July Treasure of the Month
Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, Madame Perregaux, 1789
The Treasure of the Month series offers the opportunity to highlight less well-known works from the collection as well as to look with fresh eyes on beloved masterpieces. This month’s pick falls into the latter category. Viewers are accustomed to seeing this dynamic portrait dominate the Study’s north wall but may not realise that it is one of the more daring images of the Wallace Collection’s French paintings.
A woman is shown leaning over a balustrade. She is attired in a black velvet skirt, a jacket adorned with red silk epaulettes, and a sheer white undergarment with fluted ruff. On her head she sports a jaunty black beret adorned with a bouquet of red feathers. This dress appears to have been modelled on a well-known fashion plate one that suggests the larger cultural references of this costume: the caption refers to the lady’s habit d’espagnolette. Indeed the accoutrements of feathers, ruffs, bold colours, exaggerated costume jewellery were collectively known as costume à l’espagnol or Spanish dress.
In the eighteenth-century French imagination, Spain was associated with an ideal of gallantry and feminine power. These associations are carried through in the way the model has been posed, in dynamic motion. Her head is turned toward the left, her body leans forward, her right hand is pressed against the ledge. The pose bestows a sense of drama and curiosity. The viewer has the sense of watching a narrative unfolding, one in which the sitter has been portrayed as a risk-taker.
The painting was made by one of the few women artists represented at the Wallace Collection: Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun. She has boldly scratched her signature into the window ledge, perhaps with the reverse end of her brush or the sharp point of a compass. This manner of signing a painting bespeaks great facility – and exceptional confidence. Indeed, she had good reason to be self-assured for she was the favoured portraitist of Marie Antoinette.
- Yuriko Jackall, Curator of French Paintings