Marie-Louise Jay, born in Samoëns in Haute-Savoie in 1938, was the daughter of a mason and a peasant woman and must have been involved in farm work from a very young age. When she was fifteen, she moved to Paris, and at the time of her marriage to Ernest Cognacq in 1872, she was the first saleswoman in the clothing department at Le Bon Marché. The two hard-working spouses united their efforts to give rapid growth to the commercial empire of La Samaritaine. Although the couple ran their stores with paternalistic rigour, in 1916 they founded several philanthropic organisations: a maternity home, orphanage and retirement home. They also began to assemble a collection of 18th century works, which was at the origin of the museum's collection.
Dressed in a black silk dress, reflecting both elegance and a certain moral austerity, Madame Cognacq is shown seated on an armchair with her gaze directed towards the observer. The successes of their business and philanthropic ventures underpinned the couple's ambition to rise to the top of a mundane social hierarchy. The artist strives to portray the fabrics and textures truthfully, including the scarf, the fur sleeve and the elegant hairstyle. The work depicts a woman of confident taste with a luxurious choice of fabrics for her clothes and very refined jewellery (a gold ring and a brooch at her neckline), which also reflects her social position. The portrait does not elude Madame Cognacq’s severe and austere character, noticeable in her facial expression. Her features are marked - Marie-Louise was then a little over sixty years old - and her eyes tired, nevertheless this portrait attests to the social rise of the Cognacq couple. Although the background of the composition was quickly painted, it allows the viewer to focus on the internalised, dignified expression of the famous donor. The work is a pendant to the portrait of Ernest Cognacq. Ten years later, Albert Besnard painted another pair of portraits of the couple, now held by their heirs.Download