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The Praise and Prejudices Vigée Le Brun Faced in Her Exceptional 18th-Century Career

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, “Self-Portrait” (1790), oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 31 7/8 inches, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Corridoio Vasariano, Florence (all images courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The daughter of a pastelist and a hairdresser, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) painted and befriended Marie Antoinette, escaped the horrors of the French Revolution, and forged a career as one of the 18th-century’s greatest portraitists. It was only late last year that the first retrospective of her work, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun: 1755–1842, was held in her native France.

The Met’s iteration of the show, which is organized by European paintings curator Katharine Baetjer, was renamed Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France — a misleading title given that Le Brun fled the country in 1789 and travelled across Europe for a dozen years. The show marks the first US exhibition dedicated to Le Brun’s work since 1982. The exhibition, which will travel to the National Gallery of Canada in June (where it will revert to its original title), was first held at the Grand Palais in Paris. The curators of all three institutions — Xavier Salmon, Katharine Baetjer, and Paul Lang — have contributed to the Met’s excellent accompanying catalogue, as has Le Brun expert Joseph Baillio, whose scholarship has been integral to the project. In his introductory essay, “The Artistic and Social Odyssey of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun,” Baillio addresses the critical neglect of the artist’s work. Despised as a royalist during the Revolution and forgotten about during the advent of Romanticism, Le Brun continued to be assailed during the 20th century. Consider this passage by art historian Michael Levey:

It must be admitted that in the very real success Madame Vigée Le Brun enjoyed there is significance. She was to employ — if not positively exploit — her own femininity, throwing it over her female sitters with almost exaggerated effect.

Levey’s take parrots and reinforces the misogynistic gossip that dogged Le Brun throughout her entire career — that she was a beautiful woman of moderate talent who seduced her sitters — none of which was true. A number of historians footnoted Le Brun’s unique depiction of children and her emphasis on maternal values, but even this came under attack, most prominently from Simone de Beauvoir. In her iconic work of feminist philosophy, The Second Sex (1949), the philosopher asserted that Le Brun’s paintings acquiesced to societal expectations regarding a woman’s self-image.

Instead of giving herself generously to a work she undertakes, a woman too often considers it simply as an adornment of her life; the book and the picture are merely some of her inessential means for exhibiting in public that essential reality: her own self. Moreover, it is her own self that is the principal — sometimes the unique — subject of interest to her: Mme Vigée Le Brun never wearied of putting her smiling maternity on her canvases.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, “Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbons” (ca. 1782), oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 21 1/4 inches, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas (click to enlarge)

De Beauvoir’s broader analysis — as valid as it may be — completely overlooks Le Brun’s success as an artist. Her exceptional achievement cannot be overstated given that she lived during an age in which women were denied fundamental academic training. In a bid to emphasize this point, the Met has structured the exhibition around Le Brun’s biography. The show is essentially an exhibition of two halves: Le Brun before the revolution — aspiring young artist, portraitist of Marie Antoinette — and Le Brun after — nomad portraitist of the European elite, and a discreet innovator of the genre. The show more than successfully makes the case for Le Brun’s art historical rehabilitation, though if it has a fault, it’s that the artistic conventions that Le Brun butted against aren’t underscored clearly enough. The dogmatism of French academic painting is elucidated in the show’s catalogue, but isn’t sufficiently conveyed in the exhibition’s wall texts. If it were, audiences would have a far deeper appreciation of Le Brun’s accomplishments.

Recognizing her exceptional talent, Le Brun’s father, Louis Vigée, began to train his daughter from the age of ten. He died two years later in 1767. Out of financial necessity, Le Brun’s mother, Jeanne Maissin, married Jacques François Le Sèvre, a goldsmith and a shopkeeper, whom Le Brun despised. Maissin encouraged her daughter’s talent, accompanying her to posing sessions with private patrons. Upon learning that Le Sèvre was appropriating her income, Le Brun’s mother encouraged her to marry Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, an art dealer and former student of François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Although Jean Baptiste supported his wife’s artistic endeavors, he too appropriated her earnings, spending lavishly on his own collection and stock.

In 1774 Le Brun was accepted into the Académie de Saint-Luc, where her father had been a member. Le Brun applied after her studio was seized by bailiffs, who acted on the basis that she was operating independently of a sanctioned guild. The national dissolution of guilds in 1777 briefly left the artist in a commercial wilderness. However, later that same year, Le Brun was invited to paint a full-length portrait of Marie Antoinette. The commission changed her life forever.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, “Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress” (1783), oil on canvas, 35 3/8 x 28 3/8 inches, Hessische Hausstiftung, Kronberg

