June 5 - August 8, 1982
Oil on canvas
311/2 x 26 inches (80 x 66 cm)
Signed and dated at left: E. Louise Vigee
Le Brun la S'petersbourg / 1796
Musee du Louvre, Paris
For sitter's biography, (see cat no. 30).
This is the only original painting dating from Mme Le Brun's Russian period to be found in a French museum. (The portrait of Grand Duchess Elizabeth Alexievna in the Musee Fabre, Montpellier, is a weak copy after a work now in the collection of the Princess of Hesse Darmstadt, Castle of Wolfsgarten.) About six years separate it from the portrait of the same sitter in the Musee Jacquemart-Andre (cat. no. 30). When it was executed in Saint Petersburg, the subject had been widowed for three years and had not yet married Count Litta. Its provenance would suggest that it was painted for the countess's younger sister, Tatiana Youssoupoff (see cat. no. 44).
This particular portrait formula harkens back to the Marie Antoinette of the mid-1780s (cat. no. 19). The same immediacy and sense of confrontation with the spectator are conveyed by the sitter's glance, but Countess Skavronsky has neither the remoteness of attitude nor the sumptuousness of detail which distinguish the Queen's portrait. In this intimate likeness, the painter's artistry focuses on the warm cushioned ambiance of the Countess's everyday existence, her feminine charm, and the soft sensual qualities of her body. As opposed to the formal inventions of the portrait painted in Naples, less stress is placed on the trappings of luxurv. Vigee Le Brun constructed the composition with great clarity and economy of means: the background is dark and undefined; the costume, like the range of colors, is of the utmost simplicity; the contours of the body and hair respond to the curvilinear rhythms of the shawl enveloping the arms and hands. This portrait is a singularly good illustration of the technical instructions that Vigee Le Brun will one day dedicate to her niece:
The first light area is at the top of the forehead, close to the hair line. It stops just short of the eyebrows and creates the recession of the temple, which often shows a blue vein, especially in delicate complexions. After this light area is a whole flesh tone which gradates toward the middle. The light reaffirms itself weakly in a half tone on this same bone structure, softly blending in half tones and reaching into the shadow which also gives shape to the frontal bone. After this shadow there is a reflection, more or less golden, depending upon the color of the hair. Under the eyebrow, the tone is made somewhat warmer. Hairs which make up the eyebrow produce the same effect as curls failing on a forehead in full light: the shadow is warm. (See the heads of Greuze. Observe the behavior of your model's hair, this adds to the resemblance and to truthfulness). One must pay close attention to the passages between flesh and hair so as to render them as faithfully as possible. Let there never be any hardness and allow the hair to mix with the flesh tones both in contour and in color so that it does not take on the appearance of a wig, which would inevitably happen without what I have just explained. The hair must be laid on broadly and should not stand out. The best way would be to paint it with glazes, the canvas producing transparent effects in the shadow and in the areas of full color. The highlights of the hair only show up on the salient parts of the head. Curls capture the light in the middle and are slightly intercepted [sic] by soft wisps of hair which break up their uniformity. The fringes of the hair (like metal) take on the color of the background, and this tends to make the receding parts of the head turn (Souvenirs, III, 359-360).
A second version of the painting is mentioned in the artist's catalogue. This may be the portrait once located in Russia at Nordigdino (district of Saratoff), the property of Prince Theodore A. Kourakin.
A so-called portrait of Countess Litta looking over her shoulder (illus. in Helm, [19151, facing p. 126) is attributed to Vigee Le Brun.
PROVENANCE: Youssoupoff collection, Saint Petersburg and Moscow, until the Russian Revolution; seized after 1917 with the collections of Prince Felix Felixovitch Youssoupoff; entered the Hermitage Museum, Leningrad, 1925; deaccessioned ca. 1930; Wildenstein, Paris and New York; acquired March 1931 by Mr. and Mrs. Albert Blum, New York; bequeathed to their daughter, Edith Blum; donated by her in 1966 to the Musee du Louvre.
EXHIBITIONS: Saint Petersburg, Blue Cross Exhibition of Russian Portraits During 150 Years (1700-1850), 1902, no. 106; Saint Petersburg, Taurida Palace, Artistic and Historical Exhibition of Russian Portraits, 1905, no. 239; New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, French Paintings of the XVIIIth Century, 1935, no. 56; San Francisco and elsewhere, Paintings from French Museums, XVIlth and XVIIIth Centuries, 1967-1968, no number, illus.; Castres, Musee Goya, Les Femmes peintres ati XVIIIe siecle, 1973, no. 34, illus. in color (cover); Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, French Painting, the Revolutionary Decades 1760-1830, October-November 1980, no. 123, illus.
SELECTED REFERENCES: Souvenirs, 111, 346; A. Prakhoff, "On the Collection of Prince Youssoupoff, French School," Khudozhestvennyia sokrovischa rosii (Art Treasures in Russia), 1906, p. 205, no. 142 (text in Russian); Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovitch, 1905, 1, no. 30, illus.; Nolhac, 1908, p. 160, illus, facing p. 92; Helm, , p. 208; Catalogue of the Youssoupoff Collection, 1920, no. 69; S. Ernst, Fonds des Musees de I'Etat: la Galerie Yotissoupoff, Leningrad, 1924, p. 174, illus.; L R6au, "Catalogue de I'art frangais dans les Musees russes," Bulletin de la Soci&j de I'Histoire de I'Art Francais, 1929, p. 37, no. 175; L. Nikolenko, 1967, pp. 94, 101-102, no. 7a, illus; C. Constans, "Un portrait de Catherine Vassilievna Skavronskaia par Ma dame Vigee-Lebrun," La Revue du Louvre, 1967, Nos. 4-5, pp. 265-272, illus. pp. 264, fig. I and 269, fig. 4; P. Rosenberg, N. Reynaud, and 1. Compin, Musee du Louvre, catalogue illustre des peintures, Paris, 1974, II, p. 226, no. 892, illus. p. 155.
Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.
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