Les Mademoiselles d'Orléans


Jean-Antoine-Théodore Giroust
1753 - 1817

What could be more tranquil? An aristocratic daughter playing the harp with her teacher amid palatial surroundings and a beautiful assistant ready to turn the pages of the music.

Nothing could be more misleading. The year the painting was exhibited was 1791, King Louis XV! was under house arrest and Paris was engulfed in turmoil. The 14 year old girl playing the harp is Louise Marie Adélaide Eugènie d'Orléans, the daughter of the Duc d'Orléans. Although she wears the Phrygian hat, a symbol of the French revolution, and her father was to vote for the execution of king, it was only two years later that the Duke himself was to face the guillotine in the 'terror' .

Madame Adelaide, as the young harpist later became known, fled France first to England and then to Belgium Switzerland and America. In one of a number of a remarkable series of twists of fortune, she was shipwrecked in Guadeloupe in the French West Indies. While there she met and married a wealthy German businessman, George Casper von Schroeppel. The couple travelled to New York and lived in some style first in New York City and then in Syracuse where their mansion is today listed as a National Historic Monument.

But her marriage was not happy and, the revolution over, she separted from her husband and returned tio France in 1814. In 1830 her older brother Louis-Phillipe was declared king of the French and she gained an official position in paris as his adviser which she retained until her death in 1847 at the age of 70.

The harp teacher is the 45 year old Madame de Genlis, celbrated harpist, writer, educator and governess, whose enlightened pedagogical methods included slide shows and field trips! She too went into exile, but lived to the age of 84 - also long enough to be able to return to France and see Louis-Phillipe (another of her pupils) ascend the throne.


Turning the pages is the beautiful 'Pamela' ('la belle Pamela') Madame de Genlis' adopted (or possibly actual) daughter. Another fascinating historical figure, she was later was to be engaged to the playwright Sheridan, but married his compatriot, the Irish revolutionary Lord Edward Fitzerald whom she had met in Paris.. Following her husband's death in prison in 1798 she fled Britain. She was later married to the American Consul in Hamburg, but (like the other two subjects of this tableau) died in Paris, in her case at the relatively young age of 58. Pamela is the subject of a historical novel The Harp Lesson by Emma Tennant, Pamela's great-great-great granddaughter.

The artist Giroust presided over the Paris Salon from 1787 to 1802 and exhibited the painting (like the adjacent one by Ducreux) in the exhibition of 1791 He was known as a fine painter of tableaux and portraits. This picture in classic academic style shows two of the sizes of harp then in use in France, both of which are scroll crowned. They are most likely Naderman 'single action' harps - Naderman was a family harp making business associated with the French royal household and these harps are similar in design (although without painted decoration) to surviving examples.

Harps were often to found in the drawing rooms of the wealthy in France, and playing them was one of the more important skills that aristocratic ladies would need to acquire to show off their abilities. The wives of both Louis XVI (Queen Marie Antoinette) and Napoleon (Empress Josephine) were harpists and beautiful instruments owned by them are still in existence.

Among the other interesting historical details in the painting are the art materials, indicating that an art lesson is shortly to take place - perhaps also to be conducted by the redoubtable Madame de Genlis.