Reflections: Laura Gavilán Lewis on Jacques-Louis David

Getty Art + Ideas
Reflections: Laura Gavilán Lewis on Jacques-Louis David

We’ve asked members of the Getty community to share short, personal reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. These recordings feature stories related to our daily lives.

This week, educator Laura Gavilán Lewis considers what it means to be separated from her loved ones as she looks at a portrait of Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte. To learn more about this work, visit:

Over the next few weeks, look for new recordings every other Tuesday.


JAMES CUNO: Hi, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. We’ve asked members of the Getty community to share short, personal reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. This week Laura Gavilán Lewis discusses a portrait by Jacques-Louis David.
LAURA GAVILÁN LEWIS: For some of us being far away from loved ones, during adverse times is one of the hardest things.
My name is Laura Gavilán Lewis. I am a gallery educator at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
The pandemic has added more distance between family members for everyone, but in particular for families of immigrants living far away from each other, relying on travel to visit their loved ones.
I am originally from Mexico, but I have lived in the United States many years now. And in all these years, I always felt a short flight away, so to speak, from my family in Mexico City. Having the assurance of the next trip was of great comfort and helped bridge the distance, until I visited again.
But as the pandemic continues and plans for travel are uncertain, I relate to this beautiful portrait of two sisters separated from their father by circumstances beyond their control.
They are they are Zenaide and Charlotte Bonaparte, nieces of Napoleon, the emperor of France.
After Napoleon’s defeat the sisters and their mother went into exile in Brussels, while their father’s Josef came to the United States, seeking support to reinstate his brother Napoleon back to power the portrait was painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1821. He was a friend of the family, also in exile.
The young women sit close together embracing. The older one, Zenaide, sits in front, holding a letter with her arm extended, giving the impression that she is keeping her younger sister in a protected space. While Charlotte peeks behind her in a curious, but shy gesture. Both look directly at the viewer, as if something just distracted them from reading the letter.
At the top of the letter, only one word is legible: Philadelphia. I think it is a clever and personal detail on the part of the artist to show that the letter is from their father, far away, emphasizing the great distance that separates them.
They wear elegant dresses made of black velvet, delicate lace, and shiny blue satin. Their hair is adorned with fancy jeweled tiaras, hinting at their noble status, a testament that even when forced out of their homeland, they continue to live a life of luxury and comfort.
Their comfort makes me reflect on my own privilege. To freely travel back and forth to my country without restrictions was a gift. I never could have imagined that a worldwide pandemic would put a stop to it.
I sense, an air of melancholy and vulnerability in their expressions, a longing to reunite with their father. But I also see fortitude strength and bravery. And those are the feelings that I try to draw upon. As I patiently wait to safely plan my next trip to visit my family and friends in Mexico, and be able to embrace them.
CUNO: To view Jacques-Louis David’s Portrait of the Sisters Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte from 1821, click the link in this episode’s description or look for it on

Author: Getty Media

Getty staff select highlights of Getty multimedia, new and from the archives.