Works by 18th Century French Artist Vigée Le Brun at The Met

A few days ago I went to see the Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) is considered to be one of the finest eighteenth-century French painters and among the most important women artists of all time. She was known for her expressive portraits of French royalty and the aristocracy. She was the same age as her patron, Queen Marie Antoinette, and their association caused Vigée to flee France during the Revolution. According to the exhibition catalog, “Vigée Le Brun exemplifed success and resourcefulness in an age when women were rarely allowed either.”

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Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbons by Vigée Le Brun, ca.1782 (Kimbell Art Museum)

This exhibition was stunning, and I highly recommend seeing it if you’re in the New York City area. There are restrictions on photographing many of the beautiful paintings, including those of Marie Antoinette, and honestly, the photos I did take do not do justice to Vigée’s fine brushwork. Nevertheless, I thought I’d share a few pieces with you, along with some fun tidbits about the paintings and the women who sat for them.

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The Maréchale-Comtesse de Mailly in Van Dyck Costume by Vigée Le Brun, 1783 (Private Collection)

Blanche Charlotte Marie Felicite de Narbonne-Pelet, the Maréchale-Comtesse de Mailly (1761-1840) was a close friend of Queen Marie Antoinette and was known for her kindness and sense of mischief. Her husband was marshal of France and was guillotined during the French Revolution in 1794. Blanche and their son barely escaped the same fate and went into hiding in Paris. In 1797 the administration of Sarthe returned to her all the marshal’s unsold properties and the money raised from the properties already sold. On Napoleon’s orders, she was obligated to spend her time at the imperial court and to send her seventeen year old son, Adrien, to the Ecole Militaire. When he was wounded during the Russian campaign in 1812, Adrien was saved by Napoleon, who would not allow the last of the Mailly line to perish. Blanche lived to the age of seventy-nine.

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The Comtesse de Gramont Caderousse Gathering Grapes by Vigée Le Brun, 1784 (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

Marie Gabrielle de Sinety, Comtesse de Gramont Caderousse (1761-1832) was also a close friend of Queen Marie Antoinette. The comtesse is depicted as a grape harvester in keeping with the Queen’s love of contrived rusticity. Vigée persuaded Marie to forgo powdering her hair for this painting, wishing to show her ebony black locks. This was a radical departure from the powered hair usually worn by women of court and the privileged classes. After one particular sitting, Marie left and went to the theater as she was. According to Vigée, this action set the fashion of unpowered hair, which became wide-spread.

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Comtesse Du Barry de Cérés by Vigée Le Brun, 1784 (Toledo Museum of Art)

The Comtesse Du Barry de Cérés was born Anne Marie Thérèse de Rabaudy Montoussin (1759-1834) and she married the comte Jean Baptiste Du Barry de Cérés, thirty-six years her senior when she was eighteen. According to Vigée, Anne had a “charming and sweet face though you could see something false about her eyes.” That falseness was evident when she diverted public attention away from her liaison with Charles Alexandre de Calonne, controller general of finances, by spreading rumors that it was Vigée Le Brun who was engaged in an affair with the man. This rumor hurt Vigée’s reputation.

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The Marquise de Pezay and the Marquise de Rougé with Her Two Sons by Vigée Le Brun, 1787 (National Gallery of Art)

This portrait was commissioned by the Marquise de Rougé, who appears in the center of the painting with her two sons, Alexis and Adrien. By the time this portrait was painted she had been widowed about four years. Her husband, Colonel Marquis de Rouge died while returning from a distinguished military career. The other woman in the painting is her dear friend The Marquise de Pezay, who was also a widow. This is one of my favorite paintings in the exhibition. I love the iridescent gown of the Marquise de Pezay, and there is a sweetness in the way the boys are snuggling up with their mother. But I think the aspect of the painting that touched me the most was that it includes two girlfriends. It is a sweet tribute to what must have been a very close friendship.

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Countess Ekaterina Vasilievna Skavronskaya by Vigée Le Brun, 1790 (Institut de France, Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris)

When Vigée arrived in Naples in 1790 she met Ekaterina Vasilievna, née Engelhardt (1761-1829) at dinner. Ekaterina was the wife of the Russian plenipotentiary in Naples. Vigée recalled her as “sweet and pretty as an angel. I remember her telling me that in order to go to sleep she had a slave under her bed who told her the same story every night. She was utterly idle all day, had no education, and her conversation was quite empty. But in spite of all that, thanks to her lovely face and her angelic sweetness, she had an incomparable charm.” Ekaterina is believed to be staring at a miniature of her husband in this portrait.

