June 5 - August 8, 1982
Oil on canvas: 25 1/2 x 21 1/4 in, 64.8 x 54 cm
Signed, lower right: L. E. Vigee Le Brun
Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth
Usually referred to as the Self-Portrait "aux rubans cerise," this painting is possibly one of two mentioned in Vigee Le Brun's list of 1781 as "2 Portraits de moi" (Souvenirs, 1, 329). As the chronology of the lists is frequently off by a year or more, one can only surmise that the other portrait is the somewhat more famous half-length of the artist holding a palette, entitled "le chapeau de paille" (original panel, signed and dated 1782, first owned by the Comte de Vaudreuil and now in a private collection, Switzerland, fig. 7). It is impossible to state which composition preceded the
By all accounts, in the 1780s Vigee Le Brun was one of the most glamorous women in Parisian society. Her portrait bust, sculpted in terracotta by Pajou in 1783 and exhibited at the Salon of that year, shows her in the prime of her beautv (fig. 8). A nephew, Justin Tripi@r Le Franc, described her as having "blond hair, a fine white complexion, lively and intelligent blue eyes [in truth, the color of her eyes fluctuated between hazel and grayish blue] an almost aquiline nose slightlv turned up at the end. Her mouth was delicate
Instead of devoting herself generously to the work she undertakes, a woman [artist] too often considers it as a mere adornment of her life. The book and the painting are just an unessential intermediary allowing her to publicly display the essential reality, her own person. It is thus her own person which is the main - sometimes the only - subject which interests her. Mme Vigee Le Brun never tires of consigning to her canvases her smiling maternity .... Of course the self is not always despicable. Few books are more fascinating than certain confessions, but they must be sincere and the author must have something to confess. Narcissism in a woman, instead of enriching, impoverishes her. By indulging in nothing more than self-contemplation, she annihilates herself. Her own love of self becomes a stereotype, she does not discover in her [works] her authentic experience, but an imaginary idol built on cliches." (Paris, Ed. Gallimard, 1977, 11, 70).
In this self-portrait the artist's smile revealing the teeth can be seen as typifying an eighteenth-century ideal of happiness. In much of her portraiture, both male and female, the smile works as a sort of leitmotiv denoting genteel sensibility. Critics of the Salons frequently expressed irritation at this conceit, regarded by them as an affectation.
Perhaps more than any single individual in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, Vigee Le Brun influenced the development of women's costume. She helped to popularize a more natural look by introducing into her portraiture lightweight gowns, as opposed to the corseted and bulky "robes A la francaise" which had long been in vogue. She also spurned the great masses of ornately dressed and powdered hair women were forced to endure for the sake of being fashionable.
The dress worn in this portrait prefigures that which will eventually become generalized under the term "empire." The loosely fitting garment, then called "la robe en gaulle," is caught up just below the breasts with a sash. The unpowdered hair retains its natural curl. About her personal habits of dress, she wrote: "I wore only white gowns of muslin or lawn .... My hair cost me nothing. I styled it myself" (Souvenirs, 1, 110). Her basic rule of thumb in matters of dress was simplicity: "As I despised the costume then worn by women, I tried in every way to make it picturesque and I was delighted when I obtained the confidence of my sitters who allowed me to drape them as I pleased. Shawls were not vet the fashion, but I made use of large scarves lightly woven about the body and over the arms, with which I attempted to imitate the beautiful style of the draperies of Raphael and Domenichino..." (Souvenirs, 1, 52-53).
In terms of technique, this self-portrait admirably demonstrates the artist's skill at building up layers of transparent glazes in order to render finely nuanced flesh tones, large liquescent eyes, and silken hair. Set off against a somber monochromatic background, the white dress is sharply contrasted with the deep blacks of the hat and scarf. The addition of the red bow and sash provides an accent of bright saturated color.
