On January 30, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, the prominent French painter who is best known for her portraits of Marie-Antoinette, was crowned the most expensive pre-modern female artist when her Portrait of Mohammed Dervish Khan sold for US$7.2 million (£5.57 mil) at Sotheby's.

Now, at Christie's Old Masters sale on 1 May, another of her portraits will come up for sale, depicting Marie-Jeanne Becu, better known as Madame du Barry, who was the last mistress of King Louis XV.

Portrait of Madame du Barry, Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun. 1789, oil on canvas. Image: Christie's Portrait of Madame du Barry, Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun. 1789, oil on canvas. Image: Christie's

At the time the painting was made, Louis XV had been dead for 15 years, and Madame du Barry was living a secluded life, surrounded by the luxuries supplied by her former lover in a castle in Louveciennes, near Paris. And a new man in her life, Duke Hercule de Cossé-Brissac, presumably commissioned the portrait.

Throughout Madame du Barry's life, art and luxury had always played a big role. Here are five interesting facts about the the royal mistress:

1. From rags to riches

Although Jeanne Becu was born as the illegitimate daughter of a seamstress in 1743, she quickly rose to prominence in elite circles as a courtesan because of her beauty.

A young Madame du Barry. Image: Chateau de Versailles A young Madame du Barry. Image: Chateau de Versailles

In 1769, the 25-year-old Jeanne was quickly married to Count du Berry because a title was required to become the official mistress of Louis XV. That same year, she moved into her apartments in Versailles, which were secretly connected to the king's personal apartments.

Madame du Barry's apartments at Versailles. Image: Chateau de Versailles Madame du Barry's apartments at Versailles. Image: Chateau de Versailles

In her powerful position at the court of Versailles, not only was she regularly able to enjoy lavish gifts, but she also appeared as a patron of the arts, commissioning elaborate furniture, décor and paintings.

2. A castle of her own

After Louis gave her a castle in Louveciennes, Madame du Barry had it expanded and decorated. Of particular importance was the Pavillon de Musique, which was constructed in 1771 by architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux, and is now considered the prototype of French classicism par excellence.

The Classicist Pavilion de Musique in Louveciennes, built in 1771. Image: Jean-Marie Hullot via Wikimedia Commons The Classicist Pavilion de Musique in Louveciennes, built in 1771. Image: Jean-Marie Hullot via Wikimedia Commons

Another important artist commissioned to redecorate the castle was Jean-Baptiste Fragonard. For the pavilion, he was asked to create a series of murals. As a result, he delivered the four-part series The Progress of Love, a charming Rococo ensemble.

Fragonard's series of paintings "The Progress of Love" is now part of the Frick Collection. Image: Michael Bodycomb via The Frick Collection Fragonard's series of paintings "The Progress of Love" is now part of the Frick Collection. Image: Michael Bodycomb via The Frick Collection

The paintings were hung up at first, but were later rejected because the royal mistress thought them too frivolous. With a heavy heart, Fragonard took the works back and hung them up in his cousin's house in his native town of Grasse. Later they were purchased by J.P. Morgan, and today they are displayed inside the Frick Collection in New York.

3. An infamous diamond necklace

One of the most notorious criminal cases of the 18th century is the diamond necklace affair of 1785-86, which cost the innocent Queen Marie Antoinette her reputation.

In 1772, Louis XV ordered an extravagant diamond necklace for Madame du Barry, but he died two years later before the piece was completed or paid for (it would have cost the equivalent of about US$14 million, or £10.7 mil, today).

A copy of the notorious diamond necklace in Breteuil Castle, France A copy of the notorious diamond necklace in Breteuil Castle, France

A scheming parvenu named Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Remy convinced a gullible Cardinal that Marie-Antoinette wanted the famous necklace but couldn't purchase it because of rumblings of the French Revolution. He paid for the necklace in installments and Jeanne then sold the diamonds on the black market. Forged letters by Jeanne testified to Marie-Antoinette's desire for the necklace, when in fact she had turned down the necklace twice when her husband Louis XVI had offered it to her.

Although Marie-Antoinette was guiltless in the incident, her history of lavish expenditure led to much speculation among the French, leading to the downfall of the Bourbon monarchy and the 1789 Revolution.

4. The original Madame Tussaud's wax figure

The oldest wax figure exhibited at Madame Tussaud's in London bears the name Sleeping Beauty and dates back to the mid-1760s. Supposedly, the future royal mistress, who at that time lived as a courtesan in Paris, was the model.

"Sleeping Beauty" at Madame Tussaud's in London. Image: tiarasandtrianon.com "Sleeping Beauty" at Madame Tussaud's in London. Image: tiarasandtrianon.com

Madame Tussaud herself, then called Marie Grosholtz, was said to have been the creator of the figure. However, it is more likely that the Sleeping Beauty was created by Marie's teacher Philippe Curtius, who she began working under at the age of six.

5. Her last privately held portrait

Beginning in the late 1770s, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun was the most sought after and fashionable portrait painter in France. Marie Antoinette was famously portrayed by her many times, as well as members of French and European nobility.

Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun. 1782, oil on canvas. Image: National Gallery London Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun. 1782, oil on canvas. Image: National Gallery London

The portrait offered by Christie's is one of three portraits of Madame du Barry painted by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. The first, now in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was painted in 1781 and depicts Jeanne in a similar style as a work of Marie Antoinette in a simple white dress with a straw hat. The second portrait, exhibited at the National Gallery in DC, dates to a year later and in it, she wears a floral wreath in her hair and a more formal gown.

Left: Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, Portrait of Madame du Barry, 1781, Philadelphia Museum of Art Right: Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, Portrait of Madame du Barry, 1782, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC Left: Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, Portrait of Madame du Barry, 1781, Philadelphia Museum of Art Right: Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, Portrait of Madame du Barry, 1782, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

The final portrait was painted in 1789, the same year Vigée Le Brun finished her large-scale work of the Indian ambassador Mohammed Dervish Khan. This was the work auctioned on 30 January 2019 at Sotheby's in New York with a US$7.2 million (£5.57 mil) price tag, setting a new record for the artist.

Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan, Elisabeth-Louise Vigee Le Brun. 1788, oil on canvas. Image: Sotheby's Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan, Elisabeth-Louise Vigee Le Brun. 1788, oil on canvas. Image: Sotheby's

After Madame du Barry was beheaded during the French Revolution, the portrait changed hands among the French aristocracy and was most recently part of the Rothschild family collection. It is estimated to fetch US$1-2 million (£760,000 to £1.53 mil) on 1 May.

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