27. Princess Louisa Maria Theresa Stuart, by an unknown artist

by Dr Georgy Kantor – 25 February 2021
Dr Georgy Kantor discusses this portrait of an exiled member of the royal family, and how it relates to changing perceptions of the concept of childhood
Louisa Maria.png Louisa Maria Theresa Stuart, unknown artist, H 35.6 x W 28.6 cm, oil on canvas, early 18th century

The serious and slightly sad girl who looks at us from this portrait is Princess Louisa Maria Theresa Stuart, the daughter of (by then exiled) King James (II of England and VII of Scotland) and his queen Mary of Modena, and the sister of the ‘Old Pretender’. She was born in 1692 at St Germain-en-Laye, where James II was given refuge by Louis XIV, and was (in the words of W.A. Speck in the Oxford DNB) living as a ‘virtual recluse’ after his defeat in the battle of the Boyne, but, as this portrait shows, still very much in royal style. Her life was short – she died of smallpox in 1712, and it is difficult to look at her without thinking of that, particularly while the world is still gripped by the pandemic.

The exiled court was still closely linked to Versailles, and Louisa Maria quickly joined the French court scene. Madame de Maintenon, Louis XIV’s (not quite so) secret wife, refers to the small princess many times in her correspondence. For her, she was ‘her mother’s friend and chief comforter, truly cheerful, affable, and anxious to please, attached to her duties and fulfilling them without a murmur’. On another occasion, Madame de Maintenon wrote to Sophia of Hanover, when Louisa Maria was just four years old: ‘The princess will have a pretty figure. She does not talk much and does not understand French. In face she resembles her mother, but her eyes are more beautiful than the Queen’s. She is as sweet and gentle as a lamb.’

A number of portraits of Louisa Maria by French artists, of whom ours must be one, reflect her position at the French court society. Her changing image as she was growing up is superbly discussed in John Kerslake’s 1977 catalogue of Early Georgian Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery. Our portrait is definitely much later than the charming depiction of her with her elder brother painted in 1695 by Nicolas de Largillière, and perhaps contemporary with or slightly earlier then the portrait attributed to Alex Simon Belle at the National Portrait Gallery (which may be the same as he exhibited at the Salon of 1704). It is difficult to be more specific than that. The 1929 catalogue of college pictures attributes it to the school of Pierre Mignard, and the similarities are not difficult to see, notably in his portrayal of children (see, for example, this group portrait at the Laing Art Gallery on Art UK). As Mignard died in 1695, and this portrait is arguably about a decade later, though, further precision is not possible at the moment.

How this portrait got from France to England and came to be in the college’s collection is far from clear either. Rachael Lane Poole was unable to identify any trace of the portrait in eighteenth-century college catalogues, and yet it has undoubtedly been here for a long time, quite possibly since the eighteenth century indeed. The speculation that it may have been identical with the portrait acquired by President Holmes and identified then as the ‘Duchess of Queensberry’, does not seem to have any foundation. If the famous contemporary of Holmes, Catherine Hyde, the wife of the 3rd duke, was meant, the confusion between the two seems quite improbable. Are we dealing with the clandestine Jacobitism of Oxford Tories? Eighteenth-century Oxford was famously the home of lost political causes and only gradually came to accommodation with ‘the illustrious House of Hanover and Protestant succession’ (see for example W.R. Ward, Georgian Oxford: University Politics in the Eighteenth Century, Oxford 1958). This might be an example of that at St John’s, in line with the attachment to Charles I, or it might be later collecting habits of the Victorian age. At any rate, the College also owns a very considerable collection of engravings of the members of the House of Stuart.

What is arguably even more interesting is the depiction of childhood in the portrait. The extremely influential – and at the same time often severely criticized – argument of the famous French historian Philippe Ariès in his Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Childhood (1960) posits the ‘invention of childhood’ happening in the Ancien Régime period, a transition from treating children as miniature adults to considering childhood as a fundamentally distinct period of human life. Much of his evidence comes precisely from the portrait painting (some critics would say that he relied on it far too much for social attitudes). Some difficulty we might have in identifying the exact age of the Princess is as characteristic of this transitional period in the treatment of children, as is Madame de Maintenon’s amusement at the four-year old being firmly set on marriage with the Duc de Bourgogne, or her admiration for the beauty of Maria Louisa’s eyes, so prominent in this portrait. It could not have been easy for this exiled princess, part of the French court and yet not part of it, still a child, and yet with so many adult expectations already upon her.

View the painting on Art UK here.

Dr Georgy KantorDr Georgy Kantor, Tutorial Fellow in Ancient History and Keeper of the Pictures