Portrait of Stanislaus II Augustus Poniatowski, King of Poland

Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun • Painting, 1797, 86.5×101.5 cm
About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Portrait
Style of art: Rococo
Technique: Oil
Materials: Canvas
Date of creation: 1797
Size: 86.5×101.5 cm
Artwork in collection: Smart and Beautiful Natalya Kandaurova
Artwork in selections: 1 selection

Description of the artwork «Portrait of Stanislaus II Augustus Poniatowski, King of Poland»

Previously, it was mistakenly believed that the person in the painting by Vigée Le Brun is the writer and statesman of Catherine’s era, Fyodor Golovkin. The 1929 attribution, which is now considered indisputable (belongs to S. O. Gilyarov), claims that this is a Portrait of Stanislaus II Augustus Poniatowski.

The artist Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, despite her “light” brush, had a “heavy” hand: some of the monarchs whom she had portrayed ended their days ingloriously or tragically.

Thus, Marie-Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI, whom Vigée Le Brun painted multiple times  and with whom she was friends, was executed during the French bourgeois revolution; she became the last queen of France, later this title was abolished. But Marie-Antoinette was not the only one in the hypothetical “black list of the last monarchs” by Vigée Le Brun. In 1797, during his stay in St. Petersburg, she created the portrait of Stanisław August Poniatowski, known by his regal title Stanislaus II Augustus. He happened to become the last king of Poland (in 1764, the Polish Sejm unanimously elected him king, and in 1795, after the occupation of Warsaw by Suvorov and the second partition of Poland, Poniatowski was made to abdicate and flee).

Certainly, there is no mysticism, just a coincidence. Moreover, by the time the portrait was painted, Poniatowski had already ceased to be a king, therefore no “curse of Vigée Le Brun” existed. But the nature of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun was not far from mysticism. In her memoirs, she boasted that she was remarkably able to predict events, just by looking at faces. And one of the such prediction cases concerned Stanisław August Poniatowski himself. She allegedly looked at him and noticed that the left eye of the king in exile looks dimmer than his right eye, thus Vigée Le Brun predicted his quick death. Indeed, Poniatowski had a stroke a few days later.

In this portrait, Stanisław Poniatowski is about 65 years old. All the main events of his stormy life were left far behind. Although, unlike Marie Antoinette, after his dethronement, he was not executed. But he had to live his days away from his homeland, in Russia — the country, which was guilty together with Prussia for the 2nd partition of Poland, which Poniatowski resisted as long as he could.

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun used to demonstrate very idealizing painting manner, and the desire to flatter the model often badly affected the quality of her pictorial products. However, the Portrait of Poniatowski is not too much of a decoration or sentimentality — on the contrary, it is one of the best male portraits by Vigée Le Brun.

We can see an elderly and probably disappointed person. Once he was a buoyant bon vivant, a man of pleasure. However, the intervention of history changed the character of Poniatowski — he became more restrained and broody. Although his posture and high chin give him a kind of generic pride, the Polish gentry honour, in the expression of his eyes, Vigée Le Brun managed to convey the uncertainty and modest sadness that arose under the influence of circumstances.

Written by Anna Vcherashniaya