Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun’s preparatory study for the final version is in a New York private collection (oil on canvas; H. 49 cm; L. 38.5 cm ; fig. 1)
The portraitist Élisabeth Louise Vigée painted very few history paintings during her teenage years, apart from the three Allegories of the Arts that she sent to the Salon of the Académie de Saint-Luc in 1774 (see exh. cat. Vigée Le Brun, Grand Palais, 2015-16, p. 131, no. 31). From a very young age, while accompanying her mother on visits to the most important Paris collectors, and later in the stock of the connoisseur and art dealer Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, whom she married in 1775, she was able to admire the boudoir paintings of the mid-eighteenth century, and it was these that were her inspiration.
In 1779, four years into her marriage, Vigée-Le Brun produced a pastel allegory for Pierre Louis Éveillard de Livois, a collector from Angers: Innocence Taking Refuge in the Arms of Justice (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Angers, inv. no. MBA 25J.1881). This was the first time that she devised a composition depicting two young women, one fair and one dark-haired. From this year on and until she left France at the very beginning of the French Revolution, the portraitist produced a number of compelling history paintings. In 1780, the year that her daughter Jeanne Julie Louise was born, she created a composition with a mythological theme: Venus Tying the Wings of Love, commissioned by her most important private patron, the Comte de Vaudreuil. This pastel is known mostly through the etched and engraved print published in 1786 by the Dresden printmaker Christian Gottfried Schulze. Vigée-Le Brun painted another history painting in the same year, an allegory of Peace Bringing Back Abundance (fig. 2), which she presented as her reception piece for admission to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture on 31 May 1783. In 1781, Vigée-Le Brun produced the present painting, Juno Borrowing the Belt of Venus. This was commissioned by the younger brother of Louis XVI, Charles Philippe de France, Comte d’Artois, (fig. 3) – a prince known before the Revolution for his expensive whims and libertine lifestyle. In forming his collection Artois was guided by his best friend the Comte de Vaudreuil, cousin and lover of the Duchesse de Polignac and a great admirer of works of the modern French school.
Before painting the full-size version of Juno, Vigée-Le Brun submitted a very finely finished preparatory modello in oil on canvas for her royal patron’s approval (fig. 1; see exh. cat. Vigée Le Brun, Grand Palais, 2015-16, no. 35), in which she depicted the two most important (and to some degree rival) goddesses of Graeco-Roman mythology: Juno and Venus (examples exist of French painters from earlier generations, such as Pierre Mignard and Jean Raoux, producing modelli of this type before the execution of important works of art).
The theme of this mythological composition with three figures was drawn from an episode in Book XIV of the Iliad. Homer’s poem recounts the story of the siege of Troy in Asia Minor by a coalition of Greek city states. The initial cause of the war was the abduction of Helen – wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta, and sister-in-law of Agamemnon, King of Mycenae – by Paris, son of Priam, King of Troy. Juno, who was Jupiter’s sister as well as his wife and therefore queen of the Olympian gods, had a fierce hatred of Troy because Paris had humiliated her by preferring Venus (Aphrodite in Greek), mother of Cupid, in a beauty contest. She meant to take revenge by ensuring a Greek victory. But Troy and its mortal inhabitants were protected by the all-powerful Jupiter. To rekindle her unfaithful husband’s love, she asked Venus to lend her a multi-coloured belt woven from threads of desire and passion, containing all the charms of seduction: the girdle worn across the breast that the Romans called cestus himas. She felt sure that if she wore this enchanted article, Jupiter would not be able to resist her and would abandon the Trojans.
Venus, who had for a long time been a sort of cult figure for the hedonistic aristocracy at the French court, embodies the pleasures of licit and illicit love. The goddess prevailed at that time in the king’s palaces and in the homes of rich private individuals; many Academicians paid homage to her. The work of François Boucher (1703-1770), who had died not long before, and his successor Jean Baptiste Marie Pierre (1714-1789) represents a clear expression of their contemporaries’ taste for female nudity and it is evident that for them mythology was simply a pretext for revealing the charms of alluring models.
Juno Borrowing the Belt of Venus held a prime position among the large number of works that Vigée-Le Brun entered to her first Salon after being received into the Académie. The critical reception was mostly positive, but particular note should be taken of the review by Barthélémy Mouffle d’Angerville, editor of Mémoires Secrets:
"If this composition [Peace Bringing Back Abundance]…should not be enough to assure Madame le Brun the honour of a place among the artists of history, it would be difficult to resist another whose theme drawn from Homer proves that she can, like her masters, show a passion for the divine works of the prince of poets as well as of painters, since the latter never fail to be inspired by him. The subject is Juno borrowing the belt of Venus. There are three figures, with Cupid playing a part, amusing himself by playing with the belt, which has already been relinquished to the Queen of Olympus: he is reluctant to let it go, as though aware of its worth and fearing that if she loses the belt his mother will also lose her most precious charms. Indeed, perhaps in an extension of this idea, or in homage to the first among goddesses, whom the artist has felt bound to make her principal figure, no admirer in this instance could fail to prefer Juno to Venus. The first, dark-haired, combines both the majesty of the throne and the piquancy of beauty; the second, fair-haired, exhibits none of the nobility of a divinity, even bringing to mind a common woman, a little banal and consequently lacking in seductive qualities. Despite this defect relating to the head, so crucial in history painting, the body is full of feminine charms, its nudity in the style of Boucher, very lovingly depicted and with the same tones and colouring. To judge by the price it fetched, the painting must have much merit, since Monsieur le Comte d'Artois was advised to pay fifteen thousand francs for it. He bought it at that price and his Royal Highness is now its owner."
