Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (French, Paris 1755–1842 Paris)
Oil on canvas
Oval, 36 1/4 x 28 1/2 in. (92.1 x 72.4 cm)
Bequest of Edward S. Harkness, 1940
Not on view
Vigée Le Brun, largely self-taught and the wife of the picture dealer Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, was the most important woman artist of her time. She was a favorite of Marie Antoinette, through whose good offices she was admitted in 1783 to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture as one of only four women members. To the Salon of that year, her public debut, she sent three history paintings and at least ten portraits, of which this was one. The sitter, Madame Grand, was a minor celebrity, a beautiful blond born in India, ill-educated but musical and clever, who would eventually become the wife of the minister and diplomat Talleyrand.
Vigée Le Brun was the most important woman artist of her era and one of the most singular of any period. She was the daughter of a painter but largely self-taught. In 1776 she married the expert and dealer Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun (1748–1813) and in 1778 she was summoned to Versailles by Marie Antoinette (1755–1793), who sat for her for the first time. Through the queen’s intervention Vigée was admitted in 1783 to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture and sent three history paintings and at least ten portraits to the Salon. Her last exhibits were in 1789, as owing to her association with the royal family she had to flee France for Italy. In 1792 she was working in Vienna, in 1795 she moved to St. Petersburg, and in 1802 she was finally able to return to Paris and show again at the Salon.
Vigée must have chosen her 1783 exhibits with care for what essentially was her public debut: these included her reception piece, a portrait of the queen, and the present portrait of Madame Grand, which is fully signed and dated the same year. This lady, the daughter of one Jean Pierre Vorlée, had been born in India in the Danish colony of Tranquebar on November 21, 1761, and married in Calcutta a naturalized Englishman employed by the British East India Company, George Francis Grand. Her subsequent affair with a prominent figure was discovered, and she took leave for England in 1780. She settled in Paris in 1782 and became a figure of interest, beautiful and well formed, fair, with blond hair, ill-educated but musical, clever, and attractive to the many important men whose protection she secured. In 1798 she divorced and in 1802 married the politician and minister Talleyrand (1754–1838). (For a portrait of the sitter by Gérard, ca. 1808, see 2002.31.)
Madame Grand’s portrait was favorably received in 1783, one of the reviewers remarking on its "bewitching sensuality" ("volupté enchanteresse"). The skin has a remarkable subtlety of tone and softness. The textures and patterns and the complex colored shadows of the green upholstery and blue ribbons on the white dress are magisterial. However, the way in which the sitter’s eyes are cast back and her lips are slightly parted, which may have been intended to suggest singing, seem inappropriate to a portrait in modern dress.
[Katharine Baetjer 2014]
Inscription: Signed and dated (left): L. E. Le Brun 1783
Jacques Doucet, Paris (by 1899–1912; his sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, June 6, 1912, no. 190, for Fr 440,000 to Knoedler); [Knoedler, London, Paris and New York, 1912–14; sold for Fr 484,000 to Leeds]; Mrs. William Bateman Leeds, later Princess Christopher of Greece, Paris (1914–d. 1923); Prince Christopher of Greece (from 1923); Françoise of France, Princess Christopher of Greece (until 1934; sold for Fr 300,000 to Knoedler); [Knoedler, Paris and New York, 1934–35; sold for $85,000 to Harkness]; Edward S. Harkness, New York (1935–d. 1940; life interest to his widow, Mary Stillman Harkness, 1940–d. 1950)
Paris. Salon. "[no title]," 1783, no. 117 (as "Portrait de M.me Grant. Ovale de 3 pieds 10 ponces de haut, sur 3 pieds 2 pouces de large").
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "French Painting and Sculpture of the XVIII Century," November 6, 1935–January 5, 1936, no. 55 (lent by Edward S. Harkness).
New York. World's Fair. "Masterpieces of Art: European Paintings and Sculpture from 1300–1800," May–October 1939, no. 401 (lent by Edward S. Harkness).
New York. Parke-Bernet. "French and English Art Treasures of the XVIII Century," December 20–30, 1942, no. 66 (lent by Mrs. Edward S. Harkness).
Paris. Grand Palais. "De David à Delacroix: La peinture française de 1774 à 1830," November 16, 1974–February 3, 1975, no. 196.
Detroit Institute of Arts. "French Painting 1774–1830: The Age of Revolution," March 5–May 4, 1975, no. 196.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "French Painting 1774–1830: The Age of Revolution," June 12–September 7, 1975, no. 196.
Bordeaux. Galerie des Beaux-Arts. "Profil du Metropolitan Museum of Art de New York: de Ramsès à Picasso," May 15–September 1, 1981, no. 115.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Eighteenth-Century Woman," December 12, 1981–September 5, 1982, unnumbered cat. (p. 53).
Fort Worth. Kimbell Art Museum. "Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun," June 5–August 8, 1982, no. 12.
