In 1783 Charles-Alexandre de Calonne (1734-1802) had become Controller General of Finance to Louis XVI in 1783. His unsuccessful efforts to reform the structure of France's finance and administration precipitated the governmental crisis that led to the French Revolution of 1789. Unable to push through his plans for restoring solvency, he was dismissed in 1787 and retired to England where he became the chief adviser to the émigrés, selling his extensive art collections to finance their cause. George, Prince of Wales, who owned this painting, shared his conviction that the French Revolution represented a threat to every established government.
Taught by her father, the artist Louis Vigée, Madame Vigée Le Brun earned an international reputation for her stylish portrayals of royalty and aristocratic society throughout Europe. In her Memoirs, written towards the end of her life, the artist strongly denied rumours of an affair with Calonne: 'I have never thought of M. de Calonne as particularly seductive for he used to wear a fiscal wig. Can you imagine that I, with my love of the picturesque, could ever tolerate a wig?'. Similarly, her husband, the art dealer Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, in a pamphlet defending Elisabeth's right to remain a French citizen, refuted the scandal that surrounded the payment for this portrait.
This is one of the more complex of Vigée Le Brun's male portraits in terms both of setting and iconography. The sitter is wearing the dress of the Noblesse de Robe and the ribbon and star of the Order of the Saint-Esprit; he holds a letter addressed to Louis XVI (inscribed Au Roi). Such details demonstrate his powerful position and close relationship with the monarch. Dated August 1784, the charter that eventually led to his downfall rests upon the table. There is a surprising formality about the setting and costume but Le Brun has none the less included the powder that has fallen from Calonne's wig onto his shoulders.
Signed and dated Le Brun. f. 1784.
Commissioned by the sitter; acquired by George IV when Prince of Wales, before 1806; in Carlton House in 1816