In 1778, Jean-Etienne Liotard, son of the pastellist, recorded in his diary a visit with his father to the house of Madame de Fries in Vienna: 'Après le repas qui fut très bon, madame de Fries nous chanta et s'accompagnant de la harpe. Elle chante avec tant d'âme & a une si belle voix qu'elle nous enchanta'. This passage could not more perfectly describe this pastel of Madame de Fries, and also may be responsible for its sometime attribution to Liotard. In fact, this work is a product of the struggle for supremacy in Vienna between Liotard and the Swedish portraitist Alexander Roslin. Liotard wrote to his wife complaining that there was no business for him in Vienna as 'tout la grande Noblesse est pour Mr Rossselin [sic]'.
There are oil versions of this pastel and its pendant (Roslin's Portrait of Johann Reichsgraf von Fries, sold at Christie's, New York, 21 June 2012, lot 1184) in the family collection at Schloss Wolfsthal, which family tradition had attributed to Liotard; and indeed Liotard's presence in Vienna at this date has resulted in debate about the attribution of the pastels - whether they are by Roslin himself, either as principal versions or immediate repetitions; or by Liotard after Roslin; or by a third hand. Neil Jeffares feels that only the first hypothesis is tenable and has suggested that the level of finish of this pastel, and its pendant, suggests that they may well have been the primary works from which the oil replicas were made.
Most of Roslin's work was in oil, but elements in the present pastel - the light reflections on the fabric, the fur, the reddish outline to the hand, and especially the bravura handling of the lace - mimic precisely Roslin's work in oil, in a manner which one can easily see him replicating in pastel. Mr Jeffares believes that the pendant pastels of Monsieur and Madame de Fries were executed in 1778 as a deliberate demonstration of Roslin's continued mastery of the medium, possibly in response to a direct challenge from Liotard or more likely as a repsonse to the conflicting demands of his most exacting patrons: Monsieur de Fries, already convinced of Roslin's genius, and his wife, who showed a preference for Liotard, perhaps because he used a medium particularly favoured by the fashionable intelligentsia to whom she belonged.
Madame de Fries was born in Lyon, the daughter of Jean d'Escherny, and in 1764 she married Johann Fries (1719-1785), a Swiss banker who had made his fortune through his licence to produce imperial thaler between 1752 and 1776. Madame de Fries's brother, François-Louis d'Escherny (1733-1815), was a noted writer, musicologist and philosophe, particularly associated with Rousseau and Diderot, and she herself kept up correspondence with literary figures, including the Prince de Ligne, Mme de Staël and Benjamin Constant. She knew Mme Vigée Le Brun, who painted three of her children: the Gräfin von Haugwitz, the Gräfin von Schönfeld and Moritz Christian, Reichsgraf von Fries. Most significantly for the present portrait, however, she was a friend of Gluck who, in November 1777, sent her two airs from Armide, after some of the early performances in Paris had met with a mixed reception. She performed these airs at the musical evening described by Liotard fils and, although the notation on the sheet on her music table is not too precise, we can identify the music as Armide's aria Venez, venez, Haine implacable from Act 3, Scene III of the opera.
We are grateful to Neil Jeffares for confirming the attribution upon examination of the original and for his assistance in preparing this catalogue note.