by Doctor Science
This week in the Dept. of Now For Something Completely Different: I've been wondering why, though diamonds have been popular among upper-class Europeans for centuries, they rarely appear in European portraits.
I can see you've got an open thread cued up, LJ, but since it's no longer Friday where you are I'm going to post this anyway. Feel free to use it as an open thread if you feel like it.
I noticed this a year or so, when I happened to read The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour by Joan DeJean. A lot of the book is about Louis XIV and his court, and DeJean talks about how Louis collected diamonds and made them a huge fashion:
On Feb. 19, 1715, at the last court function he was able to carry off before his death later that year, the reception for the Persian ambassador, Mehemet Riza Beg, the King demonstrated just how far he had taken the art of the diamond in the years since 1669 and proved to the entire world that no one would ever be more successful at the playing the role of The King. He appeared with the Blue Diamond hanging around his neck; elsewhere on his person he displayed virtually the entire collection of crown jewels, all 12 million livres' worth. The outfit was so heavy that, royal chroniclers reported, the King had to rush away immediately after dinner to take it off.I hadn't realized that Louis XIV had been so fond of the Liberace look, so I went looking for pictures. This is where things got a bit odd.
During the long years of his rule, Louis and his jewelers had become highly imaginative about finding a place for astonishing quantities of diamonds on a man's body. The King's hat was adorned with a pin made up of seven big stones, the largest of which weighed 44 carats. There were diamonds on the hilt of his sword, on his shoe buckles, even on his garter buckles. Above all, every item of his clothing sported diamond buttons, diamond-surrounded buttonholes, and sprays of diamond extending from the buttonholes-- up and down the front opening, along every pocket, all up the sleeves and the side slits, and even all down the back slit of his frock coat. In the 123 buttons on his overgarment alone, the King showed off at least 1,500 carats of diamonds. Because his clothes had been turned into a sort of pretext for the display of diamonds, Louis' person must have been least as dazzling as the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, in which the Persian ambassador was received. Not other ruler has ever matched the caratage worn by Louis XIV. Of this final reception of his reign, the Duc de Saint-Simon remarked that "the King was bursting with diamonds; he sagged under their weight." Today, we love words such as "glitz" and "bling": they might have been invented with this man in mind.
I quickly found Antoine Coypel's painting of Louis XIV receiving the Persian Ambassadors:
--but where is the bling? Here is a closeup of Louis:
and although there are some bits of sparkly trim, presumably diamonds, he certainly doesn't seem to be dripping with them. Most strikingly, there is no trace of the Blue Diamond.
The Blue Diamond, also known as the "French Blue", was a huge, dark-blue diamond. It disappeared during the French Revolution, only to re-appear several decades later, cut down to form the Hope Diamond. This is *not* the kind of item you overlook.
I have wasted a shocking amount of time looking, and I cannot find any image of Louis XIV wearing the Blue. In 1749 Louis XV had the Blue incorporated into an emblem for the Order of the Golden Fleece. The emblem was reconstructed in 2008:
Louis XV frequently displayed the Order's emblem in portraits, but the only image I can find in which he is apparently wearing this staggeringly bejeweled emblem is a painting by Carle Van Loo, which the curators at Versailles merely date "1751-1775". A close-up of the emblem:
shows a design which isn't exactly like the reconstructed Great Emblem. And if one of these stones is the French Blue, it doesn't look particularly blue.
I now fell into an Internet research vortex, looking for how diamonds are shown in pre-19th century portraits. The brief answer: not much. Pearls are *everywhere*, but not diamonds. Or at least, not obviously.
What I eventually realized is that diamonds were being painted as *dark*. For instance, here's the detail of the bodice in a portrait of Marie de' Medici, c. 1600:
The diamond-shaped shiny gray things are actually diamonds, I think. You can see the same basic treatment of diamonds in a portrait by Augustin Justinat of the young Louis XV from 1717:
I'm not actually sure which elements on the coat are the diamonds -- are they the greyish blobs? or the blackish lumps? -- but I'm quite certain the eight-pointed brooch or emblem has a group of diamonds in the center. As in Marie de' Medici's portrait, they look like rather steely glass.
In Marie Antoinette's 1775 coronation portrait the diamonds in her hair are a bit more recognizable:
--though to my eye they still look more like metal than jewels.
The Regent Diamond is a major French Crown Jewel. Louis XV often wore it on his hat, and, later, Marie-Antoinette did so as well. In a 1785 picture of Marie-Antoinette and her children walking in the garden, the Regent is rather dark:
Compare this to the diamond as it is in the Louvre today:
The collection of French crown jewels was broken up in the tumults of the Revolution. The French Blue disappeared for good, only to turn up decades later re-cut as the Hope Diamond. The Regent was briefly stolen, but Napoleon redeemed it and had it mounted on his ceremonial sword when he became emperor. In this detail from a portrait by Francois Gerard, you can see that the diamond looks a lot more diamond-like than in previous outings, though still not as shiny as it appears today:
All of a sudden, going only a few years into the 19th century, I start to find pictures of diamonds that actually look like diamonds. The best are in miniatures by Louis-Marie Autissier. This portrait of Marie-Antoinette's only surviving child, Princess Marie Thérèse (the Duchess of Angoulême) is only about ten inches high:
but Autissier depicts the diamonds in her tiara *perfectly*:
What I really don't understand is why no painter seems to have done this before. Yes, this kind of detail isn't easy, but that's what portrait-painters of the rich and famous were *paid* for, and when it came to depicting rich fabrics, lace, and pearls, they spared no effort or expense -- look at any of the pictures in this collection about lace in art for examples.
So what was it about diamonds that was so difficult? Did they actually look dark to painters before 1800, somehow? Was it something about the lighting? I notice that these days Versailles' Hall of Mirrors gives the overwhelming impression of *light*, but historical depictions, like the picture of Louis XIV receiving the Persians, above, emphasize neither the light nor the reflections in the room. Was it lack of artificial lighting? Or of glass-cleaning technology?
As for the painters, I also wonder if they maybe traditionally used some technique to paint diamonds that was unstable --something like painting a layer of a silver compound, which then tarnished. But surely they would have noticed that this was happening, and experiment until they got effects like Autissier did in the early 19th C.
Noticing things is easy; noticing that you're *not* seeing something is hard.