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Antiquing means never quitting the hunt

This is a miniature of Queen Louise of Prussia. Courtesy photo

The venerable expression “antiquing” is no longer confined to pleasant weekend jaunts after ancient collectibles.  “Antiquing” also means never quitting until the soul of a treasured acquisition is uncovered.  Chasing after antique essences may lead to knowledge never dreamed, and may bring collecting spills and chills!

Take this once unidentified 19th-century portrait miniature won at an internet auction.  Pure and beautiful, she is oddly snuggled into fur-trimmed cavalry attire. Her belted jacket bears gold braiding, and her head is crowned in a massive shako – a tall, cylindrical, visored cap with pompon and silvered plate normally bearing regimental or monarchical coats-of-arms.  All are in the flash-and-dash Hussar style that characterized many European light cavalry units from the second half of the 18th-century through the first half of the 19th.  And all was inspired by the dashing Hungarians who, in turn, inherited this colorfulness from years of Turkish subjugation. And the portrait is signed. Wow!

So, I removed the back from its French gilded bronze frame to find a tag inscribed in fading French cursive:  “Queen Louise of Prussia.” In a Hussar’s flash, part of the puzzle came together: Behold! the drop-dead duchess from the German Duchy of  Mecklenburg-Strelitz who married Hohenzollern Crown Prince Frederick William to become the Queen of Prussia. Louise was fairly worshipped for her beauty, wisdom and courage and, most notably, for encouraging her indecisive consort to fight Napoleon. Reportedly, she showed up for the Battle of Jena (1806) dressed as a combat-ready Amazon. In a famous 1807 interview, Louise begged Napoleon for better peace terms for defeated Prussia. Although her performance was for naught, Napoleon declared (and how can I put this delicately?) that Queen Louise “was the only Prussian with balls!” Was, then, her portrait in hussar’s garb inappropriate?

I poked through scores of online Queen Louise portraits to find only one likeness, an 1806 black and white engraving after a portrait by Marie-Guillemine Benoist.  A pupil of David, Benoist (1768-1826) was a fabulous portraitist of the Napoleonic period.  I wonder if the original Benoist, from which both the engraving and our miniature were copied,  still exists.

And there’s the signature of the copyist in the lower right. After months of my unsuccessful examinations, linguist Catalina figured it out: “Henri Regnault”(1843-1871), the French painter of gritty biblical, classical and oriental scenes whose 1871 death in the Franco-Prussian War made him a national hero.  Regnault’s artistic fame, however, would be dimmed by the rise of the Impressionists whose concentration on airy beauty defeated his bloody realisms.

SPILLS AND CHILLS

The delicate Louise of the miniature, however, in no way matches Regnault’s dark and recognized works.  Nevertheless: in 1860-1 a teen-aged Regnault entered the French “Ecole des Beaux-Arts” to study under Louis Lamonthe, an artist described as “timid and sickly,” as a “correct, moral, bourgeois, and even sanctimonious” portrait painter. Although I cannot find Regnault’s early student works, might this copy of the Queen Louise portrait be one of them, a product of Lamonthe’s restraining tutelage?

MORE SPILLS/CHILLS

Hoping to find a date, I again dismantled the picture from the frame, this time removing the fabric backing to expose the reverse of the delicate painting wafer. No date. But was the wafer of ivory or celluloid, the synthetic material used by miniaturists increasingly from the 1860s/70s?  Frankly, I cannot tell. If celluloid, it might well be a post-1871 fake with forged signature!

How to tell the difference? Botswana, 1977.  I was having a few drinks with our embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Frank Alberti and his lovely wife Jackie. Suppression of the international ivory trade was the hot topic. Jackie was troubled that ivory jewelry was still turning up in local shops. Frank offered that these pieces could well be celluloid in disguise. The only way to tell was the match test (ivory would not burn). Growing a little huffy, Jackie presented her wrist. There, she pointed out, was an ancient family heirloom – a bracelet handed down by her great-great-aunt. Knowing that it was ivory, Jackie accepted Frank’s match test without hesitation.  Frank carefully placed it in an ashtray, lit his match and, in a sudden whoosh of blue flame, up went the bracelet. It took a whole water pitcher to put it out!

For all the forgoing posturing on chasing after antique essences, I wonder if I really have what it takes to go “antiquing,” to apply the match test to Queen Louise.

Richard Hoover, a retired Foreign Service officer, resides in southern Warren County.

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