Vigée Le Brun, Élisabeth-Louise

Paris 1755 - Paris 1842
Biography & List of works

Countess Yekaterina Vassilievna Skavronskaia, later Countess Litta

Medium: Oil on canvas

Size: 54.8 x 45.2 cm

Signed: Lower left, 'Le Brun / 1790

Provenance:

With Wildenstein until 1915; probably sale Paris, Hôtel Drouot, 29 October, 1973, lot 149, ills.; Private collection, Paris.

Literature:

Rétrospective de portraits de femmes, Palais de Bagatelle, Paris, May 1909, no. 186 (lent by Wildenstein).

Exhibited:

W. H. Helm, Vigée –Lebrun, Her Life , Works and Friendships , London, 1915, p. 208 , ills. facing p. 126 ; J. Baillio, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun , Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 1982, no. 43 p. 110.

 

 

Yekaterina Vassilievna Skavronskaia, née Engelhardt (1761-1829), the charming and voluptuous Countess Litta, was one of the nieces, and long-time mistress, of Prince Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin-Tavricheski, Catherine the Great’s lover and highly accomplished minister. She was presented at court in 1775 along with her five sisters and brother, all of whom became favoured members of the Russian Court (the sisters were each appointed ladies-in-waiting to the Empress) while two of her sisters preceded her in their uncle’s bed.  By 1781 she had married Count Paul Martinovich Skavronski (1757-1793), who from 1784 was posted as Russian Minister in Naples. Count Skavronski was the great nephew of Empress Catherine I, the second wife of Peter the Great born to a peasant family in Poland. He was a considerable eccentric, passionate about opera, which he enjoyed composing himself and disconcerted his servants by addressing them in sung recitative. Ekaterina only joined her husband in Naples some years after his appointment when news reached Saint Petersburg that his eccentricities had descended into more manic behaviour. Soon after her arrival her husband invited Mme Vigée Lebrun, then the most renowned portraitist in Europe, to dine, thereupon commissioning the first of what was to be a total of four portraits by Vigée of his wife – three done in Naples (one of these is missing) and one, later, in Saint Petersburg. Of these, our portrait is one of two bust length works – the whereabouts of the other is unknown while her splendid three quarter length portrait is now one of the treasures of the Musée Jacquemart André.  Count Skavronski died in 1793 leaving her a widow and the mother of two daughter, Maria Pavlovna[1] and Yekaterina Pavlovna, aged twelve and ten, whereupon she returned to Russia, taking up again her position as an imperial lady-in-waiting. Her beloved uncle, Potemkin, had died while she was in Naples and she now renewed her acquaintance with the dashing Count Giulio Renato Litta Visconti Arese (1763-1839) whom she had first met whilst in Italy. Litta, had been enrolled as a knight of justice of minority of the Order of Malta, and from 1782 had served in the Order’s navy. Having distinguished himself early, when Catherine the Great asked Grand Master Emmanuel de Rohan-Polduc to recommend one of his knights to reorganise the Russian navy, Litta was appointed to this task, arriving in Saint Petersburg in 1788. Having successfully transformed the fighting capabilities of the Russian navy and defeated the Swedish fleet, Litta was promoted to Admiral and showered with honours.  In 1792 Litta returned to Italy where he first made Yekaterina’s acquaintance and was at the same time rewarded with a commandery of the Order of Malta. In 1795 he returned to Saint Petersburg as the Order’s Minister to the Imperial Court charged with persuading the Empress to give her protection to the Order, a task with which he had much greater success with her son, the Emperor Paul, who succeeded his mother in November 1796.   The thirty-five year old admiral’s attraction to the thirty-seven year old widow was mutual and passionate – but, in order to marry, Litta had first to request the permission of the grand master and then of the Pope as he was otherwise sworn to a life of celibacy. Vigée painted the voluptuous Countess again soon after her arrival in Russia in 1796 (Paris, Louvre); this engaging and informal half-length portrait is the only example of the artist’s Russian period in a French public collection. Yekaterina and Litta remained happily married but childless – she died in 1829, he followed her ten years later. Yekaterina’s younger daughter, also Yekaterina, was even more beautiful than her mother and of equally passionate disposition. Unfortunately, when the Emperor Paul discovered that General Pyotr Bargation (who was to die heroically at Borodino), almost twenty years her senior, was madly in love with the seventeen year old countess he announced their engagement, without consulting either of them in advance. Her mother, the subject of our portrait was unable to intervene and they were married with the Emperor as witness on 2 September 1800.[2]  Our portrait shows the Countess looking coquettishly over her shoulder at the viewer, contrasting starkly with the more formal Jacquemart-André painting, with its attention to the rich fabrics of the sitters dress, the velvet covered chair and white muslin headdress. While in our portrait there is a suggestion that she has been painted while dressing, as her white robe covers only one shoulder leaving the other bare, in the Jacquemart André portrait she wears a triple row of pearls and holds in her left hand an open miniature, with she regards with a tender expression. In its informality our portrait resembles more closely the smaller, 1796, portrait of the Countess in which she has a simple double gold chain around her neck and robe which slips down to almost expose her left breast.

