48
48
Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun
PORTRAIT OF MUHAMMAD DERVISH KHAN, FULL-LENGTH, HOLDING HIS SWORD IN A LANDSCAPE
Estimation
4 000 0006 000 000
Lot. Vendu 7,185,900 USD (Prix d’adjudication avec commission acheteur)
ACCÉDER AU LOT
48
Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun
PORTRAIT OF MUHAMMAD DERVISH KHAN, FULL-LENGTH, HOLDING HIS SWORD IN A LANDSCAPE
Estimation
4 000 0006 000 000
Lot. Vendu 7,185,900 USD (Prix d’adjudication avec commission acheteur)
ACCÉDER AU LOT

Details & Cataloguing

Master Paintings Evening Sale

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Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun
PARIS 1755 - 1842
PORTRAIT OF MUHAMMAD DERVISH KHAN, FULL-LENGTH, HOLDING HIS SWORD IN A LANDSCAPE
signed and dated lower right: L. Vigée Le Brun / 1788
oil on canvas
88 3/4  by 55 1/2  in.; 225.5 by 136 cm.
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Provenance

Collection of the artist;
Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun (1748-1813), husband of the artist, Paris;
His estate sale, Paris, Constantin and Paillet, 23 May 1814, lot 81;
There acquired by Constantin for 112 fr.;
Lord Thomas Barnewall, 16th Baron Trimlestown (1796-1879), Charenton;
His sale, Charenton, at the home of Mrs. Cottin, 21 April 1872, lot 40;
Madame de B***;
Her sale, Paris, Hôtel Drouot, 13 April 1893, lot 39;
Louis-Alexandre Marnier Lapostolle (1857-1930), Paris, by 1908;
Thence by descent until recently.

Exposition

Paris, Salon, 1789, no. 79;
Paris, Palais du Louvre, Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs, Exposition de la Turquerie au XVIIIe Siècle, May – October 1911;
Château de Versailles, Deux Siècles d'Histoire de France, June – October 1937;
London, Victoria & Albert Museum, Encounters: the Meeting of Asia and Europe 1500-1800, 23 September - 5 December 2004;
Paris, Grand Palais, Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 9 November 2015 – 11 January 2016, no. 53.

Bibliographie

E.L. Vigée Le Brun, Souvenirs de Madame Vigée Le Brun, Paris 1835-7, vol. I, pp. 59-62, translated by L. Strachey, New York 1989, pp. 24-25;
P. de Nolhac, L'oeuvre de Madame Vigée Le Brun, peintre de la Reine Marie-Antoinette, Paris 1908, pp. 78, 145, 166, reproduced;
W.H. Helm, Vigée-Lebrun 1755-1842: Her life, works, and friendships, London 1915, pp. 82-83, 194;
M. Brunet, “Incidences de l’ambassade de Tippo-Saïb (1788)” in Cahiers de la céramique, du verre et des arts du feu, 1961, p. 279, 283, cat. no. 19;
P. de La Vaissière and B. de Montgolfier, “Une tasse de Sèvres commémorant l’ambassade de Tipoo-Saïb,” in Bulletin du Musée Carnavalet, vol. XIV, no. 1, 1961, pp. 9-11, reproduced;
P. de La Vaissière and B. de Montgolfier, “Une tasse de Sèvres commémorant l’ambassade de Tipoo-Saïb,” in Bulletin du Musée Carnavalet, June 1983, pp. 10-11, reproduced p. 11, fig. 8;
J. Baillio, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1755-1842, exhibition catalogue, Fort Worth 1982, p. 18;
A. Buddle, The Tiger and the Thistle: Tipu Sultan and the Scots in India 1760-1800, exhibition catalogue, Edinburgh 1999, p. 31, reproduced pl. 37;
G. Scherf, “Le neveu de Mohammed Osman Khan, ambassador en France de Tippou Sahib,” in Nouvelles Acquisitions du department des Sculptures, 1996-2001, Paris 2002, p. 72;
A. Jackson and A. Jaffer, eds., Encounters: The Meeting of Asia and Europe 1500-1800, exhibition catalogue, London 2004, pp. 86-87, reproduced p. 87, fig. 6.11;
M. Martin, “Tipu Sultan’s Ambassadors at Saint-Cloud: Indomania and Anglophobia in Pre-Revolutionary Paris,” in West 86th: a Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, Spring-Summer 2014, p. 57, 63, reproduced p. 58, fig. 13;
J. Baillio and X. Salmon, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, exhibition catalogue, Paris 2015, pp. 166-7, 352, cat. no. 53, reproduced p. 167;
D. Kisluk-Grosheide and B. Rondot, Visitors to Versailles: From Louis XIV to the French Revolution, New York 2018, p. 121, reproduced fig. 58.

