Germaine de Staël and the Narrative(s) of Her Alter-Ego Corinne: the Example of Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s Portrait

in Matters of Telling: The Impulse of the Story

Abstract

The Swiss/French writer and political thinker Germaine de Staël (1766–1817) was the daughter of Mme and M. Necker. Her father had been Minister of finance before the revolution and her mother used to host of one most important salons in Paris. Mme de Staël, as she was called after the marriage in 1786 with the Swedish ambassador to France, Carl-Magnus de Staël von Holstein, was thus born into one of the most illustrious circles of Parisian cultural and political elite. Germaine’s political ideas and background made her a target for Napoleon’s animosity. This resentment between the two affected her self-perception, which was based on her idea of representing the French culture, or even the genius of it. However, that self-image might have been a ‘mask’ hiding de Staël’s true longings, to be loved as a person and woman, at the time incompatible with being a ‘genius’, a concept reserved for men.Germaine never stopped struggling for merging the two poles of her personality, the creation of an alter-ego, the ‘genius’ Corinne, might have been an attempt to solve this issue. In 1807 Germaine de Staël published a novel with the titleCorinne, or Italy. Her possible attempt to solve an inner conflict is a question that this chapter addresses, by analysing Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s (1755–1842) portrait Portait of Mme de Staël as Corinne on Cap Misenum (1808–1809). In the portrait two narratives seem to meet and compete about what it is to be a woman, and to be a genius.

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