Following her flight from Paris in October 1789, Vigée Le Brun had 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, a glamorous Polish couple the artist had recently met at a concert in Milan and quickly befriended. At this moment when refugees from France where fanning out across Europe, Vigée Le Brun wrote that the Count and Countess Bystry kindly offered to take her with them in their carriage to Vienna. Moved by their generosity, Vigée Le Brun recounts in her Souvenirs (1835-37), “I was greatly encouraged by the Bystrys’ manner, and that explains my closeness to them, and the subsequent cordial relations between us in Vienna.” Count Romuald Joachim Bystry (1756-1824) and his Polish-born wife, the former Anna Rakowska, were on an extended honeymoon in Milan when they met the artist. The three were close in age – Count Bystry was thirty-six years old and Vigée Le Brun a year older – and they seem to have retained cordial relations for some years afterward. Sometime during the period when they resided together, the artist painted a lively pair of portraits of the couple, which makes evident her deep fondness for them (sold Christie's, New York, 13 April 2016, lot 18; fig. 1). At the end of the year, the Bystrys left to continue their travels, and Madame Le Brun moved into an apartment in the center of the capital city.
In addition to the portraits she painted of them, Vigée Le Brun gave the couple her own self-portrait. While living outside France, Vigée Le Brun made a number of self-portraits as expressions of her gratitude towards people who were particularly welcoming or helpful to her, and she generally makes no mention of them in the ‘List of Paintings’ that she appended to her Souvenirs. (Perhaps this was because they were gifts rather than commissioned works.) The self-portrait that she made for the Bystrys is not recorded in her memoirs, but it remained with their descendants until shortly before the First World War (it was exhibited in London in 1913-1914 in the National Loan Exhibition as descending from the collection of Count Valentin Siemontkowsky, Koustyn, Volonie, Russia), and old photos of the painting, which was lent to the exhibition by Otto Gutekunst, director of Colnaghi (reproduced in W.H. Helm, Vigee Le Brun, 1755-1842, Her Life, Works, and Friendships, Boston, 1915, p. 206, pl. 138), indicate that its format was identical to the present lot, but, as Joseph Baillio notes (in correspondence, August 2017), significantly smaller (21 ¼ x 16 3/8 inches) and of lesser quality. Both the Bystrys’ painting and the present self-portrait are lively, informally posed works in which the artist wears the white muslin turban that was part of her studio garb and an academic gown with a red band trimmed in gold, and they amply display the elegance and beauty for which the 39-year-old artist was widely celebrated.
The present self-portrait also goes unrecorded in Vigée Le Brun's memoirs – indeed, no mention is made of any portraits of the artist from her years in Vienna – but its status cannot be doubted: it is clearly signed, located, and dated by the artist – the inscription characteristically scratched into the wet paint with a sharp implement – ‘L.E. Vigee Le Brun / à Vienne 1794’.
Although the recipient of this splendid token of thanks remains unidentified, Baillio has suggested that it might have been the other Viennese acquaintance to whom Vigée Le Brun owed a great personal debt, Wenzel Anton, Prince Kaunitz-Rietberg (1711-1794). Kaunitz was an Austrian diplomat and statesman in the Hapsburg court who held the office of State Chancellor for four decades, responsible for foreign policy during the reign of Maria Theresa, Joseph II, and Leopold II. A master tactician, he was the principal architect of the Treaty of Versailles, which established a crucial alliance between Austria and France in 1756, in the months preceding the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War. In 1764 he was elevated to the noble rank of Prince of the Holy Roman Empire.
A founder of the Royal Academy in Brussels, a liberal patron of education and the arts, and an avid art collector, Prince Kaunitz offered Vigée Le Brun crucial support shortly after her arrival in Vienna, when he invited her to exhibit her recent painting of Emma Hamilton as a Sibyl (1791/92; private collection) in his opulent palace for two weeks. It would be a promotional strategy that introduced the artist to much of Austrian and Polish society and would elicit for her many portrait commissions; decades later, she remained justifiably grateful to him for launching her career in the city. Writing of him with great affection and enthusiasm in her memoirs, she recounted that the 83-year-old minister “never referred to me in any way other than his good friend,” and “he was most eager to exhibit my Sibyl in his salon for at least a fortnight, during which time he sang the praises of this painting to town and court, with a kindness which more than proved his affection for me.” She further noted that the Prince “lived in a very grand manner in Vienna; the glory that he had obtained in his office as minister still surrounded him,” and Joseph Baillio has posited that Kaunitz’s lavish taste and unrestrained expenditure might account for the extraordinary original frame on the present self-portrait, on which carved and gilded laurel wreaths surround a painter’s palette and brush, clearly exalting the author and subject of the portrait. If the present painting was indeed made for the prince, he was not able to long enjoy it: he died on 27 June 1794, aged 83.
Our thanks to Joseph Baillio for his assistance with this entry; the present lot will be included in his forthcoming catalogue raisonné of works by Vigée Le Brun.