June 5 - August 8, 1982
Oil on canvas: 24 x 19 inches
(61 x 48.3 cm.)
Signed and dated lower left: Mlle Vigee / 1773
The Saint Louis Art Museum
By her own account, Elisabeth Louise Vigee was a self-taught artist. Her sex precluded her following the classical curriculum set by the Academie, and she was never apprenticed to a master. Naturally perhaps, she specialized in the portrait, a genre in which her father had been successful, and naturally too, the subjects of her first attempts in portraiture were members of her family. Her mother, brother, and step-father sat to her and were included at the very beginning of the list she drew up of her sitters. Two of these family likenesses (My Mother Seen from Behind and M. Le Sevre Wearing a Nightcap and Robe) have just recently been identified (see Baillio, 1982, pp. 14-15), but their present whereabouts remain to be determined.
The portrait of Etienne Vigee as a schoolboy is the only youthful painting by the artist located in a public collection. Technically, the work is a more than competent exercise and can hold its own with similar works rooted in a tradition established by Chardin. Franqois Hubert Drouais, Nicolas Bernard Lepicie, and Jean Baptiste Greuze all executed paintings of young boys as scholars or draftsmen. James B. Musick, cited below, has correctly pointed out that in subject matter and feeling, the portrait of Etienne Vigee is close to Drouais's Young Pupil (fig. 1), so popular in its time that it was woven at the Gobelins tapestry manufactory.
Elisabeth Louise was three years old when her brother was born on December 2, 1758. According to his baptismal certificate, his Christian names were Louis Jean Baptiste Etienne. As a child, he was his mother's pet. "My brother was as beautiful as an angel. He was clever, much beyond his years, and was so outstanding in his studies that he always brought home from his teachers the most flattering reports. I was far from having his vivacity, his intelligence and especially his pretty face, for at this point in my life I was plain .... All my imperfections distressed my mother, and I realized that she had a preference for my brother; for she spoiled him and easily forgave his youthful shortcomings, while with me she was very harsh" (Souvenirs, I, 10).
Etienne Vigee cut an impressive figure as a writer in the final decade of the ancien regime. His poetry was published in such periodicals as the journal de Paris and the Almanach des Muses, of which he became editor in 1789.
Especially successful as a playwright in the light and witty style of Marivaux, Dorat, and to some extent Beaumarchais, his finest comedies were Les Aveux difficiles (first produced in 1783) and L'Entrevue (created in 1788), both repeatedly performed at the Theatre Francais.
He published a number of poems in praise or in defense of his more famous sister, thereby helping further her career. In 1784, he made a prestigious marriage with the daughter of the representative of the Elector of Saxony in the French capital (see cat. no. 18). That same year, through the influence of the Comte de Vaudreuil (see cat. no. 14) and the Finance Minister Calonne, he received two lucrative positions: he was named Secretary to the King's sister-in-law the Comtesse de Provence, and Controller-General of the Caisse des Amortissements.
Because he prospered under the monarchy, his actions during the Revolution seem inexplicable. Citizen Vigee was a member of the administration set up to nationalize the wealth of the Catholic Church, and he presided over the Popular Society of the district in which he lived in Paris. Moreover he celebrated the overthrow of Louis XVI in a rabidly antimonarchist "Ode a la Liberte" , a poem which was read aloud on Christmas day 1793 at an open session of the Department of Paris. Six days later he was arrested and sent to the prison of Port-Libre (formerly the Convent of Port-Royal), and was only released in July of the following year after the fall of Robespierre. From 1795 to 1799, he served as a high-ranking member of the bureaucracy responsible for selling off the property of the emigres, among whom paradoxically his sister was included.
When Vigee Le Brun returned from exile, her relationship with her brother soured. She must have been horrified to learn the role he had played during her absence. She herself does not refer to any rift between them, but among his writings is an autobiographical poem entitled "Vers d'un Frere sur l inimitie qui s' est elevee entre sa Soeur et lui," in which he outlines the essence of their quarrel.
An opportunist of the first rank, Vigee devoted some of his most bombastic poetry to Napoleon. After Waterloo, he was no less adulatory towards Louis XVIII, who appointed him his official reader and bestowed on him the Legion d'honneur. By this time he was soundly condemning the Revolution and all it stood for. In 1803, in replacement of jean Francois Laharpe, Etienne Vigee was given the chair of literature at the Athenee. He had a considerable talent as an orator, and his courses in diction were famous. Some of the greatest French actresses of the early nineteenth century received their training from him, notably Mlle Duchesnois.
Vigee was a strange combination of levity and bombast. Sophie Gay wrote of him: "A tinge of pedantry, picked up while he was teaching at the atheneums, was harmful to Vigee's light and graceful turn of mind and added a ridiculous pomposity to the pretty nonsense he spouted. So he was harassed with epigrams. Lebrun-Pindare called him Fige [stiff or starched]. Amault claimed that he was already pontificating in his mother's womb, and [the actress] Mlle Contat herself often derided him on his absurd solemnity. He would then take offense and was laughed at all the more," (Sophie Gay, Salons celebres, Brussels, 1837, p. 82). Vigeee died in 1820.
In Vigee Le Brun's catalogue, two versions of the portrait of her brother "en ecolier" are mentioned, this one in oil and a now lost pastel. An anonymous copy in oil is in the National Trust, Polesden Lacey, Dorking, Surrey. Another was sold at Grenoble, Salle des Ventes, November 30, 1981 (as attributed to Lepicie; information kindly communicated by David M. Robb, Jr.). A portrait of "the young Vigee ... holding a drawing portfolio under his arm" was in the Pinel-Grandchamp sale, Paris, March 13, 1850, lot 30. A black chalk drawing of Etienne Vig6e shows him as a child, standing and full-length, wearing a nightcap; it is signed "E.L. Vigde" and inscribed "mon frere." Along with a pendant drawing of a little girl, this work was in 1937 with the dealer Paul Proute, but its present location is unknown. The same drawing may have figured as lot 75 in the Tripier Le Franc sale, Paris, Hotel Drouot, June 5-7, 1883.
PROVENANCE: ?) Collection of the artist; presumably given by her to the owners of the Chateau d'Aigues-vives (Loir-et-Cher); Wildenstein, Paris and New York; acquired in 1940 by the Saint Louis Art Museum.
EXHIBITION: New York, Wildenstein, Fifty Masterzvorks from the City Art Museum of Saint Louis, November 6 - December 13, 1958, no. 34, illus.
SELECTED REFERENCES: Souvenirs, 1, 317; J. B. Musick, "An Early Portrait by Vig6e Le Brun," Bulletin of the City Art Museum of Saint Louis, XXVI, No3, 1941, pp. 54-55, illus.; Saint Louis, The City Art Museum, Handbook of the Collections, Saint Louis, 1953, p. 86, Wus.; T R. Stockho, "French Paintings of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries," Bulletin of The Saint Louis Art Museum, Summer 1981, p. 28, illus; Bafllio, 1982, p. 13, Wus. p. 15, fig. 2.
Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.
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