DescriptionELISABETH LOUISE VIGÉE-LEBRUN (French 1755 - 1842)
Portrait of Madame de Moreton, La Comtesse Moreton de Chabrillan
Signed E. L. LeBrun and dated 1782 at lower right
Oil on canvas
27 x 20 inches (oval)
Marie-Elisabeth Olive (née Frottier de la Coste-Messeliére), Comtesse de Moreton de Chabrillon (1761-1807), France;
Acquired by descent to the family;
Purchased by Edouard Noetzlin, Paris, France, 1920s;
Private Collection, Paris, France;
With dealer Frederick Mont, Inc., New York, in 1950;
Sold Christie's, London, November 29, 1974, lot 58;
Newhouse Galleries, New York, NY;
Mr. and Mrs. F. Howard Walsh, Fort Worth, Texas;
Walsh Family Art Trust
Elisabeth Louise Vigée Lebrun, Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun, translated by Lionel Strachey (New York, 1907), p. 219.
André Blum, Madame Vigée-Lebrun, peintre des grandes dames du XVIIIe sie'cle (Paris, 1919), p. 96.
William Henry Helm, Vigée-Lebrun, 1755-1842: her life, works, and friendships (London, 1915), p. 212.
Exposition des Femmes Peintres du XVIIIe Siècle, exh. cat. (Hôtel des Négociants, Paris, May 14 - June 6, 1926), p. 54, no. 107.
"Exposition des femmes peintres du XVIIIe siècle", Hôtel des Négociants, Paris, May 14 - June 6, 1926, no. 107.
One of the most prominent European portraitists of her time, Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun is also one of the most successful women painters in history. With an enviable arsenal of skill, talent, charm, good looks, hard work, and stamina, she navigated the intensely chauvinistic art world of late eighteenth-century France to win an unprecedented level of acclaim, secure a steady stream of commissions among the highest echelons of royal society, and produce a body of works numbering more than 800 portraits and landscapes despite profound personal and financial disappointment and loss. Her ability to create brilliant characterizations of her sitters whether they were aristocratic beauties such as the present Comtesse Moreton de Chabrillan or larger-than-life luminaries such as Lord Byron, Madame de Staël, Catherine the Great, or the future George IV of England, enabled her to capture quite literally the personality of the ancient régime as it flourished and faded.
Vigée-Lebrun received her initial artistic training in her father's studio, and also benefited from the valuable guidance of notable artists of the period including Joseph Vernet, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, and Gabriel Francois Doyen, a history painter who had been her father's closest friend, such that by her early teens she was working as a professional portraitist. During the mid 1770s, she significantly enhanced her skills by copying Old Master paintings of exceptional quality lent to her by the Parisian art dealer, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Lebrun, who had bought the house in Paris in which she, her mother, and her widowed mother's new husband had rented an apartment in the Rue de Cléry. In her fascinating memoir first published in 1835, the artist revealed that because Lebrun was "so obliging as to lend me some of his handsomest and most valuable paintings," he thus gave her "the best lessons I could conceivably have obtained." Six months later, Lebrun unexpectedly proposed marriage to the young artist, who "was far from wishing to become his wife, though he was very well built and had a pleasant face. I was then twenty years old, and was living without anxiety as to the future, since I was already earning a deal of money. But my mother, who believed M. Lebrun to be very rich, incessantly plied me with arguments in favour of accepting such an advantageous match." Although all her instincts told her that she was not ready to sacrifice her liberty and her considerable earnings to this man, and that the match would end unhappily, the artist agreed to the marriage in 1776, had a beautiful daughter, and enjoyed her husband's charming and lively personality for almost a decade until she discovered that his compulsive gambling had entirely depleted not only his fortune but hers as well, all one million francs of it.
In 1778, during a period of prodigious productivity when she was overwhelmed with so many portrait commissions that she was compelled to accept as many as three sittings per day, she was summoned to Versailles to paint the first of many likenesses of Queen Marie Antoinette, who became her great patron and advocate. On May 13, 1783, when Vigée-Lebrun was accepted as a member of France's Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, her admission was opposed by some on the grounds that her husband was an art dealer. Owing to the intervention of Louis XVI, who acted upon considerable pressure from his wife on behalf of the painter, the charges were dropped. The accomplished portraitist became a full academician, and exhibited regularly at the Academy's Salon until the eve of the Revolution, when she was forced to flee France on account of her close ties with the royal family.
