What you see: Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan, Full-Length, Holding His Sword in a Landscape, a life-size oil on canvas painted in 1788 by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun. Sotheby’s estimates it at $4 million to $6 million.
The expert: Calvine Harvey, specialist and vice president in the Old Masters department at Sotheby’s.
Let’s start by talking about how extraordinary Vigée Le Brun was, and how extraordinary she had to be to work as a portrait painter in 18th-century Europe. Technical competence is just the price of admission for a woman then, I take it. What other skills and talents did she have besides the obvious? She was really an absolutely remarkable woman and probably the most successful woman painter in the 17th and 18th centuries in terms of renown in her lifetime. She was unbelievable. She trained with her father originally, but he died when she was eleven years old. She certainly used the connections he set her up with to keep herself in that world. Her skill was absolutely amazing, and she was prolific. [A key skill was] her use of her connections and the way she was able to ingratiate herself in the royal court. She painted Queen Marie-Antoinette for ten years. Then the French Revolution happened. She fled France and traveled through Europe. She brought her daughter with her, not her husband–he stayed.
We should point out that a woman traveling Europe in the 18th century without her husband is a very different thing from a woman traveling Europe without her husband in the 21st century… Yes. She had a gentleman carriage driver and a governess for her daughter. For all her success in France, she left without anything. When she arrived in Rome, she painted an amazing self-portrait, showing herself painting Marie-Antoinette. She needed to make it for her business to survive. It’s in the Uffizi now. [The self-portrait] helped her meet people and make connections. In her memoirs, only two chapters are in France. Then she travels the world, painting people.
About those memoirs. Are they the source of most of what we know about the story of the Khan portrait? Are there contemporary accounts by third-party observers? There are some contemporary accounts. One is from the translator for King Louis’s court. I don’t think we have an amazingly detailed account [from the translator] and there’s no account from the other side. I wish we had one from Khan’s side. On their side, [Khan was one of three ambassadors from India, sent to France by Tipu Sultan to solicit help in pushing back against the British] we don’t have an accounting from them. They were beheaded [by Tipu Sultan after they returned to India, for falling short of the goals he set for their mission.] It’s too bad.
Vigée Le Brun is the master of “Make me look exactly like myself, only 20 percent more attractive.” Is she generally regarded as a reliable narrator? She was a pretty reliable narrator. Her memoir is pretty detailed, but it’s a fun read. She liked to tell stories of interesting characters [who sat for her]. She described who the people are–a lot of it is that. Her recounting is what’s used over and over in many books about the subject. From all sides, different people use her as a source, for sure.
Khan and his two colleagues, who Tipu Sultan sent to France, were faithful muslims. Islam maintains a taboo against depicting the image of Muhammad, the main human figure within the religion. Would the three men have had a baseline objection to having their images recorded? Certainly. Being captured pictorially was very foreign to them. Which is why Le Brun knew why she had to make the request of the king wanting something [wanting their portraits] for them to go for it. There was hesitation.
Yeah, about that. In her memoirs, Vigée Le Brun writes, “I saw these Indians at the opera and they appeared to me so remarkably picturesque that I thought I should like to paint them. But as they communicated to their interpreter that they would never allow themselves to be painted unless the request came from the King, I managed to secure that favour from His Majesty.” She makes it sound like getting the French king to do what she wanted was easy. I realize she was tight with the queen and the French court, but come on, it had to be tougher then she lets on, yes? It was definitely not as easy as that, but it reflects back on her resourcefulness. She knew she had to be strategic about it. I think she would say the queen [helped her] if it was the queen. She probably arranged it through her contacts at court. She knew them, and they knew her. She was part of the circle.
When I think of paintings by Vigée Le Brun, I think of portraits like lot 51, the 1804 pastel of Mrs. Spencer Perceval. The Khan portrait is unusual in the artist’s output, and I’d like to discuss what marks it out. I see that Khan is not looking at the viewer. How atypical is that for a Vigée Le Brun portrait? It’s not unique. It’s not common, but there are definitely other examples [of sitters not making eye contact]. In some of her Marie-Antoinette portraits, the queen is not looking directly at the viewer, especially the ones painted at full length. She said in her memoirs that Khan stood in this pose and she did not direct him. He stood, grabbed his sword, and looked off in that direction with fierce power. That was that. She was blown away, and she went with it.
I realize that full-length portraits often reflect the purse of the sitter–the wealthier you were, the larger your portrait could be–but obviously, she wouldn’t have charged Khan for this. Most of her full-length portraits are of Marie-Antoinette. To me, it shows how important this painting is in her entire oeuvre.
