Alexandrine-Emilie Brongniart (1780–1847) was most likely eight years old when this engaging portrait of her was painted by the celebrated artist Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Wearing an informal knotted scarf on her head, matching white dress and a translucent shawl around her shoulders, Emilie looks directly at us as she searches inside a green silk bag containing balls of wool. Her dark curly hair, which is fashionably long and styled to look natural, frames her pale face, which shows a lively interest in our presence.
There was a close bond between the artist and the Brongniart family. Vigée Le Brun’s daughter Julie was seven months older than Emilie, and the two often played together. The portrait shows the influence of portraits of children by Greuze, but Le Brun avoids the overt sentimentalism that could be a feature of Greuze’s children and presents instead an image of an independent and inquiring young girl.
Emilie, who was to become Baronne Pichon, was the youngest of the three children of Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart and Anne-Louise d’Egremont (or d’Aigremont). Her father was a very successful property developer and architect, whose best-known works include the Paris stock exchange and Père Lachaise cemetery. The family moved in artistic circles and included Jacques-Louis David among their friends. David helped Emilie learn to draw and in 1793 Madame Brongniart was to seek his help when her husband needed political protection.
The 1780s had been particularly good for Emilie’s father who, like many liberal bourgeois, welcomed the events of 1789, which signalled the start of the French Revolution. For Vigée Le Brun, however, the effect of these events was quite different. Due to her close connection with the court, and particularly with Queen Marie-Antoinette, whose portrait she first painted in 1778, she received threats and verbal abuse. It was the Brongniart family who offered her temporary refuge in the autumn of 1789 prior to her leaving for Italy in October. By this time, Vigée Le Brun had formed a close friendship with the family and had already painted portraits of the elder Brongniart children, Alexandre and Louise. Her own daughter Julie was just seven months older than Emilie and the two regularly played together. The close bond between Vigée Le Brun and the Brongniarts survived the Revolution. Monsieur Brongniart was one of the 255 signatories to a petition of July 1799 seeking Vigée Le Brun’s removal from the list of émigrés (the mostly aristocratic exiles who had fled France and were viewed as potential traitors). Both he and his wife were also among the first to call for Vigée Le Brun’s return to Paris in January 1802, the year Napoleon granted an amnesty to most émigrés.
Vigée Le Brun most likely painted this portrait in 1788, the year Emilie turned eight, or possibly in 1789. There are similarities with the artist’s slightly earlier portrait of her own daughter Julie Le Brun holding a Bible of 1787 (private collection, New York), notably the angle of the head and the direct gaze of both girls, who are each shown with an object (a Bible and a bag of wool). Vigée Le Brun may have originally intended Emilie to wear a long-sleeved dress. With the sleeve removed, the exposed underarm subtly captures the reflected green of the bag and the red of the wool. Both portraits show the influence of Greuze’s portraits of children, of which there are several examples in the National Gallery’s collection. In this portrait, however, she avoids the overt sentimentalism that could be a feature of Greuze’s children and presents instead an image of an independent and inquiring young girl.
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