Yokohama Museum of Art. "Treasures from The Metropolitan Museum of Art: French Art from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century," March 25–June 4, 1989, no. 48.
Paris. Grand Palais, Galeries nationales. "Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun," September 23, 2015–January 11, 2016, no. 57.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France," February 15–May 15, 2016, no. 18.
Ottawa. National Gallery of Canada, Canadian Indemnity. "Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842): The Portraitist to Marie Antoinette," June 10–September 11, 2016, no. 18.
[Antoine Renou]. L'Impartialité au Sallon. 1783, p. 29 (Collection Deloynes, vol. 13, no. 303, p. 29; McWilliam 1991, no. 0353), finds it without fault and adds that the sitter appears to "breathe".
"Observations ou réflexions sur l'exposition des peintures, sculptures, dessins et gravures . . ., 1783." Mercure de France (1783), (Collection Deloynes, vol. 13, no. 309, p. 916; McWilliam 1991, no. 0360).
"Observations sur les ouvrages de peinture et de sculpture, 1783." L'année littéraire (1783) [Collection Deloynes, vol. 13, no. 311, p. 961], admires this portrait and describes it as fresh and voluptuous.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Souvenirs. Vol. 1, Paris, 1835, pp. 249, 323, 331 [Paris, 1986, ed. Claudine Herrmann, vol. 1, pp. 335, 340], lists two portraits of "Madame Grant," one painted in 1776 and another in 1783.
Émile Bellier de la Chavignerie continued by Louis Auvray. Dictionnaire général des artistes de l'école française depuis l'origine des arts du dessin jusqu'à nos jours: Architectes, peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs et lithographes. Vol. 1, Paris, 1882, p. 947.
Lady [Emilia Francis Strong] Dilke. French Painters of the XVIIIth Century. London, 1899, p. 157, ill., as La Princesse de Talleyrand, in the collection of Jacques Doucet.
Pierre de Nolhac. Madame Vigée-Le Brun, peintre de la reine Marie-Antoinette, 1755–1842. Paris, 1908, pp. 30, 151, 158, ill. opp. p. 36, mentions a later portrait by Vigée of the Princesse de Talleyrand lent by Vernhette in 1897 to the "Exposition de portraits de femmes et d'enfants".
Haldane Macfall. A History of Painting. Vol. 6, The French Genius. Boston, 1911, p. 257.
Pierre de Nolhac. Madame Vigée-Le Brun, peintre de Marie-Antoinette. Paris, 1912, pp. 29, 53, 250, 262, ill. opp. p. 46, states that the artist painted Mme Grand three times.
G. Babin. L'illustration (June 1, 1912), pp. 477, 479, ill. [see Ref. Sterling 1955], points out that the Salon catalogue of 1783 provides incorrect dimensions; mentions a portrait of Madame Grand in the Vernhette collection.
Louis Hautecœur. Madame Vigée-Lebrun. Paris, , pp. 32, 40, as an example of sentimentalism like that of Greuze.
W. H. Helm. Vigée-Lebrun, 1755–1842: Her Life, Works, and Friendships. London, 1915, p. 222, confuses our picture with one in the Vernhette collection.
André Blum. Madame Vigée-Lebrun, peintre des grandes dames du XVIIIe siècle. Paris, , p. 97, ill. opp. p. 80, states that both portraits belonged to Mme de Vernhette.
George Henry McCall. Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture from 1300–1800: Masterpieces of Art. Ed. William R. Valentiner. Exh. cat., World's Fair. New York, 1939, pp. 196–97, no. 401.
Henry de Courcy May. "The Spirit of the Eighteenth Century." Art News 41 (December 15–31, 1942), ill. p. 19.
Yvonne Robert Gaebelé. "'Des Plages du Coromandel aux Salons du Consulat et de l'Empire' (Vie de la Princesse de Talleyrand)." Revue Historique de l'Inde Française 7 (1948), ill. opp. p. 1.
"Illustrations of Outstanding Harkness Gifts." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 10 (October 1951), ill. p. 64.
Charles Sterling. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of French Paintings. Vol. 1, XV–XVIII Centuries. Cambridge, Mass., 1955, pp. 186–88, ill., suggests that the measurements in the 1783 catalogue may have included the frame.
Annette Joelson. Courtesan Princess: Catherine Grand, Princesse de Talleyrand. Philadelphia, 1965, pp. 99–100, ill. opp. title page.
Ilse Bischoff. "Vigée-Lebrun and the Women of the French Court." Antiques 92 (November 1967), pp. 709–10, fig. 5.
Jean Orieux. Talleyrand, ou le sphinx incompris. Paris, 1970, p. 336.
Anne-Marie Passez. Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, 1749–1803: Biographie et catalogue raisonné de son oeuvre. Paris, 1973, p. 23.
Hugo Munsterberg. A History of Women Artists. New York, 1975, ill. p. 39.
