This work is an excellent example of an artistic movement associated with the Empire and Restoration periods in France, between 1800 and 1830, referred to as anecdotal genre, or “troubadour” painting. A blend of history painting and genre scenes, it favoured subjects drawn from medieval and Renaissance history, with a focus on romantic episodes in the lives of the great figures of those times. Here the artist strives to bring such episodes from an imagined past to life by recreating in detail the accoutrements, dress and spirit of the sixteenth century, a period of which a true picture was just then beginning to be formed. This distinctive genre, which was highly popular with collectors of the era, in many ways heralded the advent of Romanticism.
The painting depicts a tender moment of intimacy being shared by the Italian poet Tasso and Princess Eleanor, sister of Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, on the terrace of a palace in the city. Listening to Tasso read passages from his epic poem Jerusalem Delivered out loud, Eleanor falls in love with him. The work here is a replica by the artist of his original painting, which was commissioned in about 1812-1813 by Queen Hortense, the daughter of the Empress Josephine, to act as a counterpart to another, Tasso in the House of His Sister Cornelia in Sorrento. Exhibited at the Salon of 1814, the two canvases met with great success.
At the time, Queen Hortense was separated from her husband, the former King of Holland, Louis Bonaparte, a brother of Napoleon. Depicting a princess falling in love with a humble poet, the painting’s subject undoubtedly had a hidden meaning. It may have been intended to allude indirectly to Hortense’s liaison with the Comte de Flahaut, a brilliant young military officer whose son she bore in 1811. Tasso is indeed shown bedecked with a magnificent sword set with precious stones not unlike the regulation sabres carried by imperial army officers. Moreover, the parallels between Hortense and Eleanor were very much on the minds of the members of the “Beauharnais circle” at Napoleon’s court.