At a Sotheby’s Old Masters sale in New York on Wednesday night under the title “The Female Triumphant,” Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun’s 1788 painting Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan, Full-Length, Holding His Sword in a Landscape sold for $7.18 million. That price, above its high estimate of $6 million, makes it the most expensive painting by a pre–modern era female artist ever sold at auction.
The life-size portrait depicts an ambassador from India who came to France in 1788. Vigée Le Brun showed the work in the Salon of 1789 in Paris, and it wound up in the collection of the artist’s husband, Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun.
The painting was then sold several times, and in 1908, it was bought by Louis-Alexandre Marnier Lapostolle. The portrait was then handed off “by descent until recently,” according to Sotheby’s, which has not named the work’s buyer or seller.
Vigée Le Brun is considered one of the most significant artists of her era—she famously painted Marie Antoinette’s portrait and was close with French royalty—but only in the past few decades has her work gained prominence in art history. In 1971, in her famous “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” essay for ARTnews, Linda Nochlin listed Vigée Le Brun among the many female artists worthy of more serious study.
The first major Vigée Le Brun exhibition was organized in 1982, at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, though the artist didn’t have a proper survey in her home country until 2015, when the Grand Palais in Paris staged a retrospective of her work. Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan appeared in the Grand Palais show.