Élisabeth Louise Vigee-Le Brun: Confident Prodigy Became an International Sensation

Élisabeth Louise Vigee-Le Brun: Confident Prodigy Became an International Sensation

Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbons, c. 1782, Kimbell Art Museum

Vigée-Le Brun: Woman Artist of Revolutionary France is major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum until May 15.  Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun’s Self-Portrait from the Kimbell Art Museum explains her quite well. She shines with the confidence and elegance of a woman who would eventually become an international superstar. It shows off her top-notch artistic skills. Touches of brilliant red for the ribbon, sash, lips and cheeks to add sensual pizzaz. Portraits are not my favorite genre of painting, but Vigée-Le Brun’s portraits are always dazzling. The light radiating through her earring is just the right touch. One reason we never hear her mentioned among France’s top ten or twenty painters is that she was a painter of royalty who supported the wrong side of the French Revolution.  It is only last year that France gave her a major retrospective, although her international reputation was strong back in her day.

Jacques-Francois Le Sevre, c. 1774
Private Collection

Vigée-Le Brun compares well with Jacques-Louis David and the very best French artists of her time. For the most part, she was fairly traditional rather than an innovator.  Her style has elements of the late Rococo and Neoclassical styles, but with the addition of some naturalistic features. She was largely self taught, having learned from her painter father before he died when she was 12.  Her mother was a hairdresser. She set up her own studio at age 15, supporting herself, mother and younger brother.  After her mother remarried, she painted her stepfather, Monsieur Le Sevre (whom she really didn’t like, though I can’t discern it in the painting.)  She was only about 19 at the time she painted it, around the same time she entered the Academy of Saint Luke, the painter’s guild.

Vigée-LeBrun was earning enough money from her portrait painting to support herself, her widowed mother, and her younger brother. T – See more at: http://www.nmwa.org/explore/artist-profiles/%C3%A9lisabeth-louise-vig%C3%A9e-lebrun#sthash.AhJDfSMB.dpufsupporting herself, her mother and younger brother.   After her mother remarried, she painted her stepfather. The portrait of Monsieur LeSevre, is superb, though the artist was probably no older than 19.  Around the same time, she joined the Academy of St. Luke (the painter’s guild). She soon made her way to the top. A few years later, she was called to work at Versailles, becoming the personal painter of Marie Antoinette. She commanded some very high prices for her work. 

Joseph Vernet, 1778, Louvre Museum, Paris

In 1778, she painted Joseph Vernet, a distinguished older painter of seascapes whom she greatly admired.   He counseled her to always look at nature.  I had seen the Vernet portrait in a NMWA exhibition a few years ago, a monumental exhibition that brought to light many of the gifted female artists of the era. the Met describes Vernet as her mentor, and it’s easy see the affectionate expression in this portrait. It has a wonderful harmony of various blacks and grays. 

Painters are sometimes divided into those who are great draftsmen (like Michelangelo and Ingres) or great colorists (like Titian and Rubens). Vigée-Le Brun combines drawing ability and an exquisite sense of color. (There are several drawings in the exhibition.)  Vigée-Le Brun’s father, Louis Vigée was a pastel artist and the self-portrait she did in pastel is just lovely. It combines loose, free lines with delicate, subtle modeling to make the face pop out.  What other artists can make black, white and gray so interesting?

Self-portrait in Traveling Costume
1789-90, pastel, Private Collection

Marriage, Her Husband and Daughter

In 1776, she married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, a painter, art dealer and a great connoisseur who fostered an appreciation of northern artists. He was the grandnephew of Charles Le Brun, founder of the French Academy. Together they traveled to Flanders and the Netherlands to study the northern artists. She was a greater painter than he was, but it was a connection of great mutual benefit for both of them. In 1780, a daughter, Jeanne Julie, was born. Julie became the subject of many of her mom’s paintings.  A real gem of the show is the portrait of her daughter looking in a mirror. It simultaneously gives us a frontal and profile view. It is also a very sentimental painting.

