Following her flight from Paris in October 1789, Vigée Le Brun lived in exile in Italy, passing quickly through Turin, Parma, Modena and Bologna, before arriving in Florence in mid-November. Staying there less than two weeks, the artist moved on to Rome, then spent much of the next two years shuttling between Rome, Florence and Naples (with side trips to Venice) as she studied the collections of the Uffizi and the Pitti and juggled her numerous portrait commissions.
In April 1792, Vigée Le Brun left Rome with the intention of returning to Paris. However, worsening conditions in France -- abolition of the French monarchy, violence in the streets of the capital, and the addition of her name to the list of émigrés whose citizenship would be revoked and properties seized -- caused her to abandon her plan to return to her country. In Milan, the Austrian ambassador to Lombardy, Count Johann Joseph von Wilczek, convinced her to go on instead to Vienna, and provided her with the passports that allowed her to do so.
Upon her arrival in Austria from Italy in the autumn of 1792, Vigée Le Brun rented a house on the outskirts of Vienna, with Count and Countess Bystry, her travelling companions from Italy and the subjects of this pair of lively portraits. The artist had met the glamorous couple at a concert in Milan that autumn, and was charmed by them. As she recounts in her Souvenirs:
“In Milan I went to lots of lovely concerts, as that is the city where famous singers stay. While attending the last of those concerts, I found myself in the company of a very beautiful and awfully nice Polish lady, comtesse Bistri. As soon as we entered conversation, I told her that I was leaving for Vienna shortly. To that she replied that she and her husband were also intending to go to Vienna, but much later than I. Both expressed their willingness to travel together with me and they speeded up the planned date of their departure. As I was planning to go by ‘venturino’, the Bistris were moved in their kindness so far as to give up taking the post, not to leave me alone during the trip. One cannot find more pleasant travelling companions!”
At this moment when refugees from France where fanning out across Europe, Vigée Le Brun wrote that the Count and Countess Bystry also agreed to take with them in their carriage to Vienna a poor, elderly priest and a young priest. These two men had, the artist notes, “somehow managed to escape the massacres at Beauvoisin bridge” – a border crossing out of French Savoy occupied by French revolutionary forces, where dozens of people, notably priests, had been recently set upon and murdered. “Although M. and Mme. Bistri had only the two-seat stage coach at their disposal, they nevertheless seated the old priest between them, and the young one was travelling in the back. And they cared for those misfortunate two as friends, as angels, guardians; as the best parents would!” Moved by their humanity, she notes, “I was greatly encouraged by the Bistris’ manner, and that explains my closeness to them, and the subsequent cordial relations between us in Vienna.” It was upon their arrival in Vienna that the Bystrys and the artist decided to rent a house together in the suburb of Huitzing for several months; it was there that Vigée Le Brun painted the present portraits. At the end of the year, the couple left to continue their travels, and Madame Le Brun moved into an apartment in the center of the capital city.
In fact, the thirty-six year old Count Romuald Joachim Bystry (1756-1824) and his Polish-born wife, the former Anna Rakowska, were on their extended honeymoon in Milan when they befriend Vigée Le Brun. It was the young noblewoman’s second marriage (her previous husband, Ignacy Kordysz, had died in 1788). The three were close in age – Count Bystry was thirty-six years old when they met and Vigée Le Brun a year older – and they seem to have retained close relations for some years afterward. The couple owned a self-portrait by the artist that remained with their descendants at least until the First World War (it was exhibited in London in 1913-1914 in the National Loan Exhibition as from the collection of Count Valentin Siemontkowsky, Koustyn, Volonie, Russia).
The sparkling, half-length portraits of the Count and Countess Bystry have a light-hearted and informal charm that reflects, no doubt, the intimacy between the sitters and painter. The handsome Count is depicted playing a guitar (perhaps an allusion to the musical event where the three were introduced); the Countess holds a goblet, probably in the guise of Hébé, cupbearer to the gods of Olympus, and goddess of Youth.
The portraits will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of works by Vigée Le Brun being prepared by Joseph Baillio.