During the spring of 1781, the same year that she began her Portrait of Madame de Moreton, La Comtesse Moreton de Chabrillan, Vigée-Lebrun and her husband toured Flanders and the Netherlands, where she had the opportunity to make a careful study of the works of the Flemish masters. She was profoundly influenced by the works of Peter Paul Rubens, whose technique of using multiple layers of translucent paint she immediately began to emulate. This new approach is apparent in the subtle skin tones of the Countess Moreton de Chabrillan's face and chest, and in the sheer delicacy of her white dress and its differentiation of textures. Vigée-Lebrun's masterful talent for depicting costume is evident in this composition. From the plumed hat to the finely rendered white lace collar and black lace shawl, the artist's skillful handling conveys the tactile sensibilities of several different materials. The Comtesse's hair is powdered according to the current vogue and adorned with a simple blue ribbon, corresponding with the blue sash on her dress. The cluster of flowers at her bosom is an innovative and intriguing detail that adds to the portrait's charm. With her fashionable hat and hairstyle, and modestly averted gaze, the Comtesse is depicted as an elegant lady of nobility. The set of the mouth, however, possesses a hint of an air of superiority, which gives this likeness a distinctive personality, a subtle but potent nuance that only a very skillful portraitist can capture.
Two well-known images from Vigée-Lebrun's oeuvre are nearly contemporary with her likeness of Countess Moreton de Chabrillan, and possess many of its stylistic hallmarks. In her celebrated Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat (1782, National Gallery, London), for example, a work that directly references Rubens's portrait of Susannah Fourment which the artist had recently admired in Antwerp (also National Gallery, London), Vigée-Lebrun played cool colors in the clothing against the warm skin tones. She framed the face with an oversized hat adorned with a feather, paying close attention to the interplay of direct light and reflected light. She wrapped a black shawl trimmed with a margin of transparent lace around the arms to introduce a luxurious effect she admired in the work of Raphael and Domenichino. The blue, white, and gray palette the artist used to great advantage in the present portrait of the Comtesse was the same one she chose for her 1783 portrait of Marie Antoinette in a plain white muslin dress the following year (private collection of Hessische Hausstiftung, Kronberg, Germany).
Vigée-Lebrun painted this portrait of the twenty-one-year-old Comtesse de Moreton de Chabrillan when she herself was merely 26 years old, but already in full command of her artistic powers. At the time she sat to Marie Antoinette's favorite portraitist, the Comtesse had been married three years to Jacques Henri Sébastien César de Moreton de Chabrillan [1752-1795], a captain with the Royal-Roussilon regiment, cavalry, and captain of King Louis XVI's bodyguards. At the time of her sitting, the Comtesse was the young mother of a two-year-old son, the first of her three children. In the list of her works that she published in the appendix to her Memoirs, Vigée-Lebrun listed this portrait just above a work she described only as "1 copy of M. de Moreton," which seems to suggest she had at one time produced a painting of the Comtesse's husband. No such portrait has yet been identified.
After the Comtesse's death in 1807, her portrait by Vigée-Lebrun remained in the Moreton de Chabrillan family until the 1920s, when it was purchased by the brilliant Swiss financier, Edouard Noetzlin, who built his career as an international banker in Paris. During the 1880s he used his position as an officer of the Banque Franco-Egyptienne, the Banco Ottoman, and the Banque de Paris et Pays Bas, which loaned extensively to Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, to form syndicates of merchant bankers across Europe to promote profitable ventures abroad, especially those linked to government loans and public works. In perhaps his most intricate and notorious financial venture, Noetzlin mobilized a singular alliance of European, American, and Mexican investors to create what would be become the largest bank in Mexico, the Banco Nacional Mexicano, and then served as its agent in London. The Banco Nacional, founded by French capital, had loaned the Mexican government under President Manuel Gonzalez (1880-1884) some $5,761,000. Noetzlin sought for the Mexican government a $30 million loan in London precisely to repay this debt to his own bank and to consolidate Mexico's other foreign debts. Noetzlin earned a commission of $1 million for representing Mexico (and his own Franco-Mexican bank) in the British transaction.
In preparing this entry, Heritage Auctions wishes to express its gratitude to Mr. Joseph Baillio who accepts the work and is familiar with its history until its sale to the current owner. He kindly noted that there exist a number of copies after the present autograph work in private collections.
The work would have been featured in the landmark Vigée-LeBrun retrospective at the Kimbell Art Museum in 1982 had its whereabouts at the time been known to Vigée scholars.
The painting, albeit relined, is in excellent condition with minor surface abrasion and no significant losses.
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