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The Princess von und zu Liechtenstein as Iris by Vigée Le Brun, 1793 (Private collection)

This is my favorite story about any of the paintings in this exhibition. When Vigée was in Vienna, Prince Alois I von und zu Liechtenstein (1759-1805) requested two enormous paintings. One of his wife Princess Karoline Felicitas Engelberte von und zu Liechtenstein (1768-1831) and the other of her sister. Vigée decided to paint the princesss of Liechtenstein as Iris. This is Vigée’s recounting of this painting in her Souvenirs: “That young princess was very shapely; her pretty face had a sweet and heavenly expression, which gave me the idea to represent her as Iris. She was painted full-length, soaring into the air. Her scarf, in the colors of the rainbow, fluttered about her. You can well imagine that I painted her barefoot; but when that painting was placed in the prince’s gallery, her husband and the heads of the family were very scandalized to see the princess without shoes, and the prince told me he had a pretty pair put under the portrait, telling the grandparents that the shoes had just slipped out and fallen onto the floor.” At the time, the prince was thirty-four and the princess was twenty-five. Prince Alois liked the painting so much, he also commissioned the present bust-length version that is displayed in this exhibition. I found it sad the cheeky prince died at the young age of forty-six.

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Countess Ekaterina Vasilievna Skavronskaya by Vigée Le Brun, 1796 (Musée du Louvre)

After receiving a number of commissions from Russians in Vienna, Vigée decided to travel on to St. Petersburg in 1795. This portrait of Countess Ekaterina Vasilievna Skavronskaya was painted after Ekaterina had been widowed for three years. It is considered a boudoir painting due to the relaxed nature of her dress and is believed to have been painted for her younger sister, Tatyana. Providing a seat and something to lean on were comforts that Vigée liked to give her sitters.

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Countess Anna Ivanovna Tolstaya by Vigée Le Brun, 1796 (Private Collection)

Anna Ivanovna (1774-1825) was married to Count Nokolai Alexandrovich Tolstoy, a renowned collector of books and prints and an intimate friend of the future Tzar Alexander I. Anna was well known for her tall stature and her friends nicknamed her “La Longue”. She commissioned this portrait by Vigée in keeping with her mother’s preference for women artists. The chemise dress is reminiscent of the attire Queen Marie Antoinette favored in the 1780s.

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Luise von Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Queen of Prussia by Vigée Le Brun, 1802 (H.R.H. George Friedrich, Prince of Prussia, Hohenzollern Castle)

When Vigée left St. Petersburg she traveled to Berlin, capital of the Prussian kingdom. Three days later she was summoned by Queen Luise (1776-1810) to Potsdam Palace to paint her portrait. The queen treated Vigée more like a hostess than a patron. She offered rooms to Vigée at the castle, but the artist declined preferring to rent a room in a modest hotel. The queen sent her coffee, provided her with a loge at the theater, invited her to visit Pfaueninsel and its castle in a carriage supplied by the court, and gave Vigée two bracelets that the artist had admired. Sadly, the thoughtful queen would die at the young age of thirty-four.

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Tatyana Borisovna Potemkina by Vigée Le Brun,1820 (Private Collection)

Tatyana Borisovna Potemkina (1797-1869) suffered from lung disease and, accompanied by her husband, left Russia to seek medical treatment abroad. While they were in Paris she posed for Vigée. The painting suggests the sitter’s reserve and withdrawn personality.

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The Duchesse de Berry in a Blue Velvet Dress by Vigée Le Brun, 1824 (Private Collection)

The Duchesse de Berry is a woman who I keep running across in my research and in a few of the antiques I’ve purchased. In fact, I’ve written a number of blog posts that include her. Marie-Carolina Ferdinanda Luisa di Napoli e di Sicilia, princesse de Bourbon-Naples (1798-1870) was married at seventeen to the second son of the future Charles X, Charles-Ferdinand d’Artois, duc de Berry. Destined for the throne, he was assassinated two years after their marriage by a fanatic bent on eliminating the house of Bourbon. Shortly after her husband’s death, the duchesse gave birth to their son, Henri, duc de Bordeaux, later comte de Chambord. She was a fashion trend-setter of her day and after her husband’s death, she devoted the rest of her life to trying to restore the Bourbons to the French throne, in the form of her son.

Viewing art is such an individual experience, even if we are standing in a gallery surrounded by other people. When we look at a painting, we bring our life experiences with us and see the work through our own unique perspective. I’ve told you about some of my favorite paintings from this exhibition. I’d love to know what your favorite is. Make a note in the comments section and let me know.

