Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self-portrait (1790), oil on canvas, 39-3/8 x 31-7/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
* * *
“Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France” is a fascinating exhibition for reasons made plain by its title. Gender and context shouldn’t be the ultimate arbiters for why we value an artist, but they are inescapable factors when considering Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842). Much like Artemisia Gentileschi, another figure beloved by those who view the history of art through the lens of political correctness, Vigée Le Brun is an anomaly: a painter—and a successful one, at that—working at a time when women weren’t encouraged to pursue a career in the arts. It helped that Vigée Le Brun was to the studio born: her father, Louis Vigée, was a society portraitist and provided lessons at home. “You will be a painter, my child, or never will there be one” may be a statement indicative of paternal bias, but Vigée Le Brun’s talent was evident early on. Jeanne Maissin, the artist’s mother, pushed Vigée Le Brun to undertake more formal studies as a means of combating the depression she underwent upon the death of her father in 1767. Trips to the Louvre were supplemented by guidance from Gabriel François Doyen and Joseph Vernet, painters of considerable repute.
Maissin provided working space at home as well as financial support. But Vigée Le Brun achieved significant notice even as a teenager and helped supplement the family’s income through portrait commissions. After the studio was shut down by authorities in 1774—Vigée Le Brun had been operating without a license—the artist gained admittance to the Académie de Saint-Luc, an association guaranteeing a level of prestige, as well as that the studio remained open. Two years later she married Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, a distant cousin who had studied with François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and earned his keep as an art dealer. It was a difficult union. Vigée Le Brun realized fairly quickly that her husband’s appetite for collecting superseded the niceties of the bottom line. Le Brun couldn’t hold on to money. In recompense, he attempted to boost his wife’s reputation, hiking the prices of the work above those of her contemporaries. But Le Brun’s sway paled next to that of Marie Antoinette. How could it not? The young queen had a decisive if, ultimately, tumultuous effect on Vigée Le Brun’s art and life.
Marie Antoinette in Court Dress (1778) isn’t the first painting viewers encounter upon entering the exhibition, but its impact makes swift work of the surrounding pictures. Commissioned as a gift for the queen’s mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, this monumental showpiece codifies the requisite hauteur but, more so, evinces an ambitious artist eager to please. And please Vigée Le Brun most certainly did. The Empress was delighted with the canvas, and Marie Antoinette, having run through a disappointing series of portraitists, finally found a painter who did not “drive me to despair.” Marie Antoinette in Court Dress isn’t very good—its elision of pictorial space is vague when it isn’t flat-footed, and the attention to texture inconsistent—but as a piece of theater, it’s a tour-de-force, particularly for an artist who was all of twenty-two years of age. Indeed, one of the pleasures of “Woman Artist in Revolutionary France” is watching Vigée Le Brun develop while on the job, gaining surety in her rendering of the human form and pulling off portraits that are, in their attention to detail and character, more than documents of a doomed aristocracy.
Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787), oil on canvas, 108-1/4 x 85-1/4″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
* * *
By the time we reach Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787) at the show’s midpoint, Vigée Le Brun has become a deeper artist in terms of skill and mood. A greater intimacy with her subjects, particularly the queen, accounts for the air of tender sobriety suffusing its portrayal of a mother and her three children. Here, Marie Antoinette is less a coquettish figurine seemingly molded from porcelain than a flesh-and-blood woman humbled by motherhood. (An empty bassinet at the right of the composition signifies the death of a fourth child.) Though the children are too moppet-like by half, Vigée Le Brun brought an unnerving degree of self-awareness and introspection to the gaze of Marie Antoinette. Vigée Le Brun would never altogether shed a brittleness of affect—the conventionality of her settings is a nagging constant—but the painterly approach became more fluid and precise. Rubens was a pivotal influence, and one can intuit his sensuality and esprit in the silky brushwork of Comtesse de la Châtre (1789) and the comic eroticism of Madame Dugazon in the Role of “Nina” (1787). Vigée Le Brun doesn’t achieve the heights set by the Flemish Master, but neither does she suffer from the comparison—at least, that is, in her finest efforts.
The finest of them all is the justifiably iconic Self-Portrait (1790). Political turmoil at home caused Vigée Le Brun to flee France in 1789; close association with the recently imprisoned queen did not, to put it mildly, put her in good stead with the revolution. Setting up shop in Rome, Vigée Le Brun was asked by the Uffizi to contribute a canvas to its gallery of self- portraits. The result earned plaudits from the top down: “All of Rome,” wrote the museum’s director, “is in awe of her talent.” It’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with the painting. Turning to the viewer as she daubs at a portrait of her deposed patron, Vigée Le Brun is fresh-faced, confident and without guile; beautiful, too. Though she went on to achieve fame and fortune throughout Europe and Russia, Vigée Le Brun never topped it and the work turned spotty and slick. Her subsequent portraiture traded too easily in mannerisms; particularly cloying are the kewpie-doll eyes and standard-issue pursed lips bequeathed to sundry courtesans, princesses, and queens. Flattery might elicit commissions, but it’s hell on art. Vigée Le Brun cruised on her mastery rather than expanding its parameters. Still, any show that includes a painting as winning as Self-Portrait, not to mention twenty or so additional pictures that are almost as good, deserves must-see status. And so it is with “Woman Artist in Revolutionary France.”
© 2016 Mario Naves
This review originally appeared in the May 2016 edition of The New Criterion.