"Provenance: M. Besselieure, circa 1781.
Earl de Grey (according to a label on the frame). Anon. Sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 16 December 1985, lot 20.

This fascinating painting is a rare erotic genre scene by one of the most celebrated portrait painters of the ancien régime, executed in 1774-1775 when the prodigious artist was only 19 or 20 years of age. Although the image -- of a beautiful, semi-nude young woman who has been thrown into a state of emotional distress over the contents of a letter that she has just read -- might suggest the plight of a girl who has given her virginity to a cad and been promptly abandoned by him, the picture was engraved with the more morally ambiguous title La Vertu Irrésolue: 'Irresolute Virtue'.

While it is neither signed nor dated, and does not appear in the list of painted works compiled by the artist, there can be no doubt that the present painting is by vigee Le Brun, for it was engraved as her work by R. Dennel and published in 1781; the print was sold as the pendant to another engraving by Dennel after a painting by Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, Comparaison de Bouton de Rose (see E. Dacier, Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, Peintre, dessinateur et graveur (1724-1780), Paris, 1929, I, pl. XII; and II, no. 373). That print -- which depicts a cheerful, semi-clad young woman sitting in bed and comparing the pinkness of her nipple with that of a rose -- would seem to represent the joy of sexual innocence, while the print after the present painting alludes to the sorrowful aftermath of a fall from virtue. The engraving of Comparaison de Bouton de Rose was dedicated to Madame de Saint-Aubin (curiously, as the painter, who had died the year before, was never married), while the print of La Vertu Irrésolue was dedicated to 'Madame Lebrun, peintre.' Interestingly, that dedication refers to the artist by her married name, but the author of the image is identified beneath it with the inscription of her maiden name -- 'Louise-Elisabeth Vigée pinxit' -- suggesting that while the print was published well after her marriage to the art dealer Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun on 11 January 1776, the painting itself had been executed before. The style of the painting -- despite its easy and accomplished handling and sophisticated palette -- accords well with an early dating of circa 1774-5, according to Joseph Baillio.

We are grateful to Joseph Baillio for providing information for the entry above and for confirming the attribution of the painting to Vigée Le Brun, on the basis of a photograph.

"La Vertue Irresolue" sold for $204,000 in early 2000.