

Jackie K said...

This is fascinating. Two working women of note enough to have their portraits painted, neither of them a beauty but both with their faces showing interest and feeling. I think the painter has painted them honestly (we assume) but sympathetically (probably helped him get paid I guess). And I think the lady in the first painting was probably beautiful when young, if you look at her face it seems she may have been.
Loved this post!

mele said...

This post is hilarious! Kath, you must give us Australians stuck in the colonial backwaters an "alternative tour of the artworks of Europe".

Kath Lockett said...

River, I got a very good look at Mrs Robineau and she's definitely a good Swiss woman with her fold up, early model pocket knife. :)

Andrew, 'she' might have felt like a gin or two after seeing that every strand of facial hair was painted!

Thanks dianeb, I will try to find out more....

Kirstie, you make a good point. Then again, if it was really that okay to not pluck, why weren't any noble women painted with moustaches?

Jackie, I think you're right about Mere Lacroix - a rather beautiful face now aged and showing the effects of 24/7 access to the pantry...

Kath Lockett said...

Mele, I like the way you think.... you have sown a few seeds now!

The Elephant's Child said...

Both of these ladies give some hope to those of us who were born at more than a size zero and have increased since then. And have hair issues. Though a tracery rather than that pronounced mo and goatee. There is a sales assistant at one of our supermarkets who would give her a run for her money though. And said sales assistant is warm, chatty and engaging each time I come across her.

Red Nomad OZ said...

Maybe the facial hair was such a feature of this intriguing woman the artist couldn't NOT leave it out?? Now you'll just HAVE to find out more - maybe it could all go into your 'alternative art tour for aussies' book??

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Kath,

At least they are proper paintings - not awful abstract daubs!

Are you sure that second one isn't a man?

:0)

Cheers

PM

drb said...

Great post. Intriguing portrait, yes, please update on your detective works.

Pandora Behr said...

It looks like Poly Cystic Ovary Syndrome was alive and well even back then. Great post. Makes me want to come over and have a look for myself.

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