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Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress, 1783; Marie Antoinette with a Rose, 1783


On View
The Metropolitan Museum Of Art
Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France
February 15 – May 15, 2016
New York

Souvenirs of Madame Vigée Le Brun
(Cambridge Library Collection – Art and Architecture, Vol. 1, 2015)

200 years after the end of her painting career, it’s high time Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755 – 1842), better known as Vigée Le Brun, had a major retrospective. An opportunity to see a sizeable amount of her work unlikely to be repeated anytime soon, it also helped save her from the almost certain obscurity that few female artists of her time escaped. While Le Brun navigated the occupational hazards of being a woman with flair, some of the strain comes through in two very different versions of a three-quarter-length portrait of Le Brun’s patroness, Marie Antoinette, here exhibited together for the first time. The first, Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress (1783), shows an uncorseted, approachable queen in the muslin costume she made fashionable. Like the dress, the painting was considered scandalous, and was refused by the Salon. Le Brun quickly painted a more conventional one, Marie Antoinette with a Rose (1783), which was duly accepted. The difference is telling: the queen is now resplendent in grey silk, her head stiffened, her gaze diffuse, her attitude remote. She holds the same spray of roses as in the first portrait—some of its blossoms now spent—thus underlining Le Brun’s daring speed: if pushed, we feel, she could whip out another version before all its petals withered. Born in the same year as Marie Antoinette, Le Brun empathized with her, and admired her comportment and kindness. In the second portrait, Le Brun also projected onto the queen not a little of her own chafing resentment at the limits imposed by her sex: caged in court dress and collared with pearls, this flower is going to seed.

Refused by the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture because of her gender, and already more than competent before her acceptance to the second-tier Académie de Saint-Luc, the largely self-taught Le Brun was the only female court painter to a French queen. Dissatisfied with previous portraits (no other painter captured her distinctive Habsburg physiognomy quite as well), in 1778 Marie Antoinette summoned the bohemian, much-talked-about personality (popular and sought-after, Vigée was an “it” girl of her day) to Versailles, and was hooked. Le Brun painted over thirty portraits of the queen, the first, Marie Antoinette in Court Dress (1778) and last, Marie Antoinette in a Blue Velvet Dress and a White Skirt (1788) of which are shown here. She also painted the sober Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787), as well as the queen’s favorites at court, notably including her children’s governess, the ravishing The Duchesse de Polignac in a Straw Hat, (1782), which Le Brun liked well enough to recycle as a self-portrait (not shown). She also painted the royal mistresses, Comtesse Du Barry in a Straw Hat (1781), she of the sideways-glancing, laughing eyes.  

And then came the Revolution. Conspicuous Monarchists like Le Brun had no choice but to go. She took her daughter, jettisoned her husband, and became an itinerant painter of the noble class, asking for and receiving exorbitant sums of money for portraits as she tramped her way through Europe, making extended stays in major capitals, and not returning to her native France until 1809—she lasted less than a year before taking off again. She eventually settled in Paris and Louveciennes, where she wrote a best-selling memoir (Souvenirs, still in print!) and hosted an ongoing salon for her elite peers until her death at eighty-seven.

Self-portrait, 1790; Julie Le Brun Looking in a Mirror, 1786

Le Brun’s peripatetic exile began long before the Revolution. She was sent to line with relatives until the age of six, and then to a convent. Overjoyed to return home at age eleven, she lost her adored father only two years later. Marrying the art dealer Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun got her out of the house and away from her miserly stepfather, but she only exchanged one tyrant for another: her philandering husband had misrepresented his financial resources, and promptly gambled away his new wife’s hard-earned fortune away. (His constipated Self-Portrait, Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun (1795), is on display; Vigée gains by the comparison.) Divorcing her husband as soon as it was legal to do so, and able to earn and spend as she pleased, Vigée Le Brun was happier in exile than ever before. She had little to say about the daughter who died in infancy, but she painted her daughter Julie as a goddess in Julie Le Brun as Flora (1799). No matter that Julie Le Brun Looking in a Mirror (1786) presents an optical impossibility; her charm is as winning as her mother’s.

If the portraits of Marie Antoinette are the show stoppers, Le Brun’s self-portraits are the heart of her oeuvre. They served as her calling card, promoting her superb talent as well as her superb charm. In qua Spanish dress in the Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbons (1782),the artist is a blushing, androgynous ingénue—a tomboy Tina Fey in matador drag, delighted to see you! And you are delighted to see her—as were her bemused sitters, including the hated controller-general Comte Charles Alexandre de Calonne (1784), who Le Brun manages to make sympathetic.On invitation, she contributed the 1790 Self-portrait to the Vasari Corridor, the Uffizi self-portrait gallery. Appearing at least fifteen years younger than her age and full of artless, girlish appeal, she balances a fistful of brushes and a palette on one arm while she paints with the other. A vermilion sash and the exquisitely painted curls that escape her painting scarf further signal her vitality and verve.

And yet the real star here is her talent. Le Brun’s face is masterfully lit and modeled, framed by a frilly lace collar that, along with the plain, receding background and severe color scheme, announces the painter’s preference for the Flemish over insipid French Rococo and dull neo-classicism. So too, does her trademark flaunting of her perfect teeth, which, by flouting current French convention, enhanced her notoriety. Then there is the trump card: the painting on her easel, a dim chalk sketch of the queen, the best endorsement could one ask for. Superbly, the painting’s background melds with that of the painting within-the-painting, daringly inviting the viewer to compare the spotlit Le Brun to Marie Antoinette’s legendary beauty. In a minor painterly miracle, the shadow of the painter’s arm lingers on the canvas, her hand over her friend’s heart—an ominous sign. If the royal visage seems nevertheless oblivious of her imminent decapitation, the painting is not: it cuts off half her face. Now, the queen is literally out of the picture. Her turn is over; this one is all about Le Brun.

By taking her father’s name, the brilliantly successful Vigée, Jr. reversed his loss and avenged his mediocrity: “Into her little fingers Destiny set the skill that had been denied to her father […] the gods had not borne to him the immortal flame.” She was more grateful for her inheritance of the “charm of manner” that in her own words made her “one of the most winsome personalities of her time,” and which, together with her unsurpassed self-promotion, allowed her tremendous independence. If by dint of her lack of training and the vagaries of demand, her art is limited to the portrait genre (the only landscape on display, Festival of the Shepherds at Unspunnen (1808 – 1809), is weirdly naïve), if some of her later paintings are hurried or hackneyed, lacking her accomplished sfumato, her achievement remains remarkable.

Comte Charles Alexandre de Calonne, 1784; Giovanni Paisiello, 1791.

Vigée Le Brun went her own way: she refused to present women as she imagined men wanted to see them, showing them instead as she thought they wanted to be seen. She urged her sitters to let their hair down, starting trends—not for her were powder and paint. Born long before her time, Le Brun had to make use of being a woman to earn a place in a man’s world. And she knew how to exploit the power that her good looks exerted over the male gaze: as she reminisced, “In those days beauty was really an advantage.” Not that she let her male sitters get away with much gazing. When so desired, she spared herself their “tender looks” by posing them with averted eyes; when they strayed, she protested, “Please! I am just at the eyes!” Less lucky than Calonne, the fleshy Giovanni Paisiello, 1791, gazing to the heavens, is a notable example: his portrait was one of Le Brun’s submissions to the Paris Salon—where, in her own words, “It was hung as pendant to a portrait by David, and led to his high tribute to her genius […] he said to his pupils: ‘They will think that my canvas was painted by a woman, and the portrait of Paisiello by a man.’” There was no mistaking the proud painter of her self-portraits, however. But even if they say, “Look at me,” at the same time, they say, “Look at my art.”

So why does the show start with a painting by one Alexis-Joseph Pérignon, Marie Antoinette Gathering the Brushes of Madame Vigée Le Brun, 1784 (1859), in which a sublimely composed Marie Antoinette kneels (quelle horreur!) to retrieve the brushes her inept portraitist has dropped? Le Brun relates this anecdote in Souvenirs—her pregnancy is the reason for her chubbiness, and her sitter’s munificent largesse—but she would not have appreciated the choice to inaugurate her first retrospective with a canvas meant to flatter the Queen, at her own expense. One must read the accompanying wall text to know that it is not in fact her work. Next to it, the introductory comments in large type describe Le Brun as “technically skilled” and “charming;” words such as “talent” or “gift” are conspicuously absent. Rather, the subtextual spin is that she used her charm and connections to fight her way to the top of a field dominated by men. We can forgive the Met’s choice to play up her notoriety and celebrity, instead of the jeopardy of obscurity. We can forgive the rose flavored candies and eau de cologne in the frilly exhibition shop, maybe even the patronizing images of art historical sources in the wall texts that would surely never be included in a show of Fragonard, say, or Chardin or David. Still, it’s sad, and perhaps symptomatic, that after all the tremendous effort and expense that went into properly celebrating Vigée Le Brun, the first painting in her show is a man’s.


Adele Tutter

ADELE TUTTER, M.D., Ph.D. is a practicing psychoanalyst and professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. She is the author of Dream House: An Intimate Portrait of the Philip Johnson Glass House (forthcoming from the University of Virginia Press) and coeditor of Grief and its Transcendence: Creativity, Memory, and Identity (Routledge). She is currently working on a second monograph, Mourning and Metamorphosis: Poussin's Ovidian Vision.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2016

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