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Vigée Le Brun’s “Italian girl”

30 August 2017

Vigee Le Brun gA little detective work has unlocked the story of one of Mme Vigée Le Brun’s quick pastel sketches.[1] The identification of the “Italian girl” and the full history follow from this apparently enigmatic label on the back of the work:


The pastel dates from Mme Vigée Le Brun’s London trip in 1803 to 1805. Here she had resumed her travels despite being allowed back to Paris. She was not received with universal enthusiasm: although Reynolds had called her paintings of Marie-Antoinette and Mme de Polignac “as fine as those of any painter…either living or dead” (Northcote 1819, ii, p.100), Edwards (1808) decried the fact that her portraits commanded “thrice the sum that Sir Joshua Reynolds received”, while Hoppner criticised “the imposing quality of smoothness…spread over the works of the insipid, as a kind of snare to catch the ignorant”, and that upon this and on “a feeble, vulgar, and detailed imitation of articles of furniture and dress, rests the whole of Madame Le Brun’s reputation.” (Oriental tales, London, 1805, p. xi). But that quality was completely absent from the immediacy and directness of her sketches of friends.

The circles she moved in are well documented, in her own Souvenirs, in recent biographies (such as that by Geneviève Haroche-Bouzinac) and in the 2015 exhibition organized by Joseph Baillio, and in particular included a group of internationally renowned musicians and performance artists, among them Giuseppina Grassini, Angelica Catalani, Viotti and the Chinneries: indeed the withdrawals from William Chinnery’s bank account[2] with Drummonds reads like a Who’s Who of the musical and artistic talent of the day – including a payment of £100 to Vigée Le Brun, presumably for her 1803 portrait of Margaret Chinnery, now in Bloomington, Indiana.

They also included payments (totaling some £400) to the Italian composer Francesco Bianchi (1752–1810) and his wife, the singer Jane Bianchi (1776–1858), who both enjoyed considerable celebrity at the time.[3] Bianchi, from Cremona, wrote nearly 80 operas in his career, and came to London in 1795 to direct a revival of one of the most popular, La Vendetta di Nino; during his stay in London he put on another fourteen operas at the King’s Theatre. Jane was the daughter of John Jackson, a surgeon/apothecary in Sloane Street, and had appeared at the Concert of Antient Music from 1798 on. On 15 November 1800 she married the composer at St James’s, Piccadilly.

Shortly after a single child was born to the union, baptized Caroline Nelson Bianchi (1801–1807) – a name which reflects how closely they moved in the same circles as Vigée Le Brun, and evidenced further by the drawing by Thomas Baxter, a protégé of the admiral, who depicted Mme Bianchi and Emma Hamilton (on the right) seated at a square piano at Merton in 1805 (Royal Museums Greenwich):

Madame Bianchi and Emma Hamilton

Vigée Le Brun’s portrait of Caroline, hitherto unknown and identified by the somewhat obscure label discussed below, was probably executed the year before.

The following year we can conjecture that Caroline was a guest at the birthday party held for Nelson’s illegitimate daughter Horatia, reports of which appeared two days later in the Morning Chronicle (31 October 1806):

Morning Chronicle Fri31x1806 Horatia Nelsons party

Sadly however Caroline died just two months later, an event recorded in The Gentleman’s Magazine for February 1807 (p. 180):

Gentlemans Mag ii1807p180

She was buried at St Mary Abbots Church in Kensington on 2 February 1807. Bianchi had by then been separated from his wife, and never recovered from his young daughter’s death. Three years later, on 27 November 1810, he committed suicide, “broken-hearted for the loss of his child” in Leigh-Hunt’s phrase.[4] In accordance with his will,[5] he was buried beside her:

Bianchi will

A stone in the churchyard (now long gone) recorded (inaccurately):

Kensington stone

Jane remarried the following year, in Brighton. Her second husband was another singer, William Pardy Lacy (1788–1871), and she continued to perform under the name Mme Bianchi-Lacy. Another child would play a crucial role in identifying the portrait of her half-sister: she was baptized (at St Marylebone) Angelica Elisabeth Lacy (1814–1891), quite possibly after La Catalani.

Angelica herself would have a distinguished performing career as a singer and pianist. The Musical Library (April 1835, p. 31) recorded the debut, with the Antient Concert, of “a new candidate for vocal fame – Miss Lacy, daughter of Mrs Bianchi Lacy…This young lady greatly resembles her mother in delicacy of style and correctness of intonation”. An international career followed, taking her to Vienna, where (15 May 1838) Liszt played at a concert she gave. In 1846 she married Graf Lothar Aurelio Karl Leopold von Rothkirch und Panthen (1822–1903), later a Generalmajor in the Austrian service. The marriage however does not seem to have been a success: while he continued in the army (he commanded the Austrian army at Tobitschau during the Seven Weeks’ War with Prussia in 1866), by 1855 “Countess Rothkirch” was recorded in Ealing in the Post Office Directory. Soon after she moved to Clifton, Bristol, where she remained until her death in 1891 (her name appears as Angela, Countess Rothkirch in the registers and census that year). She left the Vigée Le Brun pastel of her half-sister to Joseph Griffiths Swayne (1819–1903), a celebrated obstetrician at the Bristol General Hospital. It remained among his descendants until 2017, the label above being initialled “FLS” for Swayne’s daughter Frances Louisa.


[1] The pastel, hitherto unpublished and unrecorded, is J.76.14  in the online Dictionary of pastellists (the description and attribution here are subject to the usual qualifications on that site). It appeared at auction in Somerset in August.

[2] It is reproduced in extenso in an appendix to Warwick Lister, Amico: the life of Giovanni Battista Viotti, Oxford, 2009, pp. 401ff.

[3] There are useful biographies in the Oxford DNB, in Grove and in Highfill, Burnim & Langhans.

[4] The old court suburb: or, memorials of Kensington…, London, 1855, i, p. 178.

[5] Prerogative Court of Canterbury, prob/11/1517, 14 December 1810.

From → Art history

  1. leisa carry permalink

    Charming pastel sketch. Informative post and as always enjoy your detective work.
    Perchance you would enlighten readers on the hammer price of Le Brun’s “Italian Girl”?

    • I believe it was £2300; I don’t know who bought it. Details of the sale are in the online Dictionary in the Vigée Le Brun article under the number quoted, J.76.14

  2. Stephen Lloyd permalink

    Dear Neil,

    I have just read your fascinating post on ‘The Italian Girl’ pastel by Madame Lebrun.

    I also managed to get to a deserted Orleans and equally sadly empty MBA in August to see the beautiful and intelligent Perronneau show. Your review was faultless!

    Has your email address (demon) changed? it is bouncing back at me…

    I hope all is well with you in these very uncertain times (as the UK’s slide down to the Brexit cliff-edge begins to pick up speed…).

    Kind regards, Stephen


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