FRAME|WORK is a weekly blog series that highlights an artwork in the Museums' permanent collections. This week, we feature a sumptuous portrait of an 18th-century beauty painted by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun in the wake of the French Revolution. The lovely Hyacinthe is currently on view in Gallery 16 at the Legion of Honor!
Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun is one of the most famous and successful French portraitists of the 18th century. Born in Paris to an artist father and a hairdresser mother, Vigée le Brun was painting portraits professionally by the time she was a teenager. She quickly built up a reliable clientele primarily comprised of European nobility, who appreciated the flattering manner in which she depicted them.
Ultimately, Vigée Le Brun attracted the attention of France's reigning queen, Marie-Antoinette. As the queen's official portraitist, the artist painted Marie-Antoinette's likeness more than thirty times in approximately six years. When the French Revolution erupted, this close relationship with the royal court proved a liability for the artist. Fearing for her safety, Vigée Le Brun fled to Italy with her young daughter where, drawing on her experience working for aristocratic clientele, she recaptured her previous success as a portrait painter.
While in Rome, the artist created this captivating portrait of Hyacinthe-Gabrielle Roland (d. 1816). Roland was a French actress in the Palais Royal, and at the time of this sitting, the mistress of Richard Colley Wellesley, earl of Mornington (later Marquess Wellesley) and the elder brother of the Duke of Wellington. The couple was in Rome during a prolonged stop in Italy while on an extended tour of the Continent. They were finally married in 1794, and one of the couple’s daughters, Anne, would be the great-great-grandmother of England's current Queen Elizabeth II.
Vigée Le Brun found a wealth of inspiration for compositional devices, poses, color and costume in studies of the past. Here, Hyacinthe's oblique gaze and informal pose reveal this portrait's particular debt to the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens and are reminiscent of his famous Hélène Fourmet in a Fur Coat (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum). The beauty, vivacity and sensuality of Roland are perfectly rendered by the artist’s animated brushwork.
Enjoy the company of this lively beauty on your next visit to the Legion of Honor!