Vigée herself tells the story of the commission in her memoirs, written much later but based on her diaries. “I had engaged a house at Chiaja on the edge of the sea. Opposite me I had the island of Capri, and this situation delighted me. Hardly had I arrived when Count Skavronski, the Russian Ambassador at Naples, whose house was next to mine, sent one of his runners to find out how I was, and at the same time had a very choice dinner brought me. I was the more grateful for this kind of attention, as I must have died of hunger before there would have been time to get my kitchen ready. The same evening I went to thank the Count, and thus became acquainted with his charming wife.

Count Skavronska had features that were noble and regular; he was very pale. This pallor came from the extreme delicacy of his health, which, however, did not prevent him from being highly sociable nor from chatting both gracefully and cleverly. The Countess was as sweet and pretty as an angel. The famous Potemkin, her uncle, had loaded her with wealth, for which she had no use. Her great delight was to live stretched out on a lounge wrapped in a large black cloak, and wearing no stays. Her mother-in-law sent her, from Paris, cases full of the most beautiful dresses then made by Mlle. Bertin, Queen Marie Antoinette’s dressmaker. I do not believe that the Countess ever opened one of them, and when her mother-in-law expressed a wish to see her in the beautiful gowns and head-dresses contained in the cases, she answered indifferently: “What for? Why?” She gave me the same answer when showing me her jewel-case, one of the most splendid I have ever seen. It contained enormous diamonds given her by Potemkin, but I never saw them on her. I remember her telling me that in order to go to sleep she had a slave under her bed who told her the same story every night. She was utterly idle all day, she had no education, and her conversation was quite empty. But in spite of all that, thanks to her lovely face and her angelic sweetness, she had an irresistible charm.”               

The painting was first reproduced in a photograph in 1915, and again by Helm in his monograph on the artist, and has always been regarded as a portrait of the beautiful Countess Skavronskaia, later Countess Litta. The identification was based on the old inscription on the back of the lining canvas (reproducing a similar inscription on the original canvas), which notes the name of the sitter and that the painting was executed in Naples in 1791. This date has led to some confusion as Vigée painted the Countess in 1790 and, after cleaning, it has become clear that the date, following the signature, is indeed 1790.   Mr. Joseph Baillio will include this work in his upcoming catalogue raisonné of paintings by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and has confirmed that it is the original, autograph version of this composition (of which there are two, contemporary studio versions). 

 

[1] Maria had an affair with her step-father, Litta, from which relationship she had a daughter, Yulia von der Pahlen, who was herself married three times – to Count Nikolai Samoïlov, the singer Pierre Antoinin Perry and comte Charles-Henri de Mornay.

[2] Yekaterina had had no choice but to accede to the Emperor’s command but, perhaps because Bagration was frequently on campaign, the marriage was childless, by 1805 Yekaterina decided to leave and spent the remainder of her life travelling. Her preference for dresses that were almost entirely transparent earned her the title “the beautiful nude angel” and the nickname “the white cat”, as a reference to her voracious sexual energy. As she was immensely wealthy she could choose whom she wished to join her in bed, her lovers included General von der Schulenberg, Prince Karl of Wurttemberg, Prince Louis-Ferdinand of Prussia and Prince Clemens von Metternich – for whom she had the deepest affection, naming their daughter Marie Clementine, although she bore the title of her nominal father. The unfortunate Prince Bagration still adored his wife even though long separated and carried her miniature portrait on all his campaigns. She, meanwhile, played an important role as a hostess at the Congress of Vienna, managing to entertain several of the delegates in her bed, and later, in Paris, having an affair with the British ambassador, Lord Charles Stewart and earned the admiration of Lord Palmerston. She spent the latter part of her life in Paris (where her chef was for a while Antoine Carême) but her extravagance forced the sale of much of her jewellery, including the famous Potemkin diamond inherited from her mother, purchased by Napoleon III and given to Empress Eugenie. This was sold by the Empress at Christies, in 1872, where it was purchased by Malhar Rao Gaekwad, Maharajah of Baroda (deposed in 1875 for trying to poison the British resident officer) and was sold by the heirs of  Fatehsinghrao Prataprao, son and heir of last reigning Maharajah of Baroda,  sometime after 1988. Princess Bagration died in Venice, in 1857 – she numbered among her friends Goethe, Benjamin Constant, Stendhal, and Honoré de Balzac.