A Painting by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun Sold for $7.2 Million at Sotheby’s, a New Record for a Female Artist From Before the Modern Era

The artist's work led Sotheby's Master Paintings evening sale in New York, with a little pre-sale help from Victoria Beckham.

Victoria Beckham with Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun's Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan at the exhibition for "The Female Triumphant" at Sotheby's New York. Photo courtesy of Tom Newton.

It was a victorious moment for female painters last night.

Sotheby’s Old Masters sale got off to a bright start, as 170 paintings and drawings raked in a total of $67.8 million across two auctions in New York on Wednesday evening. But the definitive highlight was the record-making sale of work by pioneering women artists from the 16th to 19th centuries, presented together under the banner “The Female Triumphant.” Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun’s late 18th-century painting Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan was at the top of the pile, selling for $7.2 million and setting a world auction record for a female artist from before 1900.

The 1788 work depicts an Indian ambassador, garbed in resplendent white, who had been sent to France by his country’s ruler to seek the European nation’s support during India’s battle with Britain. Le Brun, a longtime portraitist of Marie Antoinette, became fascinated with these Indian noblemen, though she had to seek Louis XVI’s approval in order to paint their portraits due to the high status of the diplomats.

It was exhibited in 1789 at the Paris salon during a historic time of political pre-revolutionary unrest.

In bolstering the 21-piece sale of these under-recognized female painters, Sotheby’s had none other than Victoria Beckham at their side for their pre-sale exhibition last week. The former pop star and avid contemporary art collector emerged as an unexpectedly vocal advocate of Old Masters last year. During her visit to “The Female Triumphant” last week, she sang the praise of these overlooked women from art history and said her appreciation of Old Masters has grown into a “family passion.”

Fede Galizia’s Glass Compote with Peaches, Jasmine Flowers, Quinces, and Grasshoppe. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

“It’s important to remember that the obstacles women artists of the pre-Modern era faced were substantial, and those who broke down those barriers were truly triumphant,” remarked Calvine Harvey, Sotheby’s Old Master paintings specialist in New York. Harvey said it was “a thrill” to see such strong prices achieved and to watch the market finally respond to these historic figures. The Old Masters sale continues through February 2.

Further records were set for women artists on Wednesday night, including the lesser-known but nevertheless significant Angelika Kauffmann, who was one of the only two women founders of the Royal Academy in London. Fede Galizia, an innovator of the still-life genre, and the Venetian Baroque painter Giulia Lama also achieved auction records. Galizia’s still life Glass compote with peaches, jasmine flowers, quinces, and a grasshopper from the early 17th century achieved $2.3 million.

Artemisia Gentileschi‘s rediscovered Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene, which had been seriously hyped up by the auction house ahead of the sale, sold for just $15,000 above its high estimate, at $615,000, which seemed slightly underwhelming given the renewed market attention Gentileschi has been receiving recently.

Outside of the female painters’ sale, Old Master drawings achieved an in-house record for the category, with the evening prices adding up to $15.2 million. A work on paper by the Flemish Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens sold for a record $8.2 million, but it was marred by some controversy. Nude Study of a Young Man with Raised Arms was part of the Dutch royal collection and it sold abroad to a private buyer despite criticism from museums in the Netherlands that felt they should have been given the chance to buy the important work, according to Agence France-PresseIt is a preparatory drawing for Rubens’s significant work Samson and Delilah.

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