Reference:

Vigée-Lebrun,  Joseph Baillio, Katharine Baetjer, Paul Lang, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016. Print.

Now You Too Can Look Like the Duchesse de Berry

Regency Fashion Print of The Duchesse de Berry

This fashion print of a ball gown appeared in Observateur des Modes No. 409 and was published in Paris sometime between 1818-1823. It’s hand colored and the description at the bottom translated from French to English reads:

Dress in tulle cotton embroidered and lined with volans bouquets of roses and beads. The belt and shoes are of stain. Neapolitan hairdressing by Mr. Urbain Peutier hairdresser to Madame Duchesse de Berry.

The idea of a celebrity as a fashion icon is not a new one. This is the second fashion print I own that features the image of the Duchesse de Berry and gives credit to her hairdresser. Apparently the Observateur des Modes thought the duchesse could help influence fashionable ladies. I often wondered what it was about her that made women want to dress like her. I did some research to find out.

La Duchesse de Berry and her children Francois Gerard 1822

La Duchesse de Berry and her children by Francois Gerard
                   1822

The Duchesse de Berry began her life as Princess Caroline of Naples and Sicily. She was born Maria Carolina Ferdinanda Luisa on November 5, 1798 to Archduchess Maria Clementina of Austria and Prince Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Naples and Sicily. In 1816 she married King Louis XVIII of France’s nephew, Charles Ferdinand d’Artois, and became the Duchesse de Berry otherwise known as Madame de Berry in France. The marriage was reported to be a happy one.

Caroline was quite popular with the French people and was a generous patroness of the arts. She was an enthusiastic art collector and avid theatergoer. She was a patron of the Théâtre du Gymnase, which changed its name, for a time, to the théâtre de Madame, in her honor.

In February of 1820, Berry was murdered before her eyes at the opera. She was 22 years old. In September of that year she gave birth to their second child, a son named Henri, Count of Chambord. Henri was a direct Bourbon line of King Louis XIV of France.

Caroline lived at the center of the royal court and became a fashion trendsetter wearing shorter skirts and adopting tailored menswear for riding. Her fame was magnified with the increased popularity of lithography. Printers sold lithographs of her portraits throughout Europe making her a true celebrity of her day.

The Duchesse de Berry by Pierre Louis ('Henri') Grevedon, after  Sir Thomas Lawrence, lithograph, circa 1829 (1825)

The Duchesse de Berry by Pierre Louis (‘Henri’) Grevedon, after Sir Thomas Lawrence, lithograph, circa 1829 (1825)

She was an important figure during the Bourbon Restoration. When France’s King Charles X was overthrown in 1830, she fled France and lived for a time in Bath and Edinburgh.  In 1832 she tried to regain the throne for her son but was unsuccessful.

Somewhere around this time she secretly married an Italian nobleman, Ettore Carlo Lucchesi-Palli, 8th Duke della Grazia. They had five children together. Caroline died in 1870 at the age of 71 in her castle in Austria.

Sources used include:

What might the Duchesse de Berry wear to the ball?

ScanThe night is cold and you’re on your way to the ball. The ride will be long due to the line of carriages leading up to the house and the brick at your feet will stay warm for only so long. What’s a girl to do? If you are a girl of means, you might decide to wear this fashionable wrap over your gown. 

This print appeared in L’Observateur des Modes No. 479 and was published in Paris sometime between 1818-1823. It’s hand colored and the description at the bottom translated from French into English reads:

Hairstyle decorated with feathers, smooth crepe and branches of an olive tree; the composition of Mr. Peulier, Hairdresser of S.A.R.M. Madame Duchesse de Berry. Wrap is furnished for autumn with crepe weave rods and satin nodes; cashmere fur-lined coat of India doublee of satin and furnished with grebe…

455px-Berry,_Marie-Caroline_duchesse_de_-_1When I found this print in a shop, I was surprised to discover the Duchesse de Berry was mentioned in a fashion plate. The duchesse was born Princess Caroline of Naples and Sicily and in 1816 she married Charles Ferdinand d’Artois, the Duc de Berry. He was the nephew of France’s King Louis XVIII. She was very popular with the French people. I’ve included her portrait, which was painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence in 1825, so you could compare the likeness in the print to that of the duchesse.

The reference to her hairdresser and use of her likeness reminded me of today’s celebrity fashion magazines.  I suppose women back then were also swayed by who wore what.