Among other paintings that belonged to the Comte d’Artois, mention must be made in particular of A Young Woman Praying at the Altar of Love by Jean Baptiste Greuze (Wallace Collection, London, inv. P441); Mars leaving Venus, on a chariot harnessed with sprightly horses driven by Bellona, the spirit of Victory floating on a cloud above, with Venus reclining in her bed in her palace beside the Three Graces by François Guillaume Ménageot (lost work); Rinaldo and Armida by François André Vincent (lost from the French Ministry of the Interior after 1879) and its pendant The Loves of Paris and Helen by Jacques Louis David (Paris, Musée du Louvre, inv. 3696; fig 4). This last painting, dated 1788, has very close thematic and chromatic links with Vigée-Le Brun’s Juno Borrowing the Belt of Venus, painted seven years earlier.
Known for his reactionary ideas, the Comte d’Artois was an unpopular prince, and he was forced to leave France just two days after the Storming of the Bastille. He was accompanied by his family and much of the Polignac set, including his friend Vaudreuil. Since his oldest son, the young Duc d’Angoulême (1775-1844), had since early childhood been Grand Prior of the Maltese Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, Artois used the palatial Hôtel du Temple as his residence in town. Most of his collection of works of art and precious objects was located there, even those that before the Revolution had graced his other residences near Paris, the Château de Bagatelle and Château de Maisons.
When the revolutionaries seized the Temple, Juno Borrowing the Belt of Venus and other paintings were transferred as national assets to the Hôtel de Nesle in Rue de Beaune. Here, artistic treasures seized from those who had emigrated or been guillotined were accumulated. On 19 Prairial, Year II of the revolutionary calendar (7 June 1794) and over the following days, an inventory was compiled: Inventory of the Works of Art previously belonging to the emigré d’Artois, found in the Temple and retained by the Temporary Arts Commission in the presence of citizen Virginien Leduc, Superintendent of the Department (French National Archives, ref.: F17 1269. Dossier 20). It was here too, on 15 Fructidor, Year II of the revolutionary calendar (1 August 1794), that Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, Vigée-Le Brun’s divorced husband, drew up an estimate or appraisal of the works of art that had belonged to the emigré d’Artois (French National Archives, ref.: F17 1267, no. 34: ‘Juno coming to borrow the Belt of Venus. Life-size, half-length figure: on canvas, height 63 pouces, width 41 pouces. By Citizen Le Brun [valued at] 3,000’ (cf. Louis Tuetey, ed., Procès-verbaux de la Commission temporaire des Arts, Paris, Imprimerie Nationale, 1912, vol. I, p. 380).
The painting remained for two years in the Nesle depot, but on 14 June 1796 (26 Prairial, Year IV), the Minister for the Interior, Pierre Bénézech, sent the custodian Jean Naigeon the following message: ‘Citizen Jourdan, farmer of the Mandtzal national glassworks, offers to pay the sum of 120,000 francs for some of the engravings and paintings kept at the Hôtel de Nesle. Please note that he is authorised to choose those that he requires.’ Jourdan was director of the Müntzthal national glassworks in Moselle, formerly the Saint Louis royal crystal factory, based in Saint-Louis-lès-Bitche. Among the paintings he chose were the Juno and Venus by Vigée-Le Brun and Mars leaving Venus by Ménageot.
Citizen Jourdan was Antoine Gabriel Aimé Jourdan (fig. 5), former secretary to his foster father, Jean Gilles du Coëtlosquet, Bishop of Limoges (1700-1784), who was preceptor to the future Louis XVI, Louis XVIII and Charles X, the sons of the Dauphin, Louis Ferdinand, and the Dauphine, Marie Josèphe de Saxe. Jourdan had served as president of the District des Petits-Augustins and the Section des Quatre-Nations, districts of revolutionary Paris. He had been one of the witnesses to the September Massacres (1792) and in 1795 he published a chilling account of the events.
In 1803, the year before his death, Jourdan included the Vigée-Le Brun painting in the sale of his collection, held at the Hôtel Desmarets in Rue du Bouloi. The painting (lot no. 90) was withdrawn and remained in his estate. It passed to his godson, Aimé Gabriel d’Artigues, engineer in the lead-crystal industry and industrialist, founder of the Baccarat crystal works. The painting then remained in the family by descent.