Few painters in history are as indelibly associated – both professionally and personally – with a single monarch as is Vigée Le Brun with Queen Marie Antoinette. Artist and patron were exact contemporaries, and starting with the success of her first full-length state portrait of the young queen in 1778 (Vienna), the twenty-three year-old painter established her international reputation. It was owing to the Queen’s direct intervention that Vigée Le Brun was admitted into the prestigious Académie Royale in 1783, elevating her to the top of the artistic elite of France. There soon followed a series of royal commissions to the painter that shaped the public image of the glamourous Austrian Archduchess: depicting Marie Antoinette wearing a fashionable chemise (1783, several versions) – in which the informality of her dress was widely criticized as unseemly and caused an uproar; with a rose (1783, Lynda and Stuart Resnick Collection, Beverly Hills); with a book (1783-1784; private collection); and, most famously, in a monumental dynastic full-length portrait of Marie Antoinette with her children (1787; Versailles) that was meant to improve the Queen’s image as a loving and dutiful mother and restore her deteriorating public reputation. It is through these imperious but affectionate royal images crafted by Vigée Le Brun that most of Marie Antoinette’s subjects would have recognized her and posterity remembers her still.
As the painter’s career had been made by her intimate association with Marie Antoinette and the Queen’s inner circle, so it was undone – briefly – for the same reason. When the Revolution erupted violently in July 1789, Vigée Le Brun fell into a depression and sought refuge in the homes of relatives. On 6 October, as the mobs were invading Versailles to bring the royal family back to Paris, she fled France in one of the first waves of emigration, departing for Rome with her daughter and governess, in what would be the start of a twelve-year exile. Although personally disruptive and unsettling, her years in exile were professionally successful and highly productive as she travelled through Italy, Austria, Russia, Germany, England and Switzerland, welcomed into each European court as a revered survivor of the final days of the Ancien Régime and showered with commissions from foreign aristocrats and fellow refugees alike.
The present painting is the most personal and poignant testimony of the relationship between Vigée Le Brun and her tragic Queen. Executed on a small wooden panel with a highly polished finish reminiscent of a 17th-century Dutch cabinet picture, this portrait of Marie Antoinette was painted posthumously and entirely from memory near the end of the artist’s stay in the Russian capital of Saint Petersburg. The queen, who had died on the guillotine in Paris in 1793, is depicted wearing a simple muslin shift reminiscent of the one she wore on her way to execution, its whiteness symbolizing her innocence and martyrdom.
The portrait is signed on the lower right, scratched into the wet paint as the artist was known to do, and an inscription in black paint on the reverse of the panel indicates it was painted in 1800. Vigee Le Brun sent the painting to Marie Antoinette’s daughter, Marie Thérèse Charlotte de France, Duchesse d’Angoulême (1778-1851), the only surviving child of the Queen and Louis XVI. Known as Madame Royale, she had been painted several times as a girl by Vigée Le Brun: once in a double-portrait with her brother, the Dauphin (1784; Versailles) and, famously, in the grand family portrait Marie Antoinette with Her Children (1787; Versailles), where she is the beautiful nine year-old who clings protectively to her mother’s arm. Of the members of the royal family imprisoned in the Temple starting in 1792, Madame Royale was the only one to leave alive. Released in 1795, she went into exile in Vienna. By 1800, when she received this portrait of her mother, she was living in Mitau, in the duchy of Kurland (present day Jelgava, Latvia), where her father’s eldest brother, the Comte de Provence, resided as guest of Czar Paul I of Russia. She had married her cousin, Louis Antoine, duc d’Angoulême (son of the comte d’Artois) at her uncle’s urging, on 10 June 1799 at Jelgava Palace. The couple had no children.
Vigée Le Brun recounts the origins of the painting in her celebrated Souvenirs, published in 1837. The artist had been invited to visit the royal family in Mitau but for various personal (and professional) reasons declined. “The comte de Cossé arrived in Petersburg from Mitau where he had just left the royal family. He paid me a visit in order to persuade me to visit the princes who would be very pleased, he said, to see me. At that moment I was very sorry, for I could not leave my daughter who was ill, and moreover I was obliged to fulfill the portrait commissions I had accepted not only from important clients but also from the Imperial family, which prevented me from leaving Petersburg for some time. I expressed my distress to M. de Cossé, and as he was returning right away, I immediately painted from memory the portrait of the queen, which I begged him to present to the duchesse d’Angoulême, until such time as I would myself be able to take Her Royal Highness’s orders.”
Although presumably painted quickly, the portrait displays no signs of haste. Masterly in its execution, it is finished with layer upon layer of exquisite translucent glazing, reproducing the roseate, glowing complexion which the Queen’s contemporaries regularly commended. The sitter’s eyes sparkle and she displays a youthful beauty and health that recall her appearance when the artist first encountered her, when they were both twenty-three, and not the diminished and prematurely aged woman of her sad, final years.
The arrival of the portrait in Mitau must have been a bittersweet pleasure for the duchesse d’Angoulême, still only twenty-one years old but living far from home in a loveless marriage. A letter from the Duchess thanking Madame Le Brun for the gift suggests as much. “The comte de Cossé presented me, Madame, with the portrait of my Mother which you had asked him to bring me. You have afforded me the double pleasure of seeing in one of your most beautiful works an Image very dear to my heart, thus of being beholden to you for having used your talents as a proof of your sentiments. Be assured that I feel this more deeply than I can express. And count on my feelings for you. Marie Thérèse.” (The original letter was sold at auction at Versailles, Hôtel des Chevau-Légers, Précieuse collection d’autographes de femmes célèbres, 8 March 1977, lot 2.)
The present painting, which was rediscovered by Joseph Baillio and first published by him in 1989, will be included in his forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the works of Vigée Le Brun.