The lot notes comment on how Khan looks “imposing and formidable.” That’s not a typical trait we see in those who sit for Vigée Le Brun, Lot 51 is kind of like an image of a kitten with a bow, and the Khan image is like an image of a tiger. How does the artist communicate Khan’s ferocity? It’s the look on his face, but a lot of it is the pose. It’s amazing to me, the masculine power–“Let me hold a large sharp sword”–but the sword has beautiful detailed carving. It’s a work of art in itself. There’s a balance to the sense of power that comes from the sword, the pose, and the look.
Does she depict anyone else who looks as fierce as Khan? Not that I can think of. To me, there’s nothing like this one.
To get back to skills that she had to have beyond the ability to paint–she would have had to have kept Khan standing and engaged long enough to finish her work in an age before television, radio, video games, podcasts, the Internet, smart phones, and the like. Did she talk about how she managed him while she painted him? In her memoirs, she talks about how she loved the theater, and loved to sing. Marie-Antoinette and she would sing during sittings. Other than that, she didn’t talk about strategies to keep sitters engaged. But she must have some, because she did a lot of painting.
And would she have, say, finished Khan’s face on the spot and simply laid in details of his costume and sword and finished them later, back at her studio? I imagine a lot of what she did, she did there and then. The details of the costume were probably done then. Certainly she would have finished the background separately.
The notes say she painted Khan’s two colleagues as well, and the portrait of Osman Khan has since been lost. Do we know where the third painting is? She painted the other two ambassadors together, with the elder ambassador seated and the other standing behind him. That portrait is now lost. There’s a drawing of the 1789 Salon [a prestigious annual art exhibit then held in France] that shows it mapped out. That portrait is in it, and it’s the only record we had of it. [If you scroll down on this link, you can see the drawing of the 1789 Salon on the lower right. It’s figure four.] It was the final Salon under the king’s reign. Vigée Le Brun left France in October.
The drama continued after she finished the portrait. Khan hid it behind his bed and refused to give it to her. She persuaded his servant to steal it back, and that caused a worse problem. Evidently Khan was angry enough to kill the servant over the theft, and an interpreter had to intervene. He convinced him that punishing the underling with death was a breach of French custom, and that the man handed it over at the request of the king. Do we have a notion of why Khan would have refused to give the painting back to the artist? I imagine it had something to do with religion. In her memoirs, she says he hid it behind the bed and told her ‘the painting needed a soul.’ He might have been frightened by the image of himself. It was probably a very foreign concept to him. He might have been frightened by it and not wanted to give it back to her. The servant was probably a French servant, arranged for by the king. The painting was at the hotel where Khan stayed. The servant ended up going in to get the painting. We don’t have the exact details [of how he retrieved it]. The translator said he had to say no, no, you can’t just behead a servant for something like this. Everyone was OK in the end, and she got the painting, for which we are all grateful.
If I walk into a room full of Old Masters that includes a work by Vigée Le Brun, it calls me right over to it. Why was Vigée Le Brun so damn good at what she did? She was a brilliant painter and a brilliant portraitist, able to capture the subject with a sense of knowing them. I think her early training as a pastelist shows a sense of softness and light that comes from the pastel medium. Her social skills were advanced, and she used them to her advantage to get the sittings she got and to draw out her sitters. She studied them and knew who they were, and she focused on them.
In scanning the lot notes, it looks like the Khan portrait was last at auction in 1893. Is that right? I believe so.
How did you arrive at the estimate for this? It was not an easy one to price. It’s so atypical for her. We had to see how it was different than a portrait by Vigée Le Brun. The comparables we looked to were Joshua Reynolds’s circa 1776 Portrait of Omai, It’s a full-length portrait of a person in Polynesian dress. We sold it in November 2015 for $13 million to $14 million. [Scroll down on this link to see the portrait. It’s figure three on the lower right.] For us, the Khan portrait is more like pictures like that–a capable and impressive artist of the Western tradition, painting someone in exotic dress who has a sense of power and intrigue.
What is the painting like in person? It’s enormous. It’s so impressive and grand. It’s just huge. It’s unbelievably powerful. You step back when you see it. He is big, and he is grand and magnificent.
Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.
You can buy Vigée Le Brun’s memoirs from Powell’s or another independent bookseller.
Sotheby’s also published two pieces on its website about Vigée Le Brun and about a larger group of women artists whose works appear in the January 30 auction: The volatile Saga Behind Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Portrait of India’s Ambassador to France, and The Women Who Dared to Paint.
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