Huntington Library acquires painting by important female artist

The Ahmanson Foundation has acquired its first major European painting for the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, a year after unveiling a new formal relationship with building the San Marino Museum’s permanent collection.

The slightly under-life-size seated portrait was painted around 1784 by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842). Her radiant picture of Joseph Hyacinthe François-de-Paule de Rigaud, Comte de Vaudreuil, aged 44, clearly shows why she was a leading French artist, court painter to Queen Marie Antoinette and, with Swiss artist Angelika Kauffmann, one of the two most important women with a brush in 18th century Europe. Vigée Le Brun was at the height of her power in the years leading up to the French Revolution.

Lavish barely begins to describe the painting. It’s a knockout.

The handsome young Earl is seated in a gilt chair upholstered in emerald velvet designed by Georges Jacob, the great furniture maker who furnished much of Versailles and Carlton House, the London residence of King George IV. He wears a brown suede jacket and waistcoat lined with white silk, trimmed with gold trim, and studded with gold buttons. What appears to be fine Chantilly lace shows up at the neck and cuffs, and he wears black satin trousers and white silk stockings. A black cocked hat with white ostrich feathers is tucked under his arm.

Whether it’s a white powdered wig, a fashion accessory on the way out, or white powdered natural hair on the way home is hard to say. Due to the convincing naturalism, I would assume the latter.

A sash of pale blue watered silk slices across his chest beneath a showy silver medallion and red satin rosette, while a ceremonial sword hangs loosely in his left hand. All these exaggerated details are reminiscent of his appointment by Louis XVI. to one of his 100 Knights of the Order of the Holy Spirit, the kingdom’s highest aristocratic honor.

The Count was rich. Very. Much of his vast wealth was built through the sweat of forced free labor of hundreds of enslaved people who worked on the family’s Caribbean sugar plantations in Saint-Domingue, in present-day Haiti, where he was born. His paternal grandfather was colonial governor of New France, which stretched from Canada to Louisiana to the sea. Vaudreuil was sometimes referred to as Creole, but in Paris the term was probably applied to his place of origin, not a mixed-race heritage.

One look at the extravagant painting and you can literally see the revolutionary storm brewing in the air. An astronomical wealth gap is almost depicted. By the time the guillotine began to fall eight years later, both Vigée Le Brun and the Count of Vaudreuil had fled France.

What is truly extraordinary about the painting, however, is its amazing sense of animation, which goes far beyond mere descriptive acuity. The tall man prepares to speak.

Thomas Coles "Portage Falls on Lake Genesee," (1839).

Thomas ColesPortage Falls on the Genesee (1839) is the inaugural acquisition for the permanent collection of The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, resulting from a new partnership between the museum and the Ahmanson Foundation.

(Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens)

He looks you in the eye as his soft mouth begins to open – a popular Baroque technique. Vaudreuil’s right arm is just rising from the table, covered with a grey-green velvet handkerchief, as if preparing to emphasize his forthcoming point. There, his jacket curves away from his body in a gentle curve, a shape that matches and visually propels the opening palm of his adjacent hand.

Physical distortions develop slowly. Vaudreuil’s left side, which is closest to us, is slightly larger than his right, from his eyes to his elongated arm holding the sword. The difference creates a subtle visual illusion of twisted movement in space. Vigée Le Brun could not study male anatomy in the nude due to the absurdly primitive social restrictions of the time. But given her obvious talents, these physical changes seem intentional – more like those that the Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres would later use for expressive purposes. The spectacle of Vaudreuil is humanized – brought down to earth.

Most female artists before the 19th century were the daughters of artists. Vigée Le Brun’s father was a pastelist, although not a particularly successful one. His daughter supported the family when she was 15. She was not yet 30 when she painted the Comte de Vaudreuil, who some say was her lover, and she had already been elected to the Royal Academy of France – a rarity for a woman of any age.

In my opinion the painting I recently saw in a Huntington storage room is in excellent condition. It looks remarkably fresh. Museum director Christina Nielsen, who identified the potential acquisition last spring, says a light cleaning is all that is required.

The artist kept the painting, one of four copies she made, in the main drawing room of her home on a fashionable section of Rue Saint-Lazare. (The only other known example that once belonged to the sitter has been in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for more than 70 years.) After her death it passed to her niece and then briefly to the family of a Napoleonic diplomat, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord. A noble family bought it in 1847 and has owned it ever since – to this day. It was sold to a dealer at a Paris auction in May for nearly €600,000.

What the Ahmanson paid was not disclosed. The foundation has been the lead supporter of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s European art division since the museum’s inception more than half a century ago, but severed that relationship in 2020. Trustee and collector Lynda Resnick owns one of her Marie Antoinette portraits. ) For years there has been tension over plans for the museum’s new building, which is currently under construction. Although well over $130 million in paintings and sculptures gifted by the Ahmanson Foundation have been selected by LACMA curators, the museum will no longer present permanent exhibitions of the most important artworks in its vast collection.

The Huntington will sign Ahmanson on a permanent, renewable five-year deal. (Once bitten, twice shy.) The foundation has supported various HD-related activities for decades, but buying large works of art has not been on the agenda.

The addition of an important French painting may seem odd for a museum closely associated with 18th-century British art. In reality it represents an expanding sphere of connections. Last year Ahmanson’s first acquisition was the sensational Portage Falls on the Genesee (c. 1839), a grandiose monumental landscape by Thomas Cole – an English-born American artist – who installed it in America’s galleries.

By mid-November, the magnificent Vigée Le Brun will be installed at the end of the entrance hall of the Huntington Mansion, just to the right of the door leading into the paneled library. Many French decorative works of art are in the collection, including nearby tapestries designed by the French Rococo painter François Boucher. The crisp portrait of Vigée Le Brun is a superb French intersection with the looser, more painterly British Grand Manner portraits for which the museum is famous – Gainsborough’s ‘Blue Boy’ and Friends.

The painting fits perfectly. LACMA’s loss and Huntington’s gain add up. Huntington Library acquires painting by important female artist

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