Marcello: femme artiste entre cour et bohème

Adèle d’Affry, as she was born, is now most conveniently remembered as Marcello, the name under which she chose to practise as a sculptor. From a patrician Swiss family, Adèle, as a young woman, studied art in Rome, but in 1856 married an Italian, Carlo Colonna. The same year saw Carlo ennobled as the Duke of Castiglione-Attibrandi, and then struck down by typhoid fever. With commendable fixity of purpose, his widow, the duchess as she now was, determined on a career as a sculptor.

By 1863 she had won acclaim at the Paris Salon, under her new pseudonym, with the bust of Bianca Cappello, a sixteenth-century lady of fortune, who rose from nothing to marry a Medici, but then is supposed to have been poisoned when one of her own plots miscarried. Like the American sculptor, Harriet Hosmer, before her, Marcello chose historical and mythological themes which illustrated or symbolised the equivocal position of women, either in attaining or defending positions of power. These could be femmes fatales or tragic heroines. By the end of the decade, before the débâcle of Napoleon III in 1870, she had become a favourite of the Imperial court, the Emperor himself commissioning from her a full-length figure of the witch Hecate. To her friend, Adolphe Thiers, she protested that Imperial favour was an official sanction or imprimatur, rather than something she had actively sought. Despite ill-health (she died of tuberculosis at the age of forty-three) she was a woman who combined forcefulness with wit and considerable literary powers. Her determination was something which appealed in particular to the Empress Eugénie. 

As Francis Python explains in the catalogue of this exhibition, her own family background would have inclined her to Bonapartism, but her social frequentations were not in the least dictated by her loyalty to the Empire. She was a long-term friend of the politician Adolphe Thiers, and even established some sort of social rapport with Gustave Courbet, begun earlier, but continued during his exile in Switzerland. These were two of the fiercest opponents of the Imperial regime. She was however, like her defensive heroines, on her guard against anything which might threaten to undermine her social status. Laure Chabanne, who, in the catalogue, conducts a sort of psychoanalysis through a survey of managed self-representations, including photographic portraits, emphasizes this maintenance of gentility at all costs. Despite the fact that Marcello had some small experience of actual stone-carving and complained of the cold and discomfort involved in clay modelling, she does not pose in her working smock, and nowhere is there any indication of the muck of the studio. Courbet, who had painted a most sympathetic portrait of her, was at the end of his life cold-shouldered as politically compromising. Manet, whom she admired as an artist, she did not allow to paint her, in case she thus became identified with the bohemian demi-monde. Thiers, on the other hand, was of considerable assistance in preventing this favourite of the Imperial court from being ostracized by the new regime. The problem was that by the time the Republic had been stabilised, her tuberculosis was beginning to take hold. Already in 1869 she had gone to Rome to improve her drawing skills with a view to devoting more time to painting, and with the serious onset of her illness, painting increasingly presented itself as a more viable option.

One weird fact which we learn from the catalogue is that, if things had turned out a bit differently, Marcello might have come down to us as ‘Ferguson’! Amongst the various names she might adopt as a painter, this she thought a particularly good one. In changing her name yet again, she would distance the new work from the sculpture produced by Marcello. In a mood of discouragement, she told her mother that sculptors were ‘like penguins without feet or wings’, whereas painters were free to fly wherever they would. As a sculptor she was at the mercy of praticiens, the men who carved her works in marble. For them she was just another society lady with artistic pretentions. She had to fraternize with these people, though she privately thought them ‘pigs’. The problem was that the attitude these ‘pigs’ took to her work was much the same as that of the critics, who, crediting her with more ample financial means than she in fact possessed, were inclined to dismiss her as a wealthy amateur. 

All along she had felt the lure of painting, and some of the single subject pictures in the exhibition, show considerable skill and lively, uninhibited brushwork. The modern painter she most admired was Delacroix, but it was in 1868, on a dangerous trip with the painters Clairin and Regnault to Madrid, whilst Spain was in the grips of a revolution, that her ambition to become a painter was really awakened. The high opinion she shared with Manet of the work of Velasquez led her to copy his portrait of the dwarf Sebastián Morra. Perhaps Velasquez’s high-wire naturalism was beyond her, because her own work gives off a stronger whiff of Murillo. This is especially evident in her fine oval portrait of Berthe Morisot. Unfortunately her most ambitious composition, the Fieschi Conspiracy, whose rejection by the Salon jury seemed to her to typify the adversities by which she as a woman artist was beset, lacks coherence and looks very much like an exercise in fancy-dress escapism.

