ELISABETH-LOUISE VIGÉE LE BRUN | YOUNG GIRL IN ANTIQUE COSTUME WITH HER HEAD VEILED AND CROWNED WITH WHITE SWEETBRIAR BLOSSOMS
Property from Wildenstein & Co., New York
ELISABETH-LOUISE VIGÉE LE BRUN
Paris 1755 - 1842
YOUNG GIRL IN ANTIQUE COSTUME WITH HER HEAD VEILED AND CROWNED WITH WHITE SWEETBRIAR BLOSSOMS
oil on canvas, an oval
unframed: 21¼ x 17 in.; 54 x 43 cm.
framed: 29⅛ x 25 in.; 74 x 63.5 cm.
The canvas has a mid-20th century relining. It has a stable surface and presents itself very well. The painting has a sketchy quality to it, with the ochre ground being used by the artist as a mid-tone in some parts. Other parts, such as her face, tunic, and flowers are more thickly painted. Overall the paint surface is very good. Under UV: a few tiny dots of restoration in her one cheek and some touches over craquelure near her eyebrow. At the center of the right edge, there is some restoration in the background, as well as along the upper edge and in the background at left. There are some areas of uncleaned older varnish here and there. The painting could be hung as is. Offered in an elaborately carved and gilded Regence/Louis XV style frame.
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Baron Frédéric-Émile d’Erlanger (1832-1911), Paris, as of 1883;
With Howard Young Galleries, New York, by 1926;
George R. Balch (1862-1932), Cincinnati;
Presumably to his widow, Edith Woodford Balch (1867-1957), Cincinnati;
With Wildenstein & Co., New York, by 1957;
With Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, by 1961;
Morrie A. and Lillian Moss, Memphis, Tennessee, by 1965;
Presented by Morrie Moss in 1981 to The Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk Virginia;
By whom deaccessioned and sold, New York, Sotheby’s, 28 January 2005, lot 282 (as “Attributed to Jean-Baptiste Greuze” and titled “Une Vestale”);
Selected Paintings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Morrie A. Moss, exhibition catalogue, Memphis 1965, p. 12, under cat. no. 9.
Paris, Galerie Georges Petit, Cent Chefs-d’œuvre des collections parisiennes, June 1883, no. 103.
"What an utterly charming painting by the young Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, who here at just about twenty years old is able to beautifully capture an expression of innocence, fear, and hope as the young subject turns her gaze upwards; her lip is practically quivering. While it is tempting to reflect that subtle naiveté onto the young artist herself, knowing Vigée Le Brun as we do I do not think this was a common expression for such a trailblazing woman."
The tête d’expression was the brainchild of the antiquary Anne Claude de Tubières, Comte de Caylus (1692-1765). In 1759 he set up a trust allowing for a competition in which young artists vied with each other for a prize distributed by the Académie. The tradition had its roots in the expressive heads of Poussin and in the Conférences sur l’expression of Charles Le Brun (illus. ed. published in 1718). Eighteenth-century French artists also sought inspiration in the works of Italian and Flemish painters of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Among contemporary painters who successfully cultivated the genre was Jean-Baptiste Greuze, and in this respect he must be counted as the major influence on Vigée Le Brun, who copied a number of heads by him.
By the third quarter of the eighteenth century, the vogue for this type of dramatic facial characterization was phenomenal, and Vigée Le Brun exploited it verv early in her career. Têtes d’expression or Têtes de caractère by her were to be found in major collections. Moreover a number of her female clients wished to be painted in attitudes resembling Saint Catherine or Saint Cecilia, with their heads raised, their lips parted, their eyes turned upwards in ecstatic rapture. The presumed self-portrait called “Ma tête” of 1778 that was last recorded as lot 139 in the sale of the Galerie Cailleux held at Christie’s, New York, October 23, 1998, as well as the histrionic portraits of Madame Grand (1783, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and the historicized portrait, Lady Hamilton as the Cumaen Sibyl (1792, prime versions in half- and a little more than knee-length in a Swiss private collection and in the Ramsbury Manor National Art Collection, Wiltshire), conform to this mode.1
The present work falls clearly into this category, but it may very well be the portrait à l’antique of an unidentified subject. It depicts a young maiden wearing an off-white silk or satin dress attached at the shoulders with a gold fibula or brooch, leaving the arms bare. She wears a crown of sweet briar flowers—in French églantine—and a transparent veil. Similar attire is worn by the Comtesse d’Hunolstein, one of the Marquis de La Fayette’s inamoratas, in Vigée Le Brun’s pastel portrait of her dating from 1777.2 Later in her career Vigée Le Brun made use of the same type of neoclassical garb—for example in her alluring portrait of the adolescent Gräfin Anna Flora von Kageneck crowned with flowers now in the Fondation Georges Bemberg, Toulouse (inv. no. 2332) painted in Vienna in 1792—emphasizing the ingenuousness of certain youthful female models.2 According to the author of the entry in in the catalogue of the Vigée Le Brun retrospective held at the Grand Palais in Paris,
“…Vigée Le Brun peint ici concurremment l’enfant et la jeune femme, le passage de l’un à l’autre, qui ne peut que se laisser entrevoir. Il est vrai que la mode l’y aide, la robe échancrée sur ses seins naissants, les épaules découvertes, les cheveux soyeux aux mèches libertines et les fleurs de la couronne…, bien faite pour symboliser le printemps et la fertilité qu’elle promet à un futur époux….”3
The present painting was consistently misattributed to Jean Baptiste Greuze since 1883, when the German-born Baron d’Erlanger lent it to an exhibition held in Paris at the Galerie Georges Petit. It can unreservedly be assigned to the young Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun and in all likelihood should be dated to the years immediately preceding or immediately following her marriage in 1775 to the art dealer and expert Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun.
This painting will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the works of Vigée Le Brun by Joseph Baillio.
1. See M. Percival, “The Expressive Heads of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts, vol. CXXXVIII, November 2001, pp. 210–211 and the same author’s “Sentimental Poses in the Souvenirs of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun,” French Studies, vol. LVII, No. 2, pp. 149-165.
2. See exh. cat., Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, September 23, 2015–January 11, 2016, pp. 246–247, no. 103, repro. in color.
3. Translation: “…here Vigée Le Brun paints at one and the same time the child and the young woman, the passage from one to the other that can only allow itself to barely be glimpsed. It is true that fashion facilitates this, the low-cut dress above budding breasts, the bare shoulders, the free-flowing strands of silken hair and the flowers of the wreath…, intended to symbolize the youth and fertility she promises a future spouse.”