Today is the third and final part of my look at the life of one France’s greatest female portraitists, Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, but as to why I came to showcase this particular artist I have to make a terrible admission. I have been unfaithful once again. My undying and faithful love for a beautiful woman has now fallen by the wayside, not once, but twice. Last week I looked at a woman and in my mind I told her that she was the most beautiful and the most alluring creature I had set my eyes upon. What worries me is that this is the third time I have uttered these words in the last couple of years. How can I be so fickle?
Ok, before you press the escape button, horrified by my infidelity, let me say that my love or is it infatuation is not for an actual woman but for a woman in a painting. It all started back on May 16th 2011 when I told you about the time I stood before the painting Jeunesse Dorée. I was rooted to the spot at the gallery, staring at Gerald Brockhurst’s portrait of Kathleen Woodward, the lady who was his beloved muse and who modelled for this painting. I couldn’t take my eyes off her face. There was something magnetic about the way she stared out at me. I have since visited the gallery on a number of occasions just to pay homage to this beautiful woman.
So that was that. I was convinced that no other woman would compare with Kathleen’s beauty or so I thought. However, almost a year later, (My Daily Art Display May 1st 2012), I came across a painting by Antonello da Messina entitled Virgin Annunciate. As the title states, this was a painting of the Virgin Mary but the model the artist used for Mary was a humble Sicilian girl and for once the Virgin Mary portrayed in a painting, appeared simply as a young girl. The model the artist had used for this work was a stunningly beautifully girl. Words failed me as I looked into her eyes. She had the most gorgeous face. She had such an innocent air about her, which of course was befitting such a depiction. There was such an unsullied loveliness about her that for a moment in my mind I discounted the haunting visage of Kathleen Woodward of Jeunesse Dorée, and yet how could I be so capricious?
And so my undying love of beauty had been transferred from a young English woman to a young Sicilian girl but I was determined that it was going to stop there, and so it would until I went to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at Birmingham University a fortnight ago and “met” Countess Varvara Nikolaevna Golovina as portrayed by my featured painter, Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun. Before I tell you more about the sitter and eulogise about her physical beauty, let me complete Élisabeth’s life story.
The French Revolution had begun and in October 1789, the Palace of Versailles had been stormed by a mob and the Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette had been detained. Élisabeth, because of her connections with Marie Antoinette, had to hurriedly leave France with her daughter and her daughter’s governess and head for the safety of Italy. She visited Turin, Bologna, and Rome where her paintings met with great critical acclaim and she was elected to the Roman Accademia di San Luca. From Rome she moved on to Naples. Her artistic reputation preceded her and she received many commissions, including royal ones from the Queen of Naples and her husband King Ferdinand IV. Look closely at the portrait (right) of the Queen, Maria Caroline. Does she remind you of somebody from my last blog? There is a very close resemblance with Marie Antoinette and this should not be too surprising as they were sisters.
During her European journeys, Élisabeth gained a travelling companion, who would remain alongside her and her daughter for the next nine years. His name was, Auguste Jean-Louis Baptiste Rivière, a painter, who had also fled revolutionary Paris and made his way to Turin, where he had met up with Madame Vigée Le Brun and her daughter. Thereafter, he accompanied them and their servants on their trek across Europe and into Russia. During this time the two artists often worked in tandem, Vigée Le Brun painting life-size portraits, some of which were copied in miniature or simply on a small scale by Rivière. She wrote of him in her memoirs:
“…M. de Rivière was an astonishing actor in comic roles. Moreover he possessed every kind of talent, which caused the painter Doyen to remark that M. de Rivière was a little nécessaire de voyage literally a travelling case, but in French a play on words, meaning that he was a necessary adjunct during her voyages. The fact is that he was a fine painter and he copied all of my portraits in the form of large miniatures in oil. He sang very agreeably, played the violin and the bass viol and could accompany himself at the piano. He was endowed with intelligence, perfect tact and such a good heart that despite his distractions, which were frequent and numerous, he was able to oblige his friends with as much enthusiasm as success. M. de Rivière was short, svelte, and he never lost his youthful appearance, so that even at the age of sixty his thin waist and his bearing led one to think he was thirty…”
In 1795, Vigée Le Brun left Vienna and travelled to Russia where she was received by the nobility and painted portraits of numerous aristocrats including the last king of Poland Stanisław August Poniatowski and members of the family of Catherine the Great. Catherine was not initially happy with Vigée Le Brun’s portrait of her granddaughters, Elena and Alaxandra Pavlovna, because of the amount of bare skin the short sleeved gowns revealed. However, in order to please the Empress, Vigée Le Brun added sleeves giving the work its characteristic look. This alteration seemed to please the Empress who subsequently agreed to sit herself for Vigée Le Brun. The proposed portrait never came to fruition as Catherine died in 1796 of a stroke before this work was due to begin. While in Saint Petersburg, Vigée Le Brun was made a member of the Academy of Fine Arts of Saint Petersburg. However less pleasing to Élisabeth was her daughter Julie’s decision to marry a Russian nobleman.