The resulting portrait, “Marie Antoinette in Court Dress” (1778), pleased the queen’s mother and led to a series of further royal commissions. Dressed in a court gown, the queen looks to the side and away from the viewer. The décor, though luxurious, is relatively spare. A bust of King Louis XVI looms above a table accompanied by a crown and a vase of flowers. Le Brun’s first royal commission is a world away from her later portraits such as “Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress” (1783). The latter painting’s three-quarter-length scale immediately confers a greater degree of intimacy. Wearing a feathered straw hat, the queen — who looks directly at the viewer — delicately fingers a strip of ribbon with which she is about to secure a bouquet of roses. The portrait’s palpable sense of movement is amplified by Le Brun’s rendition of the unfurling ribbon, which spirals in and out of the light. The chemise dress, a recent innovation at the time, was considered a private, indoor form of attire. What we’re ostensibly witnessing is not simply a queen posing for a portrait, but a private moment between two friends.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, “Giovanni Paisiello” (1791), oil on canvas, 51 9/16 x 38 3/4 inches, Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, on deposit from the Musée du Louvre (click to enlarge)

This sense of intimacy pervades the majority of Le Brun’s portraits. The artist was known to encourage her sitters to relax — to recline or lean upon objects rather than stand straight for hours at a time. She also actively encouraged conversation, parted lips being one of her signature motifs. Le Brun sought at every opportunity to transcend the perceived limitations of portraiture, imbuing her portraits with theoretical and antique references whenever she could. Her portrait of Giovanni Paisiello (1791) depicts the artist and composer playing the harpsichord, his head tilted upward as if in the throes of artistic inspiration. Portraiture was ranked below historical and mythological painting which was deemed, when successful, to be intellectually and morally instructive. To become a history painter, an artist would first have to demonstrate a mastery over the lesser categories: still life, landscape painting, and portraiture. Disbarred from participating in life-drawing classes, women were essentially precluded from attaining this status.

Le Brun’s application to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture — France’s premier art institution — was bitterly opposed by its director, Jean Baptiste Marie Pierre, on the basis that Le Brun was married to an art dealer (members were strictly barred from commercial involvement in the art market). Her membership was eventually secured thanks to the queen’s direct intervention. On May 31, 1783, Le Brun was granted full membership following an order by Louis XVI, which enabled her to submit work to the biennial salons. Among the works that Le Brun submitted that year were “Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress,” “Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat” (1782), and “Peace Bringing Back Abundance” (1783), an allegorical history painting. Furthermore, Le Brun submitted “Peace Bringing Back Abundance” as her morceau de réception, or reception piece, the painting with which she wished to define her candidacy to the Académie. The Met’s catalogue notes that Le Brun’s life-long rival, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, was received into the Académie as a portraitist, while the nature of Le Brun’s membership was left undefined. Although Le Brun’s submission stood little chance of securing her the title of a history painter, it nonetheless testified to her ambition and dogged determination.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, “Peace Bringing Back Abundance” (1780), oil on canvas, 40 3/8 x 52 1/8 inches, Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Peintures (click to enlarge)

Le Brun calibrated her salon submissions for maximum promotional impact. “Peace Bringing Back Abundance” demonstrated her ambition, while her self-portrait promoted her image as one of the country’s preeminent painters. “Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress,” however, was the subject of considerable scandal. Viewers objected to the queen’s state of dress as indecorous and unpatriotic (chemise was considered an English fashion). Worse still, the painting recalled the 1781 Diamond Necklace Affair, a scandal that severely damaged the queen’s standing with the French people. The affair involved a prostitute named Nicole Leguay d‘Oliva, who posed as the queen in a similar dress as part of an elaborate fraud. Hired by a con artist named Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, d‘Oliva targeted Cardinal de Rohan, a former ambassador who was keen to curry the queen’s favor. Together, they convinced him to purchase a diamond necklace commissioned by Louis XV. It was erroneously assumed that the queen had orchestrated the entire affair out of her apparent dislike for the cardinal.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, “Marie Antoinette with a Rose” (1783), oil on canvas, 46 x 35 inches, Collection of Lynda and Stewart Resnick (click to enlarge)

Le Brun’s portrait, despite having received praise for its technical execution, was replaced a month later with “Marie Antoinette with a Rose” (1783). The two works are placed side by side at the Met. The latter portrait replicates the queen’s pose but dispenses with the straw hat and chemise dress. The dark interior space of the prior portrait has been replaced with an open and less intimate garden background.

Le Brun’s fame came at a high price. Her association with Marie Antoinette meant that her artistic reputation was inexorably bound to the monarchy’s. As the animosity and hatred towards Marie Antoinette grew, so too did the misogynistic rumors hurled at Le Brun. The Met’s catalogue quotes a passage from one of the popular newsletters of the day, the Mémoires secrets:

She is a young & pretty woman, full of wit and poise, quite amiable, seeing the best of Paris & Versailles […] It required nothing less than such powerful patronage to allow [Le Brun] to pass through the gates of the academy, where, despite her merit, she would not have been admitted, on the grounds that her husband degrades art by mercantile activities, a prime reason for exclusion […] I will not conceal a rumor given credence among her colleagues. It is insinuated that she does not paint her own pictures, that she does not finish them at least, & that an artist who is in love with her assists her.