Three autograph versions of the composition are known to exist: 1) the present signed painting, on canvas; 2) the equally beautiful example on panel, also signed, formerly in the Greffulhe collection (for a color illustration, see Baillio, March 1981, p. 37, fig. 4, where illustration is mistakenly reversed); 3) a version formerly in the L. Levy collection, Paris, lent to the 1909 exhibition at the Chiteau de Bagatelle, Portraits de femmes sous les trois Republiques, no. 183 (for an illustration, see A. Blum, 1919, facing p. 18). G. Briere ("Notes sur le catalogue de 1'exposition de femmes sous les trois Republiques...," Bulletin de la Societe de 1'Histoire de I'Art Frangais, 1909, p. 150) specified that the Levy painting is signed L. Vigee Le Brun. A similar portrait, perhaps identical with one of the above, was reproduced in a line engraving by Jacques Noel Fremy for the second volume of his Portraits de personnages remarquables dans tous les genres, published in Paris in 1817. The likelihood is that Vigee Le Brun herself owned the painting at the time, for Fr6my states in the preface of his first volume that artists had given him access to their studios in order to engrave paintings that had not been included in the Salon of 1814 (Paris, 1815, p. 12).
A portrait of this type appears in an anonymous sale in Paris on March 30, 1830. A version, formerly with the Galerie Cailleux, Paris, is said to have been given to Dr. Charles des Etangs by Mme Le Brun herself, but it remains untraced and its attribution to Vigee Le Brun is hypothetical. A copy made by the painter and art dealer Jean Louis Laneuville appeared at this Paris sale of June 5-7, 1826, lot 153. An oval canvas (58 x 49.5 cm.) was in the Jacques Reiset sale, Paris, April 29, 1870, lot 11. A version (59 x 49 cm.) was recorded in the sale of the Vicomte de Saint-Pierre, Paris, January 22, 1872, lot 22. A so-called portrait of the Duchess de Polignac (68 x 55 cm.), with a description matching the Self-Portrait "aux rubans cerise," was in the Houssaye sale, Paris, May 22, 1896, lot 64.
An anonymous oval copy with a Russian provenance is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Timken Bequest). A copy in which the artist's lips are not parted was in the collections of Charles Sedelmeyer and Gabriel Cognacq before it was auctioned at the second estate sale of Mme Pierre Lebaudy, Paris, Hotel Drouot, June 21, 1962, lot 8 (catalogue describes painting as having been in the Cognacq sale, but illustration is that of another version). Other copies figured in the Moulin de Vauboyen sale, Paris, July 25, 1971, lot 7, and in the Lopez-Tarrogoya collection, Paris.
PROVENANCE: Gustave Miihlbacher; his sale, Paris, Galerie Georges Petit, May 13-15, 1907, lot 57, iflus.; Wildenstein, Paris; Baron Springer-Rothschild, Vienna; confiscated by the agents of Hermann G6ring and given by Adolf Hitler in 1940 to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; returned to Baron and Baroness Springer-Rothschild, Paris; Newhouse Galleries, New York; acquired in 1949 by Mr. and Mrs. Kay Kimbell; given to the Kimbell Art Museum, 1965.
EXHIBITIONS: Vienna, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Ausstellung der neuer Werbungen, 1940-1941, no. 1988, illus. pl. 13; Fort Worth Art Association, Twenty-one Paintings from the Kimbell Art Foundation, March 3-26, 1953, no. 21, illus.; London, Royal Academy, France in the Eighteenth Century, January 6-March 3, 1968, no. 710.
SELECTED REFERENCES: (?)Souvenirs, 1, 329; Nolhac, 1908, p. 135; Helm, , p. 206: "Monatschrift fair Sammler und Kunstfreunde," Belvedere, XIII, 1938-1943, p. 179, no. 164, illus.; Kimbell Art Museum, Catalogue of the Collection, Fort Worth, 1972, pp. 112-114, illus. p. 113 (color); Kimbell Art Museum, Handbook of the Collection, Fort Worth, 1981, p. 96, illus.
Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.
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