Helena Potocka, née Massalska, (1763–1815), orphaned as a child, was taken care of by her paternal uncle Prince Ignacy Józef Massalski, the bishop of Vilnius, and received decent education in Paris. She married Charles Joseph Emanuel de Ligne, the son of an Austrian field marshal. However, when the unhappy marriage broke down, she arrived in Poland at the court of Stanisław August. A love affair with Court Chamberlain Wincent Potocki, started at that time, led to their wedding, celebrated by Bishop Massalski himself, and Potocki’s subsequent divorce with his ex-wife. The picture may have been painted between 1788 and 1790, when the princess and the painter Franciszek Smuglewicz stayed in Warsaw, or in 1792, on the occasion of the former’s wedding to Wincenty Potocki. The aim of portraying Helena as the Roman goddess Vesta was to suggest that the princess was the guardian of the hearth and home, and that her virtues equalled those of the ancient goddess. Vesta protected the sacred fire and was the symbol of purity and innocence. The choice of the convention was probably influenced by Bishop Massalski, who commissioned the portrait. He wanted his niece, who was far from being a saint, to be remembered in the best possible way.


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