Le Brun fled France shortly after the march on Versailles. Her name was placed on a list of émigrés whose property was to be confiscated, prompting her husband to acquire a divorce. For the next 12 years, Le Brun travelled across Europe, making stops in Italy, Vienna, Dresden, St. Petersburg, London, and Switzerland.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, “Life Study of Lady Hamilton as the Cumaean Sybil” (1792), oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 22 1/2 inches, Private collection

In Europe, Le Brun established connections with her patrons directly, circumventing the need for institutional legitimization. Her network of clients included Empress Catherine II and Stanisław August Poniatowski, the former king of Poland. Throughout these years Le Brun continued to demonstrate her promotional savvy. Her sister-in-law’s brother, Auguste Riviere, disseminated Le Brun’s portraits through reproductions. The artist’s popularity was further boosted by her 1792 portrait of Lady Hamilton. The painting is represented at the Met by a bust-length version titled “Life Study of Lady Hamilton as the Cumaean Sibyl” (1792). Lady Hamilton had made a name for herself as a performer of “attitudes,” a hybrid of posing and acting during which she would portray mythological figures before beguiled audiences (Hamilton was renowned for her exceptional beauty). Le Brun’s portrait, most likely inspired by Domenichino’s depiction of the mythic prophetess, captures Hamilton gazing upwards in search of divine inspiration. Small touches of white impasto add a glisten to Hamilton’s eyes. Her lips are voluminous and red. Le Brun carried the portrait with her for many years and was asked to exhibit it by figures such as Prince Kaunitz-Rietberg and the artist and archaeologist Dominique Vivant Denon. A perfect concoction of classicism and celebrity, the painting is a window into the nature of inspiration itself. Le Brun understood that she was not simply selling likenesses and flattery, but narratives too.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, “Julie Le Brun Looking in a Mirror” (ca. 1786), oil on wood, 29 x 24 inches, Private collection

As to be expected, the Met’s show includes a number of Le Brun’s portraits of children, including “Julie Le Brun Looking in a Mirror” (1786), the most unusual depiction of the artist’s only child. Le Brun’s daughter stands in profile, her face reflected in the square mirror held in her hands. The viewer is able to see the child’s full visage in the mirror. The resultant reflection is impossible given the mirror’s angle, but Le Brun used her artistic license to incorporate two portraits into one image. Historians have contextualized Le Brun’s depiction of children with the surge of interest in child rearing, a trend triggered in large part by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s influential treatise Emile (1762). The philosopher emphasized the critical importance of a child’s initial environment, his belief being that man is born pure and gradually corrupted by society. Young subjects offered Le Brun an opportunity to subtly disrupt the manners and conventions of portraiture. Mirrors usually symbolize duplicity, but in the case of “Julie Le Brun Looking in a Mirror,” the object is used to demonstrate the innocence and curiosity of youth. There is nothing contrived about Julie Le Brun’s gaze. The youngest children haven’t learned to mask their character. In “Boy with a Flintlock Rifle” (1817) (whose subject has never been identified), a young boy stares serenely at the viewer, his arms crossed in order to support a large rifle. The painting captures the earnestness of a boy who believes he’s behaving as a man should.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, “Self-Portrait” (ca.1808-09), oil on canvas, 16 1/4 x 13 inches, Private collection (click to enlarge)

The chronological consistency of the Met’s show is remarkable. It’s only towards the very end of the exhibition that the curatorial rigor begins to wane. In the last room, the gaps between the paintings start to widen. The final section includes an example of Le Brun’s landscape painting, a topographically fanciful depiction of a Swiss festival. According to the Met’s catalogue, Le Brun’s memoirs list “nearly 200 landscapes both in Switzerland and England.” The decision to exhibit a single landscape is consistent with the show’s ambition to keep the focus on Le Brun’s renown as a portrait painter. The same room includes a late self-portrait from 1808–9. Wrapped in a dark red coat, Le Brun is older and her hair is pinned up. Her parted lips suggest a conversation with the viewer. Le Brun returned to Paris in 1802, two years after her nationality was restored. She later purchased a country house in Louveciennes, where she passed away at the age of 87.

“Our objective has been to revitalize the image of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun,” Baillio writes at the end of his catalogue essay. “To this end, by favoring a historical and contextual approach, it was indispensable to assemble a major exhibition and catalogue that would allow the public to follow the compelling story of her life, understand the immense celebrity she enjoyed in her own time, and appreciate her art in all its variety, vitality, and technical refinement.” The Met’s exhibition more than accomplishes these aims. Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France presents an unprecedented opportunity to view works loaned from the Louvre, Versailles, the UK’s Royal Collection Trust, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and various institutions throughout the United States. It will likely be many years before works such as “Marie Antoinette and Her Children” (1787) can be viewed again alongside lesser-known portraits such as “Julie Le Brun Looking in a Mirror.” Between the exhibition and the catalogue, one can spend hours occupied with the lives of Le Brun’s sitters, but in the end it’s the artist that shines.

Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 15.

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