Description

This imposing and potent portrait by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun depicts Muhammad Dervish Khan, the Indian ambassador sent to France by the powerful Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan.  Painted in the summer of 1788 and exhibited at the Salon of 1789, when political unrest had begun to boil in France, the work is an evocative account of France’s fascination with the East as well as Vigée’s resourcefulness in acquiring this unique commission.  It is obvious that both Dervish Khan and Vigée would have found each other equally exotic and endlessly fascinating: one, a powerful Indian man parading around Paris in elegant muslin and gold-embroidered costumes, the other a woman artist who held such sway that she could get the King of France to request the sitting. 

On July 16, 1788, almost a year to the day before the storming of the Bastille, three ambassadors from Mysore, India, arrived in Paris.  Muhammed Dervish Khan, the lead ambassador and subject of the present portrait, along with the scholar Akbar Ali Khan and the elder Muhammed Osman Khan, were sent by Tipu Sultan, the powerful ruler of Mysore (1750-1799) who sought the support of Louis XVI in an effort to drive the British out of India. 

The controversial and despotic ruler Tipu Sultan was one of the few Indian leaders who had successfully resisted British colonialism in the past.  In the early 1780’s his stunning defeat of the British East India Company, which had gradually transformed from commercial trading organization to a widespread government venture, had resulted in the capture of over 7,000 British men held in his island fortress of Seringapatam.  The French had supported Tipu in that military campaign, but after the American Revolution the country had signed a peace treaty with England and retreated from India.  Eager to re-engage the French both militarily and commercially, in 1786 he began planning the delegation to France, in which he would ask for the support of Louis XVI and the French army and woo them with commercial goods to bring French artisans back to the Mysore Court.  Little did he know that at the same time Louis XVI’s power was beginning to deteriorate, and the King’s taste for extravagant foreign goods over those made at home was stirring up tensions in the country.

The three ambassadors led a grand and impressive embassy, causing a sensation in Paris as they made their way to Versailles.  Most Parisians had never seen a person from India, much less Mysore, and local newspapers like the Journal de Paris reported on the ambassadors’ whereabouts almost daily.  They attended plays and operas, toured French silk and wallpaper factories, and did not shy away from dalliances with local women.  Indeed, their French interpreter Pierre Ruffin (1722-1824) recalled that they did not want to leave Paris to go to Versailles, claiming it was because they hadn’t yet procured enough porcelain and glassware for the sultan, when in reality it seemed they were too enamored with romantic liaisons to want to leave the city.1  They did finally make their way to Versailles, stopping en route at the Sèvres porcelain factory near Saint-Cloud.  A gouache by Charles-Eloi Asselin, a porcelain painter at the factory, shows the three ambassadors and their entourage causing a stir as they encountered the locals in Saint-Cloud on the 8th of August, 1788 (fig. 1).  Local sellers of fabric are up in arms as sales are abandoned by the well-to-do Parisians trying to get as close as they can to the imposing foreigners in their exotic dress.2

In 1788, Vigée Le Brun’s fame and influence was flourishing; she had been painting Marie-Antoinette for a decade and was well-ensconced in the powerful elite of Paris and Versailles.  When the artist saw the ambassadors at the Opera, she knew she had to paint them:

“I saw these Indians at the opera and they appeared to me so remarkably picturesque that I thought I should like to paint them.  But as they communicated to their interpreter that they would never allow themselves to be painted unless the request came from the King, I managed to secure that favour from His Majesty.”3

Vigée’s life-size portrait of Dervish Khan is an extraordinary reflection on a French woman’s perception of a powerful Indian man, painted with exceptional skill and delicacy.  Dervish Khan is imposing and formidable, clutching and displaying his curved sword with its detailed engraving, showing off his power both physically and culturally.  There is an initial element of fierceness in the portrait, but the elegance and grandeur of the costume overcomes that, as the light so delicately falls on the bright, gauzy fabrics of his gown and reflects off the golden embroidery of his detailed sash and floral overcoat.  He wears the traditional costume that so enamored the French men and particularly women who encountered his embassy, so fascinated by the Indian fabrics which were making their way into French fashions.  Indeed this sheer, layered white muslin recalls the dress scandalously worn by Marie-Antoinette in a portrait painted by Vigée a few years prior (fig. 2).  Exhibited at the Salon of 1783, that painting was received with great horror that the Queen would allow herself to be painted in a sheer white dress, not just because it was inappropriate to be seen in outside the home, but also because she was promoting a foreign muslin fabric rather than French silk. Vigée’s decision to focus the painting on Dervish Khan’s luxurious costume brings a feminine note to the otherwise very masculine painting and provides an interesting commentary on French fascination with exotic goods and luxury fabrics from outside the continent.

