Brush stroke

The woman who painted Marie Antoinette

A new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrates Vigée Le Brun, the prolific, vivacious portraitist of the French royal court

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, "Self-portrait," 1790. (Galleria degli Uffizi, Corridoio Vasariano, Florence)

In a dimly lit gallery of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art hangs a huge, captivating portrait of Marie Antoinette. She stands against a muted backdrop, next to a velvet-draped table that holds a shining crown. Her skirts are draped elaborately over a careening pannier, her powdered hair piled high beneath a feathered cap. Light caresses every ripple of Marie Antoinette’s dress, every ruffle of her lace-trimmed bodice. Though the queen is surrounded by symbols of wealth and power, her eyes are gentle, her expression soft.

This painting has endured as one of the more famous likenesses of Marie Antoinette, but the legacy of its artist is relatively obscure. Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was an admired portraitist of late 18th century French royalty, and is considered one of the most important women painters of all time. And yet, in the centuries after her death, her work has garnered very little attention. A new, fascinating exhibition at the Met —Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France— seeks to bring Vigee Le Brun into the spotlight with an expansive celebration of her work. In modern times, only one other exhibition has been devoted to this remarkable figure.

Vigée Le Brun was born in Paris in 1755, during the reign of Louis XV. Her father was a professional portraitist and gave his daughter her first lessons in drawing. He died when Vigée Le Brun was just 12 years old, and she was left without a teacher; women were excluded from courses given by the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, the preeminent art institution of France. When she was 21, Vigée Le Brun married the private art dealer Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, a union that further distanced her from the Académie, since students were not permitted to have connections to the art trade. And so Vigée Le Brun studied works in private collections, teaching herself the skills that would one day win praise among the highest echelons of French society.

(Lynda and Stuart Resnick)

“Marie Antoinette with a Rose”, 1783. (Lynda and Stuart Resnick)

The 80 paintings on display in the Met exhibition are by and large arranged chronologically, tracing Vigée Le Brun’s rise within Paris and her successful career abroad during the French Revolution. In 1776, the artist was summoned to Versailles to paint Marie Antoinette. She would go on to paint the queen some 30 times, and several of these portraits are on display in New York. Wall texts that quote snippets of Souvenir, Vigée Le Brun’s autobiography, reveal her impression of her most famous patron. The queen, Vigée Le Brun wrote, “walked better than any other woman in France, holding her head very high with a majesty that singled her out in the midst of the entire court.”

Vigée Le Brun’s first portrait of Marie Antoinette was well-liked, and the artist received a series of commissions from the royal family and its inner circle. Hanging in the Met’s gallery are portraits of such prominent individuals as the Comtesse du Barry (mistress to Louis XV), the Count de Vandreuil (a companion of the King’s brother), and Catherine Grand (the wife of France’s first prime minister) — a veritable “who’s who” of 18th century French society. These were powerful people, but Vigée Le Brun’s portraits exude intimacy, even joy. The artist was known for her magnetic personality, and took pains to ensure that her subjects were sitting, comfortable and at ease.

“She had great skill at social contact,” said Katharine Baetjer, who curated the Met exhibition. “I find that her portraits have a great deal of vitality and humanity. She also writes [in Souvenir] about making her sitters comfortable … It can be very boring to sit. And when you have to spend a lot of time doing it, it’s probably something that you don’t want to do. If you could be with someone who can engage you in conversation … then you won’t be bored. And you’ll probably look more animated. At least it seems to me this must be the case.”

The portraits on display at the Met serve not only as a testament to Vigée Le Brun’s charisma and skill — she commanded her brushes with elegance, and had a keen eye for the intricacies of luxurious fabrics — but also as a window into the fashion, politics, and mores of the French upper class. Against the back wall of one of the gallery rooms, for example, hang two similar paintings