Vigée Le Brun, Élisabeth-Louise

Paris 1755 - Paris 1842
Biography & List of works

Portrait of Princess Anna Ivanonva Bariatinsky, later Countess Nikolai Alexandrovich Tolstoy (1774-1825)

Portrait of Princess Anna Ivanonva Bariatinsky, later Countess Nikolai Alexandrovich Tolstoy (1774-1825)


Medium: Oil On Canvas

Size: 136 x 102 cm

Signed: and dated: E.L. Vigée le Brun/ 3 ... 1796 à Saint Petersbourg


Countess Anna Ivanovna Tolstoy; by descent; Seligman Galerie, Paris, 1928; Private Collection, France.


Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Memoires, Chap. XVIII

(The work is presently being exhibited at the National Gallery of Canada / Musée des Beaux-Arts du Canada – website in maintenance)


As a devoted Monarchist and friend of the Queen, Louise Elisabeth Vigée le Brun chose exile during the revolution, first taking up residence (as was her right as an Academician) in the Villa Medici, the home of the French Academy in Rome. Able at least to earn her living, unlike so many of the French emigres who were forced to rely on the charity of friends and relations, she continued her successful career as a society portraitist, albeit not confining herself to French sitters. From Rome she moved to Naples and ultimately to Russia where she embarked on a new career painting the great ladies of the Imperial Court in Saint Petersburg. Having just reached the age of forty when she arrived on a hot July day in 1795, she was at the height of her powers and fame and able to command prices for her work unmatched by any of her rivals.


Among her existing acquaintances was Prince Ivan Sergeievitch Bariatinsky[1] (1738/40-1811), Ambassador in Paris 1773-85, whose long service at the French court had certainly brought him into occasional contact with the Queen’s favourite painter. The Bariatinskys enjoyed particular favour at the Imperial Court since Ivan’s brother, Feodor,[2] had played an important role in the murder of Catherine’s husband, the inconvenient and feeble Emperor Peter III. No sooner had Vigée arrived than she was summoned to appear before Catherine the Great herself and offered an apartment in the exquisite palace of Tsarkoe Selo. Vigée had been disappointed that rather than accommodate the Empress’ wish to find her an apartment near her, Prince Bariatinsky, as one of the responsible court officials for assigning such apartments, instead informed her than none were available.[3] Nonetheless, she became friendly with his son, Prince Ivan Ivanovich Bariatinsky (1772-1825), whom she painted soon after her arrival in a dramatic bust length portrait.[4] Ivan, who was later to follow his father into the diplomatic service, becoming Russian Minister in Munich, provided an elegant and charming escort at several social occasions during her Russian sojourn and later in London.[5] He was painted again by Vigée when she was working in the latter city (1803-1805, in both oils and pastels; both paintings are in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow), at which time Ivan met his first wife, Frances, daughter of Lord Sherborne.


Russia was ruled by four astonishing female sovereigns from the death of Peter the Great in 1725 until 1796 when Catherine II (the Great) was succeeded by her son Paul; this had a considerable influence on contemporary society and had enabled women to achieve a position as social leaders unequalled elsewhere in continental Europe. Vigée’s Russian portraits mark her progression towards a more informal style; the relatively free Russian court (at least compared with the constraints of Versailles) was reflected in the settings and sometimes casual poses she chose and her insistence that both men and women abandon hair powder for their sittings. Between her arrival in 1795 and her departure in 1801 she painted some fifty portraits of ladies of the Imperial Court as well as a posthumous portrait of Queen Marie-Antoinette, a self-portrait and at least two portraits of her daughter and the wife of a French artist resident there. She did not limit her sitters to members of own sex, however, but also painted more than twenty portraits of Russian noblemen and an English visitor to Saint Petersburg, Charles, 2nd Earl of Talbot. She was commissioned to paint the Empress’s portrait but Catherine’s sudden death the very week the sittings were to begin left the artist with only a pastel portrait sketch that she kept with her until her death. Nonetheless she produced a dozen or so portraits of members of the Imperial family (including several done in Dresden in 1801), both from life and from the pastels she made from life and which used as sketches for the grander productions in oils produced in her studio.


