On October 5, 1789—just as the momentous Women’s March on Versailles was bringing the royal family of France face-to-face with the country's Third Estate—Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, portraitist to Queen Marie Antoinette, fled Paris. Aware of her precarious attachments to the monarchy, she would not return to France for another twelve years.
As a member of the Royal Academy (an institution that had supported and legitimized her career), Vigée Le Brun had developed a highly sought-after style of portraiture that affirmed the refined tastes of ancien régime society. However, once abroad, the artist confronted a new reality, and a new type of patroness.
Arriving first in Italy, a destination she chose for its strong artistic traditions, Vigée Le Brun needed to rebuild her art practice. She did this to support not only herself in her new life abroad but also her daughter, who had travelled with her, and her husband, art dealer Pierre Le Brun, who had remained in the French capital.
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Hyacinthe Gabrielle Roland, 1791. Oil on canvas, 39 x 29 1/2 in. (99.1 x 74.9 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, museum purchase, Mildred Anna Williams Collection, Bequest Fund of Henry S. Williams in memory of H.K.S. Williams, 1991.29
Socially and financially astute, Vigée Le Brun quickly acquainted herself with a community of emigrées whose patronage—now essential to her livelihood—she worked to secure. This international set comprised a strong contingency of British figures, diplomats, and collectors whose interests in Italy were rooted in politics and culture. These expatriates were interested in upholding alliances with Naples, the largest state in Italy, and were mad for Italian art, both old and new. It was most likely through this circle that Vigée Le Brun obtained one of her first commissions in exile: a three-quarter portrait of Hyacinthe Gabrielle Roland (above). Painted soon after Vigée Le Brun’s arrival in Rome from Florence in 1791, the portrait has been in the collection of the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco since 1991.