Portraits for which the sitters dressed as mythical characters allowed them to communicate messages about themselves: for instance, when they were looking for love or position. Karen Hosack explains
The Marquise de Seignelay had recently been widowed when this portrait was painted by Pierre Mignard in 1691. She appears as the sea goddess Thetis, wearing classical robes and draped in an ultramarine fabric whose colour suggests the depths of the ocean. Her tiara is made from coral, reeds, seaweed and pearls, and beautifully detailed shells lie on the shore at her feet. This marine theme paid homage to her late husband, Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Colbert de Seignelay, Minister for the French Navy.
Perhaps the pearl locket that she is holding contains his portrait.
By dressing as Thetis, the Marquise also portrays herself as a devoted mother, especially as, on the left, her eldest boy appears as Achilles, the Greek hero of the Trojan War. Classical texts from Ovid and Homer recount that Thetis was told how she would conceive a son who would outdo all his father's deeds, but who would die if he went to Troy. In order to protect him, she bravely descended into the crater of Mount Etna to ask the god of fire to forge a special suit of armour for Achilles. The implication in the portrait is that the Marquise would go to similar lengths for her own son and, indeed, when this portrait was made, she had just purchased him a military commission. He was only nine years old, but it was not unusual for such an honour at the time.
This family portrait-with-a-twist shows two of the Marquise's five children with her in the imaginary seaside setting. Her youngest son kneels at her side, draped in a scarlet length of cloth. He has wings and a quiver of arrows -clearly signalling his guise as Cupid, the Roman god of love.
Since Cupid does not appear in the stories of Thetis and Achilles, his appearance here probably signifies a general message about love. At this time, rumours were circulating in the French court that the Marquise was nearing bankruptcy. The painting could thus have been the equivalent of a modern-day lonely hearts advertisement. She needed a husband to give her financial security. There had been arrangements for her to marry the Duc de Luxembourg, but he jilted her, so the search had to resume.
In the picture, Mignard made her look beautiful, cultured and caring. He also made her look wealthy, as the blue pigment used to paint the large expanse of her ultramarine robe was the most expensive available - even more costly than using gold leaf. The Marquise's pearls, and the other sea references, also link her to Venus, goddess of love, beauty and fertility.
By actually placing her foot on the scallop shell - a symbol of Venus - she seems to be commenting on how she considers herself to be even lovelier than the goddess.
X-radiographs show that the neckline on the Marquise's dress originally plunged so low that her right breast was revealed. At some point, presumably, she must have decided that this was going a little too far, and had Mignard adjust her clothing to protect her modesty.
This type of picture was very fashionable in the 17th century. It demonstrated that one's portrait was timeless, as such clothes would not date. Choice of character also allowed the sitter to communicate certain messages about themselves. Who wouldn't want to be seen as a hero or goddess?
Karen Hosack is head of schools education at the National Gallery
* In October 2005, 180 primary schools nationallysubmitted work linked to this painting for consideration in the National Gallery's annual Take One Picture exhibition. A selection of this work, which involved more than 32,000 children, teachers, teaching assistants and parents, is on display in Take One Picture: An Exhibition of Work by Primary Schools inspired by Mignard's 'Marquise de Seignelay and Two of her Sons'. Until July 2, National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London (Charing CrossLeicester Square Tubes). Admission free. Open daily 10am-6pm; Wednesdays until 9pm.
Websites and books
The National Gallery Companion Guide, by Erika Langmuir, National Gallery Company
Take One Picture DVD (available from the National Gallery online shop (www.nationalgallery.co.ukshop) and Curriculum Online (www.curriculumonline.gov.uk)
PIERRE MIGNARD 1612-1695
As well as portraits, Pierre Mignard also produced murals for the interiors of large buildings and religious pictures. He worked and studied in Italy for 22 years before returning to Paris. When the Marquise de Seignelay commissioned this family portrait Mignard had recently been appointed First Painter to the King, the most prestigious post for a French painter at the time.
KS 1 Discuss whether the people in the picture look like they come from our time or from a past era. What do the clothes they are wearing tell us about the sitters?
KS1 Is the background to the portrait real or imaginary? What kind of place is it? How would you describe it?
KS2 Learn about the Greek myths referred to in the painting and write a story plan for your own myth (National Literacy Strategy).
KS3 Write poems and stories based on themes such as Disguise and Fantasy (NLS).
Art and design
KS3 Ask the students to think about characters from a story they would like to dress up as. Give reasons and design costumes on paper; how would you make them up?
KS4 Use the image as a starting point to explore symbolism in painting over the years. Compare the symbols used in Pierre Mignard's 'The Marquise de Seignelay and Two of her Sons', with modern works by artists such as Sam Taylor-Wood.
KS5 Research the tradition of 17th-century character portraits. What kind of iconography was commonly used in these paintings?