Formal Analysis of Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Portrait of  Madame Grand (Noël-Catherine Verlée, 1761–1835), Later Madame de Talleyrand-Périgord, Princesse de Bénévent


Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Portrait of  Madame Grand (Noël-Catherine Verlée, 1761–1835), Later Madame de Talleyrand-Périgord, Princesse de Bénévent

Madame Grand (Noël Catherine Verlée, 1761–1835), by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun is a French oil on canvas painting from 1783. It is a representational portrait, highly natural both in color and light, and somewhat unusual in its oval shape. The subject of the portrait is a young woman, elegantly attired, and sitting on a heavily saturated dark green velvet sofa, with her arm resting on a matching green velvet pillow with gold trim. The background is solid black. Though close inspection reveals some cracking of the paint and/or varnish, the painting appears overall to be in excellent condition, with no noticeable loss of color or yellowing of the varnish.

The woman is shown from her waist up, with just the top of her lap shown. She is wearing a silvery blue dress, with long sleeves but showing an ample expanse of bosom.  There is a large light blue bow in her hair atop her head, another just below her chest, and one at her waist. The bows echo the blue of her eyes, which are looking up toward her right in a dreamy fashion. The dress appears to be silk or satin, with a sheer wrap around her shoulders. The simulated textures of the smooth satiny dress contrast with the velvet of the sofa and cushion. The greens and blues are cool colors, giving the painting a calm appearance. Her skin is pale but healthy and smooth, with rosy cheeks. The lightness of her skin, especially her chest, stands out against the green sofa and black background.

The point of view is straight on; the picture plane could be a window or mirror.  The woman is perfectly centered in the oval. Her head is approximately three-fourths of the way up the painting, right about where one of the foci of the oval would be. Her right elbow is out to the side, with the sofa back and cushion on that same side, giving the painting a slightly asymmetrical appearance. She is holding a piece of sheet music in her right hand, where the lower focus point of the oval would be.  Her head and the music thus give the portrait a vertical symmetry. The light appears to be coming in at a slight angle from her upper right, where her eyes appear to be gazing.

The focal point of the painting is the woman’s face. She wears an expression of amused boredom, with her eyes looking up to her right into the light, and her glistening rose-hued lips slightly parted in a near smile that Mona Lisa would envy. A row of perfect teeth is barely visible behind her lips. Her hair is light blond, brushed into an extravagant halo around her head, and falling in curls past her shoulders. A curl on her left side hangs teasingly onto her exposed chest, nearly reaching her barely concealed bosom. Her hair looks as soft and puffy as the cushion beneath her elbow. Though our eyes want to briefly follow hers, inevitably we are drawn back to her well-lit face, neck, and chest. The lighting is mostly even. Shading is most evident along the woman’s left side, and in the ribbons that adorn her hair and dress.

The oval shape of the frame gives this painting an intimate feel, with no sharp corners. The oval shape also matches the woman’s pleasing oval face. The curved top of the sofa back is yet another rounded line. Even the sheet music is curled slightly, mimicking the curls in her hair. The artist’s signature can be faintly made out following the curve of the sofa’s gold trim. In short, this is a beautiful portrait of a young woman who knows she is beautiful. Nevertheless, she maintains an air not of haughtiness, but of relaxation and humor.

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