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Marie-Françoise (called Fanny) Dupré de Birkenwald was born in 1780 into an old Alsace family. Her father was a scholar and man of letters, despite having lost the sight of both eyes (one in warfare, the other through natural decay). After his death in 1783, as a child Fanny inherited his property, but in the 1790s she and her mother emigrated to Austria to escape the French Revolution. In Vienna on 6 May 1802 she married the Marquis Giovanni Battista Grimaldi Monaco. They returned to Alsace, and then to Paris to seek restitution of their belongings after the Revolution. However, their marriage lasted for less than a year, for while in Paris, Giovanni Battista died on 4 February 1803.
After her bereavement, Fanny lived in Florence. There she became engaged to her late husband’s younger brother, Don Luigi Grimaldi, and a new life was in prospect for her. Tragically, she herself died on 6 February 1804, a year and two days after her husband.
Don Luigi then commissioned from the painter François-Xavier Fabre a portrait of himself with a matching posthumous portrait of his late fiancée, aged 23 at the time of her death. Fabre’s painting of Fanny was the source for the present engraving. A drawing of the painting was prepared in Florence and sent to Rome where it was engraved by the Swiss master engraver Pietro Bettelini (1763-1829). As a pupil of Francesco Bartolozzi in London, Bettelini had learnt to produce delicate stipple prints and etchings in a style suitable to Fabre’s allegorical portrait.
The iconography is elaborate. Fanny’s love for her husband is represented by a ray from Cupid that passes through her and shines on her husband’s tomb. Cupid encourages her to raise her widow’s veil and nudges her to the left, away from the tomb of Giovanni Battista. In obedience to Cupid she turns her gaze away from the gloomy cypresses and weeping willows on the right towards a flourishing landscape of oak and ash trees on the left.
The lettering below tells the story in Latin and Italian. The dedication of the print to Don Luigi, written by Nicolò Pagni, says that she died in Florence, though another source says that she died in Genoa.
The two paintings were at some time published and offered for sale in the 1990s by the dealer Richard L. Feigen in New York City. This summer they were offered for sale at auction (Sotheby’s, New York, 5 June 2014, Old Master Paintings, lot 49), but were unsold. Could funds be found to place them in a public collection? Given that Fabre has his own museum in Montpellier (the Musée Fabre), and that the House of Grimaldi reigns in Monaco, somewhere in the South of France would be an appropriate place in which to display these two painted portrayals of three tragic lives.
Author: William Schupbach
Édouard Sitzmann, Dictionnaire de biographie des hommes célébres de l’Alsace, depuis les temps les plus reculés jusqu’à nos jours, Rixheim : Impr. F. Suttes & Cie, 1909