The portrait of Madame du Barry by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, at the National Gallery of Art, is haunted by intrigue and death


Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, widely regarded as the most accomplished woman painter of the 18th century, painted this beautiful portrait of Madame du Barry in 1782. This is the year in which Madame du Barry, who had been the favorite mistress of the King of France Louis XV, entered into a romantic relationship with the Duke of Brissac, a prominent military commander among the courtiers of Versailles .

Ten years after this portrait, Madame du Barry opened a window in her castle outside Paris to investigate the source of the loud cries. A small crowd was outside. One of the people below threw something heavy out the window. Wrapped in a white sheet stained with blood, he rolled on the floor of his living room. When Madame du Barry opened it, she saw the severed head of her lover.

The portrait, in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, is one of many that Vigée Le Brun painted of Madame du Barry. Its freshness is typical of the artist. The handling of the lace around her collar and sleeves, her powdered hair, the gray feathers that spring from her crown and the satin dress itself, all in shades of silvery white highlighted by the sky blue-gray, is eaten. The local color is also charming. The neutral dress showcases the babysitter’s sash and pink flowers, her red cheeks, the yellow scallop on the stone wall, and the multi-colored flower wreath in her hand.

Madame du Barry was presented to the court as the king’s favorite in 1769, five years after the death of her predecessor, Madame de Pompadour. His arrival caused a huge scandal. The king was in his late fifties. Madame du Barry was 25 years old. Royal mistresses had always been chosen from the nobility or, at least, as in the case of Madame de Pompadour, from serious money.

Born Jeanne Bécu, Madame du Barry was the daughter of an unmarried seamstress and brother. In 1763, she became the mistress of Jean-Baptiste du Barry, a pimp who ran a casino and who installed her as a courtesan, or bourgeois prostitute. Hoping to use it to gain influence at court, du Barry arranged for Joan to marry her brother, created a fake birth certificate establishing a noble line and lowering her age by three, and presented it to the king, who was instantly enamored.

The Duke of Brissac met Madame du Barry shortly after his installation at court, in premises very close to his. He became so devoted to her that his own marriage was plunged into crisis. The whole court, in fact, was torn between loyalty to the king and indignation at the privileged status of a prostitute.

When Louis XV died of smallpox in 1774, his grandson succeeded him on the throne. At the insistence of Louis XVI’s wife, Marie AntoinetteMadame du Barry was banished to a convent. The queen explained that “the king confined himself to sending the creature” – she meant Joan – “to a convent, and to expel from the court all that was tarred in the name of scandal”.

Madame du Barry endured her disgrace “with dignity and courage”, according to the historian Benedetta craveri. After a year, he was allowed to resume something like his old life on condition that he stayed 10 leagues from Paris and Versailles. She soon settled in Louveciennes, in a building that the former king had made available to her at the start of their relationship. There she was free to indulge her love of beautiful paintings, statues, porcelain, furniture, clothing and other precious objects.

She and the Duke of Brissac were lovers in 1782. Her character was so sympathetic, her demeanor so blamelessly kind and gentle, that her former detractors soon gave in and even apologized.

The fact that Vigée Le Brun repeatedly painted Madame du Barry suggests how much the reputation of the former courtesan had changed, as Vigée Le Brun was the official painter to Marie-Antoinette, Madame du Barry’s former enemy. More modest than the portrait styles that prevailed in previous decades, the portraits of Vigée Le Brun transmit what Craveri calls on Madame du Barry’s “fundamental goodness” and has undoubtedly helped seal her reinstatement.

Of course, all of this intrigue, all of these beautiful feelings were about to be overtaken by the story. In 1793, a year after her lover was killed and dismembered, Madame du Barry was herself beheaded by guillotine during the Terror. She was buried in the same cemetery as Marie-Antoinette.

Great works, to the point

A series featuring the favorite works of art critic Sebastian Smee in the permanent collections of the United States. “These are things that touch me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.

Photo editing and search by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Junne Alcantara.

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