Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (Paris 1755-1842)
Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (Paris 1755-1842)

Portrait of the artist's mother, Madame Le Sèvre

Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (Paris 1755-1842)
Portrait of the artist's mother, Madame Le Sèvre
oil on canvas, oval
25½ x 21¼ in. (65 x 54 cm.)
Collection of the artist, Paris, until her death in 1842; presumably by inheritance to her niece, Caroline Vigée Rivière, Paris and Louveciennes, and by descent in the family through the second half of the 19th century.
Comtesse de la Ferronays, Paris; (+), Paris, Hôtel Drouot, 12 April 1897, lot 18 as 'Portrait de L. de Lostenges, Marquise de la Ferronays' (5800 francs).
Private collection, France, until 1985.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, Monaco, 22 June 1985, lot 179 (the sitter misidentified as the Marquise de la Ferronnays).
with Stair Sainty Matthiesen, New York, until 1985. Anonymous sale; Christie's, New York, 27 January 2000, lot 68, ($134,500), where acquired by the present owner.
J. Tripier Le Franc, 'Notice sur la vie et les ouvrages de Madame Vigée-Lebrun,' Journal dictionnaire de biographie, 1828, pp. 179-180 ('Trois ans á peine s'étaient écoulés depuis ses premiers succès, quand la jeune Louise fixa sur la toile un portrait qui devait lui en valoir encore. (...) La jeune Louise ne pouvait certes mieux faire que de consacrer à sa mère les premières couleurs de sa palette. (...) Malgré le jeune âge dans lequel i fut achevé , il peut toujours être mis au rang des beaux portraits. Son ton n'a rien perdu de sa fraîcheur...').
E.L. Vigée-Le Brun, Souvenirs, 1835, I, pp. 6, 22-23 (and note 1) and 318.
P. de Nolhac, Madame Vigée-Le Brun, peintre de la reine Marie Antoinette..., 1908, p. 11 ('Son chef-d'oeuvre d'alors est un portrait ovale de sa mère, peint à quinze ans et demi; le jolie visage est presque de face et les épaules son recouvertes d'une pelisse de satin blanc bordée d'une fourrure de cygne.'); also cited in catalogue by H. Pannier, p. 138.
W.H. Helm, Vigée-Le Brun: Her Life, Works, and Friendships, n.d. [1915], p. 197.
H.T. Douwes Dekker, Mme. L.E. Vigée-Le Brun, catalogue des portraits enhuile et pastel retrouvés, 1978, no. 095.
J. Baillio, 'Quelques peintures réattribuées à Vigée Le Brun,' Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 6e pér., XCIX, January 1982, p. 14 (fallacious information provided by the Masclary family led the author to state incorrectly that the original version of the portrait of Madame Le Sèvre 'en pelisse blanche' was destroyed).
E.L. Vigée-Le Brun, Mémoires d'une portraitiste, 1989, p. 21.
E.L. Vigée-Le Brun, Memorie di una ritrattista, 1990, illustrated between pp. 144-145.
New York, Colnaghi, The French Portrait 1550-1850, 10 January-10 February 1996, p. 55, pl. 15, pp. 56-57, 99 (catalogue by A. Wintermute and D. Garstang).

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Lot Essay

Daughter of the minor portraitist Louis Vigée (1715-1767), Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun took up her father's profession at the age of fifteen, and her mother and younger brother Etiénne were among her first sitters. Her mother, née Jeanne Maissin (1728-1800), was a fashionable hairdresser in Paris who married, seven months after Louis Vigée's death in 1767, the goldsmith Jacques François Le Sèvre (1724-1810). Vigée Le Brun recounts in her Memoirs (published 1835-37) that early in her career she painted three portraits of her mother: the first was a large pastel representing her as a Sultana, now lost, while a second, also lost and long misattributed to Watteau (but recently identified by Joseph Baillio, 1982, op. cit.), depicted Jeanne, bust-length and in lost-profile, seen from behind; the third is the present lot. One of the artist's most graceful early works, this oval canvas depicts the aging Jeanne Le Sèvre wearing a luxurious white satin pelisse edged in swan's feathers. The young painter -- by her own admission largely self-taught -- was obviously testing her skills by creating a society portrait in the manner of the most fashionable portrait painter of the moment, Duplessis.

'My mother was very beautiful,' an elderly Vigée Le Brun remembered. 'You can see it for yourself if you look at the pastel of her by my father and also the oil that I did of her much later. That portrait is an oval bust that I painted from life...' (Memoirs, I, p. 6). The portrait is a touching example of the affection and tact with which the 20-year-old painter, herself a famous beauty, was able to convey Jeanne's fading charms, a skill she would often be called upon to deploy. Apparent is Vigée Le Brun's genius for capturing the character of a sitter with arresting immediacy and for reproducing both flesh and fabric with delicate, luminous glazing.

The portrait of Jeanne was widely admired and helped launch Vigée Le Brun's meteoric rise. 'I had only recently finished the portrait of my mother' she recalled, 'and its praises were being sung in Society. Soon the Duchess [de Chartres] sent for me to paint her in her home. She inspired everyone in her entourage with her interest in my talent and...from then on I received a succession of great ladies from the court...' (Memoirs, I, pp. 22-23). In her Memoirs, the artist includes the present portrait in a list of works painted between 1768 and 1772, but this was almost certainly a slip of memory, as both the style of the painting and the appearance of the sitter suggest a date closer to 1775-78, as has been posited by Joseph Baillio. The artist composed her memoirs near the end of her life, more than half a century after her earliest works were painted, and she sometimes relied on memory alone when preparing the book.

Until it reappeared at auction in 1985, the present painting was believed to have been destroyed at the end of the 19th century and its composition was known through two copies made for descendants of the painter's brother. Vigée Le Brun had been sentimentally attached to the portrait of her mother, and it remained in her possession until her death in 1842, hanging during her final years in one of the sitting rooms of her apartment on the rue Saint-Lazare. In all likelihood, as Baillio has noted, it subsequently became the property of her brother's daughter, Madame Rivière, née Caroline Vigée, who inherited most of her aunt's estate. At some point in the second half of the 19th century, the portrait was acquired by the Comtesse de la Ferronays, in whose sale it appeared in 1897; by that time, the sitter's true identity had been lost and it was thought to depict a member of the la Ferronays family.

The present portrait will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the paintings of Vigée Le Brun being prepared by Joseph Baillio. We are grateful to Joseph Baillio for his assistance.

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