Musée d'Orsay: Barthélémy Thalamas A Metaphorical Portrait

Barthélémy Thalamas
A Metaphorical Portrait

A Metaphorical Portrait
Barthélémy Thalamas (active in Toulouse between 1850 and 1860)
A Metaphorical Portrait
Circa 1850
H. 10.9; W. 8.2 cm
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Portrait métaphorique [A Metaphorical Portrait]

This Metaphorical Portrait is on the fringe of the traditional post mortem portrait. The deceased is not present, but is curiously evoked by a painted portrait and a plaster cast of his face, two ways to preserve the image of a loved one before photography was invented. The picture raises several questions. Could the photographer not be called in while the body of the deceased was still at home? Were the portrait and the mask executed while the man was alive or after his death? Perhaps he had died many years before and the availability of a new medium prompted this assemblage?
Whatever the circumstances might have been, these inanimate images gravely and tenderly displayed beside the woman convey a clear message. They testify to the powerful bond which linked her to this man, although the nature of the bond is not clear because in the painted portrait he seems to be dressed as a priest.

Although atypical, the daguerreotype plays the same role as most postmortem images. It is designed to keep visual memory sharp, confirm the reality of the loved one's past existence and help the bereaved live without him.