Crowned with a wreath of grapes and vines, this smiling woman with flushed cheeks represents a bacchante—a follower of the wine god Bacchus. Though Vigée-Lebrun was a successful portraitist, this work was probably not intended as an image of a particular individual. Instead, the mythological theme allowed the artist to paint an openly erotic image and demonstrate her skill capturing lively facial expressions.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun was highly sought after as a portraitist by European aristocrats in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Although this painting is entitled Bacchante, it may be a portrait in disguise. It was not uncommon in this period for fashionable ladies to have their portraits painted in the guise of mythological characters such as sibyls, muses, or followers of Bacchus, the God of wine.

The bacchante in this painting has been associated with the celebrated beauty Emma Hamilton, mistress of the English naval hero Horatio Nelson. Lady Hamilton was painted as a number of different characters by the English artist George Romney and by Vigée-Lebrun, although it seems that Vigée-Lebrun did not actually meet Lady Hamilton until five years after this work was painted. As a result, other sitters have also been proposed, including the French actress Mme Molé Reymond. This painting does bear a strong resemblance to other portraits of the actress by Vigée-Lebrun, produced later in the 1780s. But perhaps this painting is not a portrait after all. Representations of mythological or pseudo-mythological figures—some of them highly erotic—were common in eighteenth-century France.

Vigée-Lebrun was encouraged early in her career by the painter Joseph Vernet, and by the age of 21, she had received her first royal commission. The portraits Vigée-Lebrun painted before the French Revolution, especially those of women, suggest the refined informality of French aristocratic life. A favorite of Marie Antoinette, she left France shortly after the outbreak of the Revolution and moved, for 12 years, from one European city to another—Turin, Prague, St. Petersburg, Berlin, London—before finally returning to France in 1805.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun

French, 1755–1842



Oil on canvas

34 1/2 × 29 3/8 × 4 1/2 in. (87.6 × 74.6 × 11.4 cm) Stretcher: 28 7/8 × 23 3/8 in. (73.3 × 59.4 cm)

Acquired by Sterling and Francine Clark, 1939