Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was All That – talented, alluring (at least in her self-portraits), resourceful – and more. She was a successful entrepreneur, she was a Spin Doctor, and she was an important portraitist.
Vigée (pronounced Vee-ZHAY) has, however, been relatively neglected. The only previous modern exhibition of her paintings was at the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas in 1982. Since that time, rediscovered works and new research have led to a long-overdue reconsideration of an artist celebrated for her portraits of royalty and of aristocracy. Alas, many of her sitters would soon be on their way to the guillotine.
This first retrospective of Vigée’s work was shown last fall in a larger version of this exhibition at the Grand Palais in her native Paris before it moved to the Met, which displayed 79 portraits and 1 landscape. The exhibition is now in Ottawa, where it will remain until September 11, 2016.
Elisabeth Louise Vigée was born in Paris in 1755. Although her art was encouraged by her parents, especially her father (a pastel portraitist who died when Vigée was twelve), she was largely self-taught. As a young woman denied access to formal instruction, Vigée established her studio when she was fifteen. She advanced her career with a marriage of convenience, wedding Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, an artist and art dealer, in 1776.
The following year, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria commissioned a painting of her daughter. This work, Marie Antoinette in Court Dress (1778, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), the first of Vigée’s many portraits of Marie Antoinette, opens the exhibition. Establishing her connection to royalty, the portrait was painted when Vigée and her famous sitter were both in their early twenties. Although the problems with scale and distracting background architecture seen here would continue to plague her, it was clear that Vigée was going places. This life-sized painting captures the majesty and grace of her subject.
If this portrait emphasizes Marie Antoinette’s royal bearing, Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787, Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles), a later painting, reflects the tumultuous times by challenging the public perception of the queen as extravagant, foreign, and cold. Here she is cast in her maternal role, dressed in red, one of Vigée’s favorite colours, to provide warmth. Contributing to the somberness of this composition, the dauphin points to an empty cradle, partially wrapped in black. This image represents the queen’s fourth child, who died while the work was being painted.
Besides these two masterpieces, the show displays another full-length painting of Marie Antoinette, along with three-quarter and bust-length compositions. Without elaborate backgrounds, these paintings are better proportioned and more intimate.
Patronized by Marie Antoinette (but escaping her fate), Vigée became one of the most successful artists of her day in a male-dominated profession. Documenting and spinning an elite culture that was soon to crash violently, Vigée created attractive public images of royalty and aristocrats of the Ancién Régime. If she was one of the most sought-after portraitists of the late eighteenth century, she (probably unwittingly) fanned revolutionary flames. Most of her work borders on propaganda, as she specialized in fixing her subjects’ (very similar) images for posterity.
Vigée’s portrait of Alexandre Charles Emmanuel de Crussol-Florensac (1787, Metropolitan Museum), for example, shows the courtier in the clothing of the Order of the Saint-Esprit. He is adorned by the crosses of the Knights Templar and the Order of Malta and by the ribbon of the Order of Saint-Louis.
Especially sympathetic portraits of women at times reflect Vigée’s own interest in literature and in music. In Comtesse de La Châtre (1789, Metropolitan Museum), the elegant subject, in a classic white muslin dress and beribboned straw hat, wistfully looks up from her book.
Madame Grand (1783, Metropolitan Museum), another flattering (if bug-eyed) portrait, shows the poorly educated but musical sitter holding a score. She is reminiscent of a seductive Saint Cecilia.
If Vigée painted idealized portraits of those who could afford her high prices, she did no less for her daughter. She painted many expressive pictures of her only child, Julie, at different stages of development. Especially clever is Julie Le Brun Looking in a Mirror (ca. 1786, Private collection), a double portrait. Julie is painted in profile, holding a mirror that does not reflect her silhouette but shows her full face.
Cue the Revolution.
When rebellious mobs stormed Versailles in 1789, Vigée was forced to flee her native land. Terrified of execution because of her association with the beleaguered queen, Vigée moved through Italy, Vienna, Germany, and Russia, painting as she traveled.
It wasn’t long before she was back in business. On her own, Vigée, who must have been as good an entrepreneur as she was an artist, supported herself and Julie, becoming rich by painting elite emigrants, as well as central European nobles, dignitaries, and aristocrats.
During this time, Vigée was asked to contribute to the Uffizi’s important collection of artists’ self-portraits. Like the four other self-portraits in the exhibition, this likeness (Self-Portrait, 1790, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence) presents the artist presumably as she would like to be remembered. If her lively Memoirs, used throughout the show to contextualize her work, are any indication, she was sociable, hardworking, and pensive. Here she is elegantly dressed in black silk, which does not prevent her from holding a palette. She looks out at the viewer, as she works on a portrait of the queen.
The final galleries are made up of her paintings in exile. Vigée rapidly rebuilt her business abroad until 1805, when she returned to France, where she would remain until her death in 1842.
This impressive show was organized, with the cooperation of the Château de Versailles, by Katharine Baetjer, Curator in the Department of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum, working with Joseph Baillio, a Vigée Le Brun scholar, and Paul Lang, Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the National Gallery of Canada. Together they edited the handsome catalogue that accompanies the exhibition. Let them eat cake!
Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York from 15th February to 15th May 2016. It is at the National Gallery of Canada from 10th June to 11th September.