And so to My Daily Art Display’s featured work, entitled Portrait of Countess Golovine. It is of Varvara Nikolaevna Galitzin, the daughter of Lieutenant General Prince Nicholas Feodorovitch Galitzin and his wife, née Prascovia Ivanovna Chouvaloff. She spent the first fourteen years of her life on her father’s estate of Petrovska, near Moscow. After his death, she and her mother went to live in Saint Petersburg in a house on the Nevsky Prospect next to that of her uncle, Ivan Ivanovitch Chouvaloff. She was named maid-of-honour at the Imperial court in 1783. In spite of her mother’s opposition, she married the handsome wealthy but profligate Count Nicholas Nikolaevitch Golovin. For a time she lived in Paris in the society of the old French aristocracy, but returned to Russia when Napoleon seized power. Élisabeth and the countess formed a close friendship and in the artist’s memoirs, she wrote of her sitter:
“…Countess Golovin was a charming woman, whose wit and talents were enough to keep us amused, for she received few visitors. She drew very well and composed delightful love songs that she sang while accompanying herself on the piano. Moreover she was on the lookout for all the latest European literature with which she was familiar as soon as it was known in Paris…”
In the painting we see the Countess almost entirely enveloped in the red cloak which is embroidered with a neoclassical design. She wears a deep gold headband. She stares out at us. Her eyes are fixed on ours with unwavering, and somewhat unnerving frankness. What made me lose my heart to this woman was the captivating way her left hand, which grasps her shawl, sweeps up wards clutching the material to her body. Her loosely flowing auburn hair cascades down on to her shoulder. There is a ray of light falling at an angle from left to right which cuts the background diagonally into dark and light sections and by doing this the artist has emphasised the drama of the pose. There is an aspect of spontaneity about the pose and it is this aspect of the portrait which totally seduced me.
The painting was acquired by the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham in 1980 where it hangs today.
After a sustained campaign by Élisabeth’s ex-husband and other family members to have her name removed from the list of counter-revolutionary émigrés, she was able to return to France in 1802, during the reign of Emperor Napoleon I. Her husband died in 1813 and six years later she suffers the tragedy of the death of her daughter. She recalled these times in her memoirs:
“…I must now speak of the sad years of my life during which, in a brief space, I saw the beings dearest to me depart this world. First, I lost M. Lebrun. True that for a long time I had entertained no relations whatever with him, yet I was none the less mournfully affected by his death. You cannot without regret be separated forever from one to whom so close a tie as marriage has bound you. This blow, however, was far less than the cruel grief I experienced at the death of my daughter. I hastened to her as soon as I heard of her illness, but the disease progressed rapidly, and I cannot tell what I felt when all hope of saving her was gone. When, going to see her the last day, my eyes fell upon that dreadfully sunken face, I fainted away. My old friend Mme. de Noisville rescued me from that bed of sorrow; she supported me, for my legs would not carry me, and took me home. The next day I was childless! Mme. de Verdun came with the news, and vainly tried to soften my despair. All the wrong-doing of the poor little one vanished – I saw her again, I still see her, in the days of her childhood. Alas! she was so young! Why did she not survive me?…”
She bought a house in Louveciennes, Île-de-France, and lived there until the house was seized by the Prussian Army during the Franco-Prussian War in 1814. She then moved to Paris where she remained until her death in her apartment at the Hotel Le Coq, rue Saint Lazare, at the age of 86, on March 30th 1842 . Her body was taken back to Louveciennes and buried in the Cimetière de Louveciennes near her old home. On her tombstone were the words:
“Ici, enfin, je repose…”
(Here, at last, I rest…).
In all, Vigée Le Brun painted over 660 portraits and 200 landscapes which are in galleries and museums all over the world. In 1835 she published her memoirs.
For a full account of Élisabeth’s life you should try and get hold of her autobiography, Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun translated by Lionel Strachey. There is an internet version to be found at: