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The 4ft 4in by 3ft 1in (1.32m x 94cm) picture was the highlight of Sotheby’s first Paris sale of Old Masters and 19th century pictures on July 27 when it sold to New York dealer Richard L. Feigen for Fr1.05m (£675,000).

The price was an auction record for Chassériau, but well short of Sotheby's estimate of Fr1.2-1.5m.

Feigen was the only bidder, though this was not evident as auctioneer Alain Renner coaxed the picture to the reserve price set by the Countess’s Brittany-based descendants.

Feigen was bidding on behalf of the New York Metropolitan Museum, which is short of works by Chassériau but will be hosting the giant Chassériau exhibition (currently in Strasbourg after a three-month run in Paris) from October 21 to January 5.

The portrait depicts Charlotte de Fay, 24 year-old wife of the French Ambassador to Rome, on the terrace of the French embassy, the Palazzo Colonna. Chassériau rarely painted outdoor portraits but, at the outset of his career (he had just turned 21), was keen to signal his presence in Rome. The segment of dome away to the right is doubtless meant to suggest St Peter’s, in which case we are looking due west, past the Baroque church of St Ignazio, with the light of mid-morning coming from the south-east.

The work combines the lacy intricacy of Ingres and the weighty folds of Zurburan with a study of hands in a physically awkward criss-cross finger position, and a wan oval face ringed with a halo reflecting Chassériau's description of the Countess as “pretty as an angel”.

The artist was less careful about the rest of the picture, framing the Countess in lifeless foliage and propping her up against a wall that would have embarrassed a grappa-swilling stonemason.

The first sitting was on 22 November 1840; by December 4 Chassériau was finishing it in his studio, writing to a friend that “as soon as I’ve given the last brushstroke I’m off back to France”.

Chassériau had delayed his departure to take on the portrait, commissioned by the ambassador at the insistence of his wife, who had been wowed by Chassériau's recently completed Rome portrait of the famous Domincan friar Dominique Lacordaire.

Chassériau asked for Fr2500; the ambassador offered 1000. For Chassériau, it was a chance too good to miss. He gave in, but did the portrait on cheap, flimsy canvas that was “imperfectly” remounted at the end of the 19th century, and responsible for the poor condition of the paintwork around the edges. The “numerous cracks to the face” which Sotheby’s also claimed deterred many prospective buyers was due to Chassériau’s touching up the paintwork without allowing the under-layer enough time to dry.