Watercolor on ivory in a silver gilt mount
Framed: 8.4 x 6.9 cm (3 5/16 x 2 11/16 in.); Unframed: 7.3 x 5.8 cm (2 7/8 x 2 5/16 in.)
Gift from J. H. Wade 1921.911
Mademoiselle Marie-Anne Adelaide Le Normand, a famous Parisian fortune teller, was born in Alençon, France, between 1768 and 1772. Little is known of her early years, but by 1790 she had already established a strong following in Paris. Fortune telling was a highly lucrative field perhaps due to the extreme political unrest that permeated Paris in the 1790s. Although the practice of fortune telling was illegal at the time, people from the highest social classes sought Le Normand's services. She prophesied the bloody deaths of the French revolutionaries Maximilien Robespierre, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, and Jean-Paul Marat when they visited her salon. Additionally, Alexandre Dumas was one of many to describe Le Normand's prediction of the monumental rise and fall of both Napoleon and his wife Josephine, who visited Le Normand's studio frequently. The fortune teller managed to retain her popularity through the Napoleonic era and the reign of King Charles X before retiring from Parisian life after correctly foretelling the outcome of the July Revolution in 1830. She moved back to Alençon and continued writing books of predictions until her death in 1843. Her greatest tangible legacy is a set of tarot cards known as the Blue Owl deck or Le Grand Jeu de Mlle. Le Normand. Grimaud, a self-proclaimed pupil of Le Normand, published the deck two years after her death. The accounts of Le Normand's physical appearance and her studio are almost as colorful as her predictions, and perhaps equally disputable. A description published in the late 1850s reported how "some thirty or forty volumes were arranged on the shelf against the wall, chiefly consisting of the works of the lady herself . . . Mademoiselle soon made her appearance-a short, fat little woman, with a ruddy face, overshadowed by the abundant curls of a flaxen wig, and surmounted by a semi-oriental turban, the rest of her attire being much in the style of a butter woman." Captain Rees Howell Gronow visited Le Normand between 1814 and 1830 and published his account in a book of recollections in 1865: "It was impossible for imagination to conceive a more hideous being. She looked like a monstrous toad, bloated and venomous. She had one walleye, but the other was a piercer. She wore a fur cap upon her head, from beneath which she glared out upon her horrified visitors. The walls of the room were covered with huge bats, nailed by their wings to the ceiling, stuffed owls, cabalistic signs, skeletons-in short, everything that was likely to impress a weak or superstitious mind." In "The Court of Napoleon," Frank Boot Goodrich noted that Le Normand's studio featured miniature portraits of the various rulers she patronized as well as a miniature of herself painted by Jean-Baptiste Isabey, court painter to Napoleon. The Cleveland Museum of Art's miniature does not reflect Le Normand's mythically monstrous appearance. She was in her early twenties when this miniature was painted. Perhaps the fortune teller chose François Dumont as the artist because he had recently produced several portraits of Marie-Antoinette, whom Le Normand admired greatly. Her dress and hairstyle here are reminiscent of the queen's in Dumont's 1792 portrait of her. A student of Jean Girardet, Dumont was one of the most exclusive French miniature painters of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and rendered many of the elite subjects of Le Normand's predictions; even if Dumont himself found no use for the prophetess's services, they certainly relied on similar clientele for their prosperity. The artist's inclusion of an owl eating a moth makes the CMA's miniature unusual. The owl often represents wisdom and was the companion of the ancient Greek goddess Athena. The ancient Romans were among many cultures to associate the nocturnal owl with the ability to predict death; even William Shakespeare called the bird of prey a "fatal bellman" in his play "Macbeth". These darker aspects of the owl make it an appropriate companion for Le Normand, who foretold the deaths of so many. Ashley Bartman (May 2014)
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