As Muslim men, the idea of having themselves represented pictorially, let alone by a female artist, was unheard of.  Vigée tenacity and resourcefulness in achieving the sitting was a remarkable feat.  After the request came from the King, they agreed to sit for her at their hôtel in Paris.  Her detailed description of the encounter in her memoirs provides a fascinating look into this awkward clash of cultures.  She is thrown by their sprinkling of rosewater on her hands upon her entering, and later at dinner is shocked when she finds the dining room set for them to sit down on the floor.  She painted Dervish Khan first, “standing, with his hand on his dagger. He threw himself into such an easy, natural position of his own accord that I did not make him change it.”4

When the paintings had finished drying, Vigée sent for the works but was refused; Dervish Khan had hidden his portrait behind the bed.  As Vigée enthusiastically recalls, she strategically convinced his servant to steal it back for her, only to later hear that Dervish Khan had then planned to murder the servant for this transgression.  Luckily, an interpreter convinced the ambassador that murdering your valet was not acceptable practice in France, and he falsely claimed that it was the King who wanted the portrait.5

The intensity in which Dervish Khan is portrayed is unlike any other portrait by Vigée, whose oeuvre tends more towards a sympathetic portrayal of handsome and elegant royal courtiers.  The work recalls the grand portrait of the Polynesian Omai, painted by British artist Joshua Reynolds in 1776, in which the foreigner is grandly and powerfully depicted in his robes, standing in a landscape (fig. 3). As Joseph Baillio points out (see Literature, under Baillio and Salmon 2015), it is possible that Vigée knew the portrait from the 1777 engraving of it by Johann Jacobé.  This fascination with the East, and particularly with their exotic costumes, was widespread in both France and England in the 18th century. 

The painting, along with that of Dervish Khan’s fellow ambassador Osman Khan, was exhibited at the Salon of 1789, which opened in August despite the disquieting political climate.  Both pictures were displayed prominently, as shown in a drawing of the exhibition by Charles de Wailly (fig. 4).  They were received by the public with immense curiosity and critical acclaim.  By October, however, Vigée had fled Paris in fear of her life after mobs had invaded Versailles. Given that the painting next appears in the estate sale of her husband, Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, it can be surmised that she kept the work in her personal collection but left it at home in France when she went to Italy.  Vigée’s portrait of Osman Khan is also included in Le Brun’s auction, though it has since been lost.

In the end, Dervish Khan and the embassy did not achieve their goal of a treaty with France; Louis XVI agreed only to reopen a commercial alliance, not a military one.  When the three ambassadors returned to Mysore that fall, Tipu Sultan had their heads cut off due to their failure.  While Tipu continued his efforts against the British for another decade, in 1799 he was finally defeated and killed.  His death can be seen as a turning point in Europe’s relationship with India; while a mutual exoticism and fascination was nurtured for the centuries leading up to this point, by 1799 the divide of “East” and “West” had shifted into an attitude of superiority by the Europeans as they continued to expand and colonize.6 

Vigée’s haunting portrait of Dervish Khan is compelling for many reasons, particularly as it captures this very unique moment in history.  On the eve of Revolution, a female artist in France gloriously captures a striking foreigner, a Muslim ambassador from India, as he encounters the exotic world of Paris: in hindsight, the portrait is even more powerful than the sitter himself had hoped to be portrayed. 

 

1. See D. Kisluk-Grosheide and B. Rondot, under Literature.

2. For a detailed discussion of the gouache and an interpretation of its meaning in light of the undercurrents of the French Revolution, see M. Martin, under Literature.

3. Vigée Le Brun, Souvenirs, 1989 translation, under Literature, p. 24.

4. Vigée Le Brun, op cit., pp. 24-25.

5. Vigée Le Brun, op cit., p. 25.

6. See A. Jackson and A. Jaffer, under Literature, p. 11.

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