Nathalie Volle inFrench Painting, 1774–1830: The Age of Revolution. Exh. cat., Detroit Institute of Arts. Paris, 1975, pp. 665–66, no. 196, ill. p. 70 [French ed., Paris, 1974, "De David à Delacroix: La peinture française de 1774 à 1830, pp. 657–58, no. 196, pl. 24, quotes the responses of contemporary critics.
Elsa Honig Fine. Women & Art: A History of Women Painters and Sculptors from the Renaissance to the 20th Century. Montclair, N.J., 1978, p. 51, finds it typical of Vigée's portraits of insipid women.
Joseph Baillio. Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1755–1842. Exh. cat., Kimbell Art Museum. Fort Worth, 1982, pp. 13, 17, 48–49, 126, no. 12, ill., notes that the "langorous pose and upturned eyes of this modern-day Saint Cecilia harken back to Italian Baroque religious painting . . . , perhaps via Greuze, who often had recourse to such posturing"; lists variants and copies.
Denys Sutton. "Madame Vigée Le Brun: A Survivor of the Ancien Régime." Apollo 116 (July 1982), pp. 26, 30, ill.
Pierre Rosenberg and Marion C. Stewart. French Paintings 1500–1825, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. San Francisco, 1987, p. 311.
Simon Schama. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York, 1989, p. 220, fig. 61, calls it "an exception [in Vigée's portraiture] in presenting a woman as a kind of sexual property".
Michel de Grèce. Portrait et seduction. Paris, 1992, pp. 118, 120, ill. (color, overall and detail).
Angelica Goodden. The Sweetness of Life: A Biography of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. London, 1997, pp. 56, 219, 246, ill. (ill. not paginated).
Françoise Pitt-Rivers. Madame Vigée Le Brun. Paris, 2001, pp. 88–89.
Melissa Percival. "The Expressive Heads of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun." Gazette des beaux-arts 138 (November 2001), pp. 210–11, ill., notes that "this painting raises the question: what is the difference between a simpering society hostess and the grand passions of history painting?".
Emmanuel de Waresquiel. Talleyrand: Le prince immobile. [Paris], 2003, pp. 248, 662 n. 2, colorpl. XI (cropped; first plate section).
Fernando Mazzocca, ed. Viaggio in Italia di una donna artista: i "Souvenirs" di Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1789–1792. Milan, 2004, ill. p. 43 (color).
Gary Tinterow and Asher Ethan Miller inThe Wrightsman Pictures. Ed. Everett Fahy. New York, 2005, p. 278, fig. 1.
Gita May. Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun: The Odyssey of an Artist in an Age of Revolution. New Haven, 2005, pp. 50, 70, fig. 4.
Olivier Blanc. Portraits de femmes artistes et modèles à l'époque de Marie-Antoinette. Paris, 2006, pp. 41–42, ill. (color).
Jacques Brun. Catherine, princesse de Talleyrand (1761–1835). February 2007, ill. (color) [http://www.talleyrand.org/famille/catherine_princesse_talleyrand.html (accessed 3/17/2015)].
Alte Meister. Dorotheum, Vienna. October 6, 2009, p. 148, under no. 249.
Kathryn Calley Galitz. "François Gérard: Portraiture, Scandal, and the Art of Power in Napoleonic France." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 71 (Summer 2013), p. 8, fig. 5 (color).
Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell. Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. New Haven, 2015, p. 308, fig. 241 (color).
Joseph Baillio inÉlisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Ed. Joseph Baillio and Xavier Salmon. Exh. cat., Grand Palais, Galeries nationales. Paris, 2015, p. 128, under no. 30.
Katharine Baetjer inÉlisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Ed. Joseph Baillio and Xavier Salmon. Exh. cat., Grand Palais, Galeries nationales. Paris, 2015, pp. 173, 352, no. 57, ill. (color).
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Ed. Joseph Baillio and Xavier Salmon. Exh. cat., Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais. Paris, 2015, p. 333.
Joseph Baillio inVigée Le Brun. Ed. Joseph Baillio, Katharine Baetjer, and Paul Lang. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2016, p. 25 [English and French language Canadian eds., "Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun," Ottawa, 2016].
Katharine Baetjer inVigée Le Brun. Ed. Joseph Baillio, Katharine Baetjer, and Paul Lang. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2016, pp. 90–91, 245, no. 18, ill. (color, overall and detail) [English and French language Canadian eds., "Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun," Ottawa, 2016].
Volle 1975 and Baillio 1982 list copies that are/were in the château de Valençay, in the collection of M. and Mme Gaston Palewski, and at Berry College, Rome, Georgia. Other copies were sold at Robinson-Fisher, New York, May 21, 1925, no. 180; Parke-Bernet, New York, February 20, 1941, no. 132; Parke-Bernet, New York, December 1, 1943, no. 398; and at the Dorotheum, Vienna, October 6, 2009, no 249.