Though she is more famous for her work in oil, Vigée first trained as a pastellist under the tutelage of her father, the artist Louis Vigée (1715–1767). As her career progressed she increasingly turned to the presumably more lucrative activity of painting, though she did return to pastel throughout her life, both in her commissioned work and for herself. As a result, far fewer pastels than oil paintings by Vigée are known; the present work is a rare and particularly well-preserved example from her later years. In this fully finished yet loose portrait, her appreciation for the immediacy and softness of the medium is well on display.
Vigée was a precocious and talented artist from a young age; she succeeded in gaining entrance to the Académie de Saint-Luc at just nineteen, a remarkable accomplishment for a woman at the time. By the late 1770s Vigée Le Brun’s reputation as a portraitist had become well-established. In 1778 she was called to Versailles to paint a full-length portrait of the young Queen Marie Antoinette. The tremendous success of this portrait led to a number of royal commissions and the continued patronage of the Queen and her circle. She also served as a mentor and friend to many other female artists of her generation, such as Marie-Genevieve Lemoine (see lots 47 and 48) and the Marquis de Grollier (fig. 1). As a royalist and portraitist of Marie-Antoinette, fearing for her life, Vigée fled France during the Revolution and traveled throughout Europe for many years, spending time in Italy, Vienna, Russia, England and Switzerland. She was greeted warmly in most aristocratic circles, and in the tradition of the courtier-artist, was often treated as the social equal of her sitters.
Dated 1804, the present pastel was executed while Vigée was living in London. The high society and nobility in London received the artist warmly; indeed she wrote in her memoir that “in England, I found myself surrounded by many of my compatriots, whom I had been familiar with for quite a while… at a gathering held by Lady Parceval who often received émigrés.”1
Born Jane Wilson, daughter of Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Spencer Wilson, Lady Parceval married Spencer Perceval, younger son of the Earl of Egmont, in 1792. Though at the time his career as lawyer was unpromising (enough so that Sir Thomas disapproved of the marriage and the couple eloped), he soon experienced a rapid rise to power and in October 1809 became Prime Minister of England. Jane and Spencer Perceval had thirteen children, of whom twelve survived. When this pastel was made in 1804, Lady Perceval was pregnant with her 11th child and Spencer Perceval was a leading politician in the conservative Pitt administration, which supported the old regime in France. Hence it comes as no surprise that Lady Perceval was closely acquainted with Vigée. Given the kind mention in her memoir, their friendship must have been important to the artist, who mostly painted émigrés rather than British sitters while she was in England.
1. “Je retrouvai en Angleterre une grande quantité de compatriotes que je connaissais depuis longtemps … dans une réunion chez lady Parceval, qui recevait beaucoup d’émigrés” E.L.Vigée-Lebrun, Souvenirs II. Editions Des femmes, 6 rue de Mézières, Paris 1984, p. 352.
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