Comtesse de la Châtre (Marie Charlotte Louise Perrette Aglaé Bontemps, 1762-1848), 1789. Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Oil on canvas. Gift of Jessie Woolworth Donahue, 1954.
In 1789, the sitter, daughter of Louis XV's premier valet de chambre, was the wife of the comte de la Châtre. She later married François Arnail de Jaucourt. For daily wear and for portraits, Vigée Le Brun favored white muslin dresses in this style for what she saw as their timeless, classical simplicity.
Born in Paris during the reign of Louis XV, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was the daughter of a professional pastel portraitist who died when she was 12 years old. Precocious and largely self-taught, in her teens Mademoiselle Vigée, chaperoned by her mother, was already working independently as a portraitist and contributing to the support of her family. It became necessary for her to join the artisanal guild in 1774, and she exhibited publicly for the first time when she was 19 at the Salon of the Académie de Saint-Luc.
In 1776 she married the principal art dealer and expert in 18th-century Paris, Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, with whom she had a daughter, Julie. Theirs was largely a marriage of convenience, beneficial to both, although his profession at first kept her from being accepted into the prestigious Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. At 23, Vigée Le Brun was summoned to Versailles to paint Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), who was a few months younger than she.
Women were barred from the school of the Académie because the students learned anatomy and the principles of drawing by studying and sketching from the nude male model. Women were afforded only the most limited access to the Salons of the Académie, where members brought their work before connoisseurs, critics, and potential patrons. Denied entry to this august organization because her husband was a dealer and association with the trade was prohibited, Vigée Le Brun was able to gain access only when Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI intervened. She flourished, showing close to 40 works in the four Salons to which she had access (1783, 1785, 1787, 1789). Balancing innovation with tradition, she created intimate as well as public portraits, remarkable not only for her technical gifts, but for her understanding of and sympathy with her sitters.