Anna Ivanovna Bariatinsky,[6] while born in Saint Petersburg, moved with her parents to Paris at the age of one and remained there until she was twelve, brought up as a young lady at the Royal Court and, like so many Russian nobles, was accustomed to speaking French as her first language. In her memoirs Mme Vigée Lebrun described her as “beautiful and good, the friend of the Countess Golovina” (whose stylish portrait by Vigée, wearing a red cashmere shawl, is now in the Barber Institute, Birmingham).  Anna’s marriage in 1796 to Count Nikolai Alexandrovich Tolstoy (1761/5-1816) had provided the occasion for this splendid portrait which, like his paintings of Countess Potocka (done in Rome in 1791) and Countess Bucquoi (Vienna 1793), places her casually seated in a rocky mountain setting, a roaring waterfall cascading down beside her. Nikolai was the great-grandson of Peter I’s minister who had played a major part in the succession of the latter’s widow, Catherine I, as Empress and had been rewarded by her with the title of Count.[7] This portrait known to modern scholars only from the record in Vigée’s memoirs and thought to be lost, has been in a private French collection since being sold by the Seligman gallery in 1928.  Its rediscovery represents a significant addition to the known oeuvre of the greatest of all French women portrait painters. 

[1] The Bariatinskys were among the most eminent of the great noble families, descended from the Varangian chief, Rurik, who established Russia’s first ruling dynasty. Their last regnant ancestor was Michel Vsevelodovich, Prince of Tchernigov and Grand Prince of Kiev who was murdered by the Mongols and later canonised as a Saint of the Orthodox Church as Saint Michael. The family took their name from Bariatino, in the province of Kalouga, south-west of Moscow.

[2] Vigée painted Feodor’s exotically beautiful daughter, Catherine (1769-1849), who married Prince Vassili Vassilievich Dolgorouky (her portrait, closely related to Vigée’s portrait of Lady Hamilton as a Sibyl had been admired by the sitter) in 1797; this is now in a private British collection. Princess Dolgorouky was renowned for her intelligence as well as her beauty and had entranced the Empress’ lover, Prince Potemkin, among others..

[3] Mme Vigée Lebrun suspected that the Count d’Artois, who was keen that his brother’s Ambassador, Count Esterhazy, should remain in post, had feared that she was close to those who wanted him replaced and worried that her proximity to the Empress might advance this cause. Vigée herself was friends with Esterhazy and his wife and strongly denied any interest or connection with such intrigues. At Catherine’s death Emperor Paul did not renew his mother’s invitation and Vigée, who disliked the Emperor and was keen on her personal independence was privately relieved that she had an excuse to live in the house sh rented in the city.

[4] There are two versions of this painting, one in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the other in the collection of Prince Chigi Albani della Rovere at Castelfusano, near Rome; it is unclear whether both are originals or one is a contemporary copy.

[5] His first wife, the Hon Frances Dutton (1776-1807), daughter of James Dutton, 1st Baron Sherborne, died in childbirth leaving a son; he remarried in 1813 Countess Maria Feodorovna von Keller (1792-1858), daughter of the Prussian ambassador in Vienna.

[6] Anna’s mother was born Princess Catherine of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Beck (1750-1811), the daughter of Peter Duke of Holstein-Beck, head of the family which not only included the Kings of Denmark and Dukes (later Grand Dukes) of Oldenburg, but also the Russian imperial family itself since the succession of Peter III, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp as Emperor of Russia in 1762, by his wife Countess Natalie Nicolaevna Golovina.

[7] The Tolstoy’s had no children and Nikolai was over-shadowed by his younger brother, Count Pyotr Alexnadrovich Tolstoy (1761-1844) whose extraordinary military career earned him promotion to Major-General at the age of 28 and, after predicting that Napoleon would eventually turn on Russia (which led to his temporary retirement), his elevation to full General in 1814 and, ultimately, the highest Russian honour, the Order of Saint Andrew.