Kimbell Art Museum Exhibition Catalog
June 5 - August 8, 1982

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Catalog Number 15

Art Page 28
Oil on canvas: 363/4 x 293/8 inches, (93.3 x 74.5 cm.)
Signed and dated on the letter: L V Le Brun / 1784
The Toledo Museum of Art; Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey

With its descriptive rendering of textural detail and its dazzling color scheme, this picture typifies the "lush images" (Conisbee, cited below) which Vigee Le Brun's contemporaries found so delectable. In an article published in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts (Baillio, cited below), I argued that Toledo's painting may have figured in the artist's catalogue as "Une jeune fille qui ecrit et que l'on surprend" (A Young Girl Surprised While Writing) (Souvenlilrs L, 338). Upon reflection, I mvself have come to challenge the plausibility of this hypothesis. The subject is obviously not a girl but a mature woman.

Figure 10
Charles Alexandre de Calonne
Windsoor Castle
Art Page 40
At the top of the sheet of writing paper is the date 1784, the year in which Vigee Le Brun executed her portrait of the Finance Minister Charles Alexandre de Calonne (fig. 10). As with the Calonne, this composition includes a neoclassical bureau plat and a still life of writing instruments. But the two works may have even more in common than-mere props.

The names of only two women appear in the short list of sitters for the vear in question. The first is the Comtesse de Grammont- Caderousse, whose portrait is today in the A. de Sinety collection, Chateau de Misy (fig. 11). The other is "Madame la comtesse de Serre," the second wife of Comte Jean Baptiste Du Barry (born near Toulouse 1723-guillotined 1794), himself the brother-in-law of
Figure 11
Duchess of Caderousse
Art Page 1
Louis XV's last mistress (fig. 12) and one of the most infamous libertines of his century. (Mlle Vigee's 1773 portrait of him has never been located.) In 1777, when he married Anne Marie Therese de Rabaudy Montoussin (1759-1834), he was aged fifty-four and she was only eighteen. They lived together as the Comte and Comtesse de Ceres (and not "Serre" as Vigee Le Brun misspelled the name) and his influence on her was thoroughly corrupting.

Mme de Ceres was a native of Toulouse. According to the Memoires of Durfort de Cheverny, she was "a charming woman, of the provincial nobility, pretty, even beautiful ... as opposed to [Du Barry] who was decrepit and always complaining of his health..." (cited in A. Fauchier-Magnan, Les Du Barry, Paris, 1934, p. 159). Mme Du Barry introduced her to Calonne soon after his nomination as Controller General. The Minister was captivated by her beauty. With her husband's blessing, she became his mistress. While she remained quietly in the background, Vigee Le Brun was publicly hounded for having an affair with Calonne. According to the artist, Mme de Ceres was responsible for the gossip which destroyed her reputation. Her account of what transpired is contained in the published Souvenir (I, 111-113), but the principals are identified only by initials. In her rough draft of the same text, the names are undisguised:

Figure 12
Countess Du Barry
Private Collection, France
Art Page 43
If [Calonnel did not come to my home [to sit for his portrait], he went to the rue du Gros-Chenet-where I did not yet reside -in order to visit Mme de Serre, the wife of Du Barry le Roue [the Rake], a very pretty woman with whom M. de Calonne was in love. This woman ... had something deceitful in her expression. And while I was painting her portrait, she did me an atrocious disservice. In her ingratiating way she asked me to lend her my horses and carriage to take her to the theater. I told her she could use them and sent them [to her] that evening. The next morning I requested my horses for eleven o'clock. Coachman, horses, nothing had come back. I had inquiries made at Mme de Serre's, no one had returned. I learned that she had spent the night at the Finance Ministry. Different people asked my coachman by whom he was employed and naturally he said by Mme Le Brun. I could not have foreseen such a villainy and only learned of it several days afterwards. In spite of the gratuity she had given him, my coachman told the story to several people. Henceforth, I refused to see this perfidious creature. I have been told that she is living in Toulouse and has turned devoutly religious. I would not have related this perfidious act did it not concern all that has been said about me with respect to M. de Calonne.

The portrait of an "elegantly dressed" Mme de Ceres remained in Toulouse in the Rabaudy Montoussin collection until it was sold at some unspecified date (written communication of M. Max de Rabaudy Montoussin, dated May 10, 1978). Toledo's Lady Folding a Letter, provenance of which cannot be traced beyond its first Rothschild owner, may represent the beautiful Comtesse; if so, the portrait is a piquant example of Vigee Le Brun's most fashionable type of portraiture, and also provides previously missing element in the history of her all-important relationship with Calonne.

An anonymous miniature copy of the painting was in the Maurius Paulme and Brasseur collections before being auctioned at Sotheby's, London, Oscar Diisendschon Sale, November 21, 1960, lot 19, illus.

PROVENANCE: (?) Rabaudy Montoussin collection, Toulouse; Baron Albert de Rothschild, Vienna; Baron Louis de Rothschild, Vienna; Rosenberg and Stiebi, New York; Wildenstein, New York, 1948-1963; acquired in 1963 by The Toledo Museum of Art.

EXHIBITIONS: London, Royal Academy, France in the Eighteenth Century, January 6-March 3, 1968, no. 716 (painting incorrectly dated); New York, Wildenstein, Paris and New York, November 3-December 17, 1977, no. 53.

SELECTED REFERENCES: (?) Souvenirs,1,332; J. Leymarie, The Spirit of the Letter in Painting, New York, 1961, p. 29, illus. p.76 (color); 0. Wittman, ed., The Toledo Museum of Art, European Paintings, University Park, Pa., 1976, p. 165, illus. pl. 210; Baillio, 1980, pp. 160-161, illus. p. 160, fig. 7; P Conisbee, Painting in Eigliteenth-Century France, Ithaca, N. Y., 1981, p.137, illus. p. 139, fig. L14.

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