The dawning of her painting phase, and her deliberate pursuit of draughtsmanly skills resulted, however, in what seem to have been her most exciting sculptural achievements, produced as the Second Empire was about to bite the dust. One of these, the Pythian Sibyl, is represented in the exhibition by a fine bronze reduction. The life-size version of it is dramatically sited in an ornamental grotto, in the basement of the grand staircase of Garnier’s Paris opera-house. Whilst planning the sculptural component of his building, Garnier had considered Marcello as a possible sculptor for caryatids. Nothing had come of this, but he was so impressed by the Pythian Sibyl when it was shown at the Salon, that he found a way to incorporate it. As with the group of La Danse by Carpeaux, this was an example of Garnier’s readiness to accommodate sculptors who broke the mould. It happened also that his two sculptor rebels were at least friends. Adèle more than appreciated Carpeaux’s qualities as a sculptor. She was, however, a little taken aback when this inspired but uncouth sculptor proposed marriage to her. 

Marcello had first learned her art in Rome with the Swiss sculptor Heinrich Max Imhof, but her early busts and the statue of Hecate, now in a public garden in Montpellier, show the extent to which she then fell under the spell of the fashionable but wayward French sculptor Auguste Clésinger. He probably encouraged an identification with Michelangelesque maniera, an interest to which her husband’s descent from Michelangelo’s muse Vittoria Colonna will also have contributed. The power of her early busts of women is, as a result, sometimes neutralized by their being conceived as decorative objects designed for an eclectic historicist architectural ambiance. The Spanish phase, combined with her newly acquired drawing skills had a liberating effect. Parts of the Sibylwere based upon casts she took of her own body, but whereas such piecemeal devices are all too evident in the Hecate, here the anatomical logic is equal to the spatial dynamism. At the same Salon in 1870, Marcello showed her Abyssinian Chief, a fine example of Second Empire orientalism. In the current exhibition, another, and little known bust from a private collection, gives further evidence of her orientalism at this stage of her career. The Smiling Moorish Woman , sculpted in 1869, in its no holds barred polychromy and mixture of materials, rivals contemporary work by Charles Cordier.

The exhibition gives a very thorough account of Marcello’s work at every stage, and in diverse media. The relevance of the venue, the Palais de Compiègne, as the out-of-town residence of the Imperial family, and the scene of Napoleon III’s famous ‘series’, or privileged gatherings of talented persons, made it an obvious choice, especially as Marcello was included amongst the guests in 1864. Much of what was on display was either from the Fondation Marcello or from the Museé d’art et d’histoire in Fribourg, but there were a number of loans from other sources which filled out the picture. The exhibition opened at the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Fribourg on 7 Dec. 2014. It then moved to the Museo Vincenzo Vela, in Ligornetto, Ticino. After closing at Compiègne at the end of this month it will move on for a final stage at the Musée des Suisses dans le Monde, at Pregny-Geneva (March-June 2016). The exhibition and its catalogue are to a degree a celebration of a great archival drive to index and make accessible Marcello’s private papers. The indexing has been completed by the State Archive in Fribourg, where the papers are at present held, and interested parties are advised to contact the archivist Alexandre Dafflon ( In the meantime three volumes containing some of this material have been published by the Société d’Histoire du Canton de Fribourg. One volume edited by Simone de Reyff and Fabien Python, is devoted to Marcello’s own notebooks (ISBN978-2-9700987-0-6), and two, edited by Pascal Griener and Pamella Guerdat, contain selections from her correspondence (ISBN 978-2-9700987-1-3 and ISBN 978-2-9700987-2-0).

Main Image: Adèle Colonna (Marcello), The Pythian Sibyl (detail), bronze, 1870 (reduction made around 1880), Musée d’art et d’histoire, Fribourg (photo: © MAHF/ Francesco Ragusa)

Marcello: Femme Artiste entre Cour et Bohème, Musées nationaux du palais de Compiègne, Palais du Général de Gaulle , 60200 Compiègne, France,
16 October 2015 – 1 February 2016.
& Musée des Suisses dans le Monde, chemin de l’impératrice 18, 1292 Pregny-Chambésy, Geneva, Switzerland, 9 March – 4 June 2016.

Aurora Corio