Julie LeBrun Looking in a Mirror
c. 1786, Private Collection

One self-portrait by her husband is in the exhibition. He was probably the most important art connoisseur and dealer in France in his time. Pierre Le Brun is credited with writing the most important book on Netherlandish art and elevating the reputation of one of the world’s most popular Old Masters, Johannes Vermeer.

In 1783, Vigee-Le Brun gained entry into the prestigious Royal Academy, one of only four women in the elite group.  There was some conflict of interest, because her husband’s profession as an art dealer could have disqualified her. However, King Louis XVI used his influence to promote her. Even at the relatively young age of 28, she commanded higher prices than her peers.

At the time, history painting, meant to instruct and moralize, was considered the highest category of painting.  The canvas she submitted for admission into the French Academy was an allegorical piece meant to inspire virtue, Peace Bringing Back Abundance.  As the name suggests, prosperity comes from staying out of war. While the classical Grecian style of this painting is not the taste of today, it’s her colors that I love. Unfortunately, peace would not remain in her life and in France for very long. 

Peace Bringing Back Abundance, 1780, Louvre Museum, Paris

When Marie-Antoinette fell from favor and lost her life, Vigée-Le Brun had reason to be afraid. She left France for Italy, with her daughter and without her husband.  She was quickly accepted into the Accademia di San Lucca in Florence. She was asked to add her portrait to the the Corridoio Vasariano at the the Uffizi, an obvious sign that her reputation preceded her. This self-portrait in the Uffizi Gallery, painted in 1790, is one of her most famous paintings (below). According to the Metropolitan Museum, the ruffled collar was meant to show her affinity to Rubens and Van Dyke. The cap is reminiscent of self-portraits by Rembrandt, but the brilliant red sash and the use of color contrast is strictly Elisabeth Vigee – Le Brun.  It shows greater spontaneity than some of her royal commissions.  A few years earlier she had been criticized for breaking with convention by painting self-portraits with an open mouth, making them look less serious.

Self-portrait, 1790, Uffizzi Gallery, Florence

With her out of the country and the Reign of Terror going on in France, her husband was forced to divorce her. (When the aristocracy lost power, he also lost his major clients.) She remained in exile for 12 years, but painted in the Austrian Empire, Russia and Germany.  Her services as a painter were in high demand and she commanded high prices from her lofty, aristocratic clients.   In particular, she painted many Russian aristocrats, including one owned by the National Museum for Women in the Arts which is not in the current exhibition.

Portraits of Russian and Foreign Aristocrats

Duchess Elizabeth Alexyevna, 1797
Hessische Hausstiftung, Kronberg

Many of the paintings on view at the Met are from private collections, suggesting that many portraits may still be owned by descendants.  None of her paintings from Russian museums are on loan to the United States, because of diplomatic problems at this time. The exhibition going to National Gallery of Canada in June will have several paintings from the Hermitage that are not in the New York show.  These paintings were included in the Paris, where the exhibition started.

Vigée Le Brun painted at least five portraits of Grand Duchess Elizabeth Alexyevna, but the example here has a sumptuous red cushion and a transparent purple shawl, that sets off nicely against white skin, dress and long flowing hair. 

Duchess von und zu Liechtenstein as Iris
1793, Private Collection

Vigée Le Brun also enjoyed depicting personifications and allegory, as did many of the artists of this era.  At one time she painted her daughter as the goddess of flowers, Flora.  When she painted the beautiful Duchess von und zu Liechtenstein, she imagined her as Iris, the goddess of the rainbow. The colors shine brightly, though a rainbow which I expected to discern in real life, at the exhibition can’t be found in the painting.

In general, she greatly flattered her sisters.  It would seem that she only painted women who were beautiful.  At the Metropolitan show, about 5/6 of the paintings portray female sitters.  She carefully considered all props, and how to reflect the personality of the sitter.  Vigée Le Brun figured out how to bring out their best features and reflect the personality of the sitter. 

Countess Anna Ivanova Tolstaya, 1796, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

The use of materials, props and settings is crucial to her goals. A portrait of Countess Anna Ivanova Tolstaya has a large outdoor background taken from the natural world, a Romantic setting. The countess looks dreamy and wistful.  In general, there is a very wide variety to the types of colors she used, and the harmonies she created.  The National Museum of Women in the Arts currently has an exhibition on Salon Style, which includes portraits by Vigee Le Brun, among other French women artists.  An unattributed pastel of Marie Antoinette would appear to be by Vigee-Le Brun, too, or at least copied from a painting by her. 


Vigée-Le Brun’s Legacy and Queen Marie-Antoinette

From a strictly historical perspective, however, her connections to the French Royal family may be the most important contribution.  From her many portraits of Marie-Antoinette, historians can look for clues into the life and character of this demonized queen.  It’s difficult to figure out if Marie-Antoinette was really as bad a person as history portrays her.  I saw the Kirsten Dunst movie about her and more recently a play about her, both of which show her as a tragic figure who was a foreigner and really didn’t really know how to fit into the world into which she married. We may never really know.   Marie-Antoinette may have wanted Vigée Le Brun to soften her image. Several portraits of her are in the exhibition. The bouffant, powdered hairdos don’t beautify her to me. Marie-Antoinette and Her Children, a large, flamboyant group portrait loaned shows the young queen with three children and an empty cradle.   It emphasizes that the Austrian-born queen had recently lost a child.  So even in this sumptuous setting there is great sadness and loss. 

Marie-Antoinette and Her Children, 1787, Musée National des
Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon

Madame Royale and the Dauphin Seated is a portrait of the two oldest children when the were around 3 and 6 years old. The princess’ satin dress is brilliant display of Vigee Le Brun’s skill at portraying texture. The pastoral background is nostalgic and adds to the sense of innocence.  It gives no hint of what’s to come. The prince died of tuberculosis in 1789, ate age 7. (Dauphin County, Pennsylvania is named after him.) Marie-Therese, named for her grandmother, was imprisoned between 1789 until 1795. She was queen 20 days in 1830 and lived until 1851, but generally had a very sad life.  There is actually one landscape painting in the exhibition (and there were several landscape drawings in the Paris exhibition), but Vigee Le Brun is first and foremost a portrait painter.

Madame Royale and the Dauphine Seated, 1784, Musee National
des Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon

Between 1835 and 1837, Vigée Le Brun wrote her memoirs. A remarkably great artist and a remarkable woman, she lived to be 86.  She is appreciated much more than for her paintings of  many Marie – Antoinette. When I took a college Art History class that started with the French Revolution and went to about 1850, we didn’t cover Vigée-Le Brun. David, the academic teacher who influenced so many students, was treated like a god in my class. I find it curious that Vigée-Le Brun remained completely loyal to the royal family, while David was such a politician. He painted for the king, turned into a revolutionary and then easily switched gears to become Napoleon’s artist. He secured his reputation for posterity.  With this exhibition traveling to Paris, New York and Ottawa, Vigée-Le Brun’s reputations will go up a few notches, putting her in a rank equal rank to that of David. The Metropolitan has a complete list of paintings in the exhibition.  See the Met’s video of her.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016

French “Renaissance” Women of the Revolutionary and Romantic Eras

National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, is hosting a ground-breaking exhibition, From Royalists to Romantics: Woman artists from the Louvre, Versailles and other French National Collections. The exhibition celebrates the 25th anniversary of NMWA and will continue to be on view until July 29, 2012. It features 35 woman artists who worked between 1750 and 1850.

The women who worked as artists in France at this time went through difficult times of the Revolution and its aftermath, the governments of Napoleon and Napoleon III and uncertainties in

between. They reveal themselves as extraordinary talents, able to overcome so many odds. Many of those who painted and were the subject of portraits reveal themselves as the Renaissance woman of their days. The cover of the catalogue has an alluring portrait of Madame Juliette Récamier, by Eulalie Morin.

Madame Récamier, by Eulalie Morin, late 18th century, is on the cover of the NMWA ground-breaking exhibition. Morin’s Mme Récamier wears a grecian dress and standing in front of an olive tree. Morin used an encaustic technique

Madame Récamier was an extraordinary woman known for holding salons in Paris, hosting notable literary and political figures. She was brilliant, beautiful, charming, witty and politically involved. In time, she was critical of Napoleon, and Madame Récamier went in exile to Italy, but returned to France later. Morin’s portrait dates to the last quarter of the 18th century, before the more famous portraits of Madame Récamier by Jacques-Louis David and Francois Gérard. Morin captured the personality of this charming and clever figure and set her in front of a distant landscape. Her skin is soft and smooth, and the flesh tones contrast nicely with the bright white headband and grecian dress. She stands in front of an olive tree, another tribute to Greece and her interest in the ideals of the classical world. The composition is unified with curves of the face, arm, tree and headband to pull it together and focus on the face. Morin’s Madame Récamier is intimate and alluring. Perhaps as a result of the NMWA exhibition, Morin’s painting will become the iconic image of Madame Recamier, and Eulalie Morin will become better known. (A specific type of couch, a récamier, takes its name from David’s portrait of her.)  It’s interesting that Morin primarily painted miniatures, the tiny portraits which went out of vogue with the advent of photography.

Neoclassical style and the simplicity of white, grecian dress represented sympathy for Republican ideas. A self-portrait of Rose-Adélaïde Ducreux in NMWA’s exhibition shows her bending over a painting, demonstrating her art. However, she shined not only as a painter, but as a musician and composer. Her style compares well next to the work of Jacques-Louis David, most revered painter of the age, especially when we see the texture and shine of an exquisite dresses she painted.

A self-portrait of Rose-Adélaïde Ducreux, left, from the Musée des Beaux Arts in Rouen, demonstrates her painting profession.

The current exhibition only features paintings from French museums, but there is a also a full-length self-portrait by Ducreux in the Metropolitan Museum, where she plays the harp. Ducruex was also a musician and composer; this painting, below, was accepted in the Salon of 1791.

Élisabeth Vigée-LeBrun was a prodigy who opened her own painting studio at age 15, supporting her mother and brother. She soon became a favorite of Queen Marie-Antoinette. Marriage and motherhood did not interfere with her career, and she is known for having painted several portraits of herself in affectionate, loving poses with Julie, her daughter.  

Vigée-LeBrun did not support the Revolution and left France, only to gain an international reputation as a portrait painter, particularly amongst the nobility of Austria, Russia and Poland. (A recent blog on her is found here.)

Anne Vallayer-Coster was a marvelous still life painter who was voted into Royal Academy in 1770. A favorite of Marie-Antoinette, she seems to have fallen out of favor after the Revolution. Vallayer-Coster, Vigée-LeBrun and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, were elected into the exclusive French Academy and achieved fame in their day, but there were many other artists of extraordinary talent whom we now can see and recognize in a new light. Many are portrait painters and some are history painters, the latter considered the highest type of art in its time. A few of them painted genre scenes, still lives or landscapes.

The exhibition’s 77 paintings, prints and sculpture mainly come before the invention of photography and do not show its influence. By 1850 the style of Realism had entered the art scene, but the exhibition does not cover this style in which new, younger artists such as Rosa Bonheur were painting. A Legion d’Honneur recipient, Bonheur completed in 1855 her famous The Horse Fair, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Before the French Revolution, Elisabeth Vigée-LeBrun painted this lively portrait of Joseph Vernet in 1778, primarily using a rich variety of grayish tones. 
Joseph Vernet was a well-known marine painter who frequently portrayed shipwrecks and other disasters.

These works are on loan from France until July 29, 2012, after which they will travel to Sweden.

Constance Mayer, The Dream of Happiness, from the Louvre, has a Romantic mood, popular in the early 19th century. The exact date is unknown

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016