Collectors: hands up if you started your collection with some items that you would not buy nowadays?
Well, this is my experience. The featured miniature is the first one I ever bought with my hard earned money, and I paid over the odds. But would I want to sell it or give it away? No!
So, who is this beguiling lady? It is Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), the ill- fated Queen of France, and the original is by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) and was painted in 1783. The original is entitled “Marie Antoinette à la rose”, which makes sense, as the sitter is holding a rose, which is albeit not depicted in the miniature.
The original painting by Vigée-Lebrun was exhibited at the Salon, an important art exhibition in eighteenth century France, in 1783, after a previous painting by her of the queen had come under attack, as it depicted the monarch in an informal gaulle or chemise à la reine dress. Such an attire did not befit her high status, and the painting was withdrawn. Soon thereafter Vigée-Lebrun painted another portrait of the queen in a similar pose, this time in a more sumptuous silk gown. The painting proved more popular than the first version.
Whilst the composition is different, there is also a very distinct change in the colour scheme of the dress. In the original the sitter is wearing a blue-green satin dress, which was changed to a soft peach tone in the miniature.
So, why this change? It seems likely that the artist had no access to the original or a correctly coloured reproduction at hand. Why the rose was left out has probably a practical background, as it would have required less labour.
Miniatures like this are quite common and can be picked up relatively easy. The reason why they are common is that they were produced in large numbers in the nineteenth and twentieth century, and they were more for decorative use than as a memento of a real person.
The miniature is signed, albeit it is uncertain if this is the real name of the miniaturist. Such decorative miniatures are often signed with the names of more famous artists, probably with the intent to deceive. I would make it out as “Sirren” or “Siwen”. It is painted in watercolours on the usual material.
This miniature has a special place in my collection, being the first one that I ever purchased, as mentioned before. I prefer ad vivum portraits, done from life, nowadays, but I think this first entry exemplifies how a collection can start, and how the focus can change after time.
Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, La Reine en Gaulle, 1783, oil on canvas, National Gallery, Washington D. C. Image via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marie-Antoinette_en_chemise_ou_en_gaulle_-_Vers_1783_-_Elisabeth_Louise_Vig%C3%A9e_Le_Brun.jpg
Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Marie-Antoinette à la Rose/Marie Antoinette with the Rose, 1783, oil on canvas, Palace of Versailles. Image via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Louise_Elisabeth_Vig%C3%A9e-Lebrun_-_Marie-Antoinette_dit_%C2%AB_%C3%A0_la_Rose_%C2%BB_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg