Once overlooked, female old masters are now taking center stage with numerous high-profile and record-breaking sales paving the way. The latest of which is a 1788 work by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun which sold for $7.18 million at Sotheby’s Old Masters sale last week and became the most expensive painting by a pre-modern era female artist to be sold at auction. Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan, Full-Length, Holding His Sword in a Landscape had an estimate of $6 million and is largely considered one of the most important pieces by Vigée Le Brun.
The life-size portrait stands at an impressive 225cm and is of a an ambassador from India who came to France in 1788. Le Brun showed the work in the salon of 1789 in Paris and it ended up in the collection of her husband, Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun. It was then sold several times until it was bought by Louis-Alexandre Marnier Lapostolle in 1908 and handed off “by descent until recently”, according to Sotheby’s statement without disclosing the buyer or seller.
Vigée Le Brun is considered one of the most important artists of her era, having painted famous portraits of Marie Antoinette as well as other French royalty. Her work has seen a surge in popularity in the past few decades with a blockbuster exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2016. In Linda Nochlin’s essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, for ARTnews in 1971, Le Brun is listed and referenced among the many female artists deserving more serious study.
“The number of Old Master female artists who succeeded and are known to us today remains incredibly few—in 2018, Sotheby’s sold only 14 works by female Old Masters, compared to 1,100 male artists,” Calvine Harvey, a specialist in Sotheby’s Old Master painting department, said in a statement. “It’s important to remember that the obstacles women artists of the pre-Modern era faced were substantial, and those that broke down those barriers were truly triumphant.”
The evening sale totaled $52.7 million with 60 of 79 works finding buyers. Other works set even more records for Fede Galizia, Angelika Kauffmann, and Giulia Lama. Galizia, who pioneered the still life genre in the early 17th century, also made headlines when A Glass Compote with Peaches, Jasmine Flowers, Quinces and a Grasshopper sold for $2.4 million
“It was such a thrill to see strong prices throughout our initial offering of works from ‘The Female Triumphant,’ ” Harvey said. “The market clearly responded to the work of these groundbreaking women, including both new and established collectors.”