Portrait of Louise-Antoinette-Scholastique Guéhéneuc, Madame la Maréchale Lannes, Duchesse de Montebello, with her Children, 1814
Baron François Gérard, French, 1770–1837
Oil on canvas
Canvas: 102 3/8 x 72 1/16 in. (260 x 183 cm) Frame: 116 1/2 × 86 1/4 × 5 in. (295.9 × 219.1 × 12.7 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the Brown Foundation Accessions Endowment Fund and the Alice Pratt Brown Museum Fund

Habits of Mind

  • OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
  • UNDERSTAND BIAS Understand assumption and various points of view / empathy

A Portrait's Point of View

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

  • Compose literary texts in the form of a journal entry
  • Analyze visual cues to demonstrate an understanding of different points of view
  • Draw conclusions and make inferences

GRADE LEVEL

9

10

11

12

SUBJECT AREA

Language Arts

HABITS OF MIND

Observe Details

Understand Bias

Connecting to the Work of Art

We're standing in a leafy park at the base of a statue with the family of Duchesse de Montebello. Every portrait tells a story. This great portrait by Baron Gerard tells a story of war and peace and specifically of a longing for peace.

The painter Gerard (a pupil of Jacques-Louis David) has posed the Montebello family in a leafy park standing at the base of a statue. Their group makes a kind of triangle in which the highest part is the mother, the Duchess. She is quietly beautiful in her simple yet elegant silk dress. A fabulous red cashmere scarf draped casually around her shoulders has brought the color accent and a hint of high Parisian fashion.

Her daughter, looking a bit older than her eight years, clings to her mother's side, while the four boys, all dressed in suits modeled on military uniforms, range in age from ten to thirteen. The family is missing their father. Jean Lannes, the first Duke of Montebello, was one of Napoleon's greatest generals. Jean Lannes was killed in battle in 1810, four years before his widow commissioned this portrait from Baron Gerard, the leading portraitist at the court. Gerard included the Duke's portrait symbolically in the form of a statue that is just glimpsed at the upper left side. It is towards him that his older son looks upward.

Jean Lannes made his fortune on the battlefield. He was born the son of a stables keeper, uneducated in school but immensely talented in the art of war. He rose through the ranks, fought in all of Napoleon's campaigns from Italy to Egypt to Austria. He received every honor and prize. He was made Marshal of France and Duc de Montebello in 1809, a title created for him after his great victory at the Battle of Montebello.

Napoleon said of Jean Lannes, "I found him a pygmy and left him a giant." It's an interesting figure of speech from the Little Emperor, who was only half as tall as his dear friend Lannes.

Jean Lannes the giant was mortally wounded by an Austrian cannonball, which we see painted at the foot of the statue. It is the symbol of his death, presented like the symbol of his martyrdom to the cause. His loving and devoted wife, the mother of five young children, kept her place at court (she was a favorite lady-in-waiting of Empress Louise) and was universally praised for her modesty and beauty. But the death of Jean Lannes changed everything. Not only the destinies of his wife and children, but also Napoleon's. Gerard's magnificent portrait makes its first impression for its great size. The portraits are almost life-sized, in fact. He has carefully and subtly grouped the family in a pyramidal form so that the very persons beneath the statue of the departed father and hero form the shape of a pyramid, a funerary monument, as a great token of homage to a lost hero.

After the loss of his devoted general, Napoleon's wars passed from defeat to defeat, from Russia to Waterloo. In 1814, the year this portrait was painted, Napoleon was sent into exile, and the Duchesse de Montebello quietly withdrew to her estate. The Duchesse chose to record the moment in this portrait and also to make a statement about her family's new life. Now they are far from the pomp and majesty of the imperial court that Gerard was famous for painting. They wear their military fortunes on their sleeves in the boys' suits, but the wars are over, a statue in a park. Now the mother must take charge and steer a safe course during the troubled years that would surely follow following the fall of their protector, Napoleon. She succeeded. The boys all grew up to distinguished careers in diplomacy and the army.

Gerard, who surpassed his former teacher Jacques-Louis David as the most fashionable portraitist of his day, captured this tender family group brilliantly. The tall figure of the mother dominates the pyramidal composition, the children grouped around her in a natural manner. The park of Maisons, vividly rendered, serves as a grandiose backdrop. Painted when Gerard was at the height of his powers and popularity, this work has all the hallmarks of his mature style: the highly finished surface, the brilliantly rendered textures, the classically balanced composition, and the subtle characterization of the sitters. Remarkable both for its grand scale and excellent condition, it is of impeccable provenance, having remained in the extended family of the sitters since its inception. This work stands out in Gerard's oeuvre as virtually unrivaled in size, scale and quality. No other museum in the US has a comparable work and even the Louvre cannot compete. Its acquisition would increase the importance of the MFAH's collection greatly.

As a footnote of specific interest to the Museum of Fine Arts, the young lad at lower left in the foreground, Ernest de Montebello, married and founded the family line of which Philippe de Montebello, a former director of this Museum, is descended.

Conversation Starters

Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking, and be careful about making assumptions.

Observations

  • Notice the subtle facial features of the family—we can tell they are related, but they are all clearly individuals—this is very hard to do as an artist.
  • What does each figure’s clothing and body language communicate about individual personality and interests?
  • Notice the creases in the Duchess’ dress—those wrinkles are an additional signal (albeit subtle) that this family is wealthy. She can afford to buy this beautiful dress and keep it folded away for most of the year. Dresses during this time were kept folded in chests.
  • Who is missing from this family portrait? The father, but he is there in the statue. Notice the oldest son is looking towards it. We are given clues to how the father died (cannonball at his feet, as well as the end of his sword).
  • How long do you think it took to paint this? Many months, or even a year perhaps. Do you think it was really painted outside? No, it was done in a studio and Gerard filled in the background later.
  • Notice the quality of the light falling on the family. This is not genuine outdoor light, it is too bright and flat—it looks artificial compared to the soft outdoor feel of Bouguereau’s Elder Sister (even though that was painted indoors as well). 

Connecting to the Classroom

Most learning standards are focused more on what students should learn rather than how they learn. In this lesson metacognitive skills are explicitly taught through planning, monitoring, evaluating and reflecting because the students are encouraged to build upon previous observations and inferences.

Assessment

Through reflective journals, students through inferencing, analyzing, synthesizing. Students must be able to understand point of view and how to apply different points of view to the same situation. 

Subject Matter Connection

A common English adage is: “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Observe this work of art and describe the subjects and setting. Use an oral language support strategy, such as turn and talk, to provide students with scaffolded interactions while formulating ideas and sharing thinking.  Record ideas on post it notes. Using a character anchor chart, pairs of students place post it notes under the character/family member listed on the cart. Make inferences about each character by repeatedly filling in the blanks in this sentence: “From what I observe _____, I infer that ______.”  Discuss inferences using evidence from the work of art.  Each student chooses one family member/character and writes a journal entry from that person’s point of view.


The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider