Six Years in Russia with Madame Vigée-Lebrun

Last week, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opened an exhibition dedicated to Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun, the 18th-century painter and favorite portraitist of Queen Marie-Antoinette. This exhibition, Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France , brings together eighty paintings and pastels produced over the course of the artist’s career. It is the first retrospective and only the second exhibition dedicated to this important artist. But you don’t have to travel all the way to the Big Apple to see one of her paintings. The DMA is fortunate to have a portrait by Vigée-Lebrun hanging in our European Galleries on Level 2 as part of the Michael L. Rosenberg Collection.

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Portrait of Madame Nakharovna, née Hitrova, 1799, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, The Michael L. Rosenberg Collection, 29.2004.13

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Portrait of Madame Nakharovna, née Hitrova, 1799, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, The Michael L. Rosenberg Collection, 29.2004.13

Portrait of Madame Nakharovna, née Hitrova, painted in 1799, depicts a member of the Russian nobility. She is portrayed as a wealthy and educated woman, reading the play Iphigenia by Racine in French and wearing fashionable clothing and jewelry. The artist accentuates the translucent fabric of her scarf and the gold strands of Madame Nakharovna’s necklace as they catch the light. She creates a sense of spontaneity and interaction with the sitter, who seems to respond to our presence.

Because of her close association with Marie-Antoinette and the French monarchy, Vigée-Lebrun left France during the Revolution and spent six years in Russia, living in exile in St. Petersburg and Moscow. She was very successful in Russia as a portrait painter to the imperial family and the Russian nobility. She found many clients, such as Madame Nakharovna, eager to be painted by the favorite portraitist of the late queen of France.

Beyond success as an artist, Vigée-Lebrun seemed to have found, in the distant lands of Russia, the kind of life she had enjoyed in Paris. In her memoirs she wrote, “Every evening I went out. There were innumerable balls, concerts, and theatrical performances, and I thoroughly enjoyed these gatherings, where I found all the urbanity, all the grace of French company. It seemed as though good taste had made a jump with both feet from Paris to St. Petersburg.”

But the allure of Russian society didn’t stop her from lamenting the frigid winters: “I am perhaps the only person, who not suspecting how cold it was, ever took it into my head to pay a visit when the thermometer was at eighteen. . . . Everyone wears velvet, fur-lined boots in his carriage, and cloaks lined heavily with fur.”

So bundle up and come to the DMA to see Portrait of Madame Nakharovna by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun.

Franny Brock is the Dedo and Barron Kidd McDermott Graduate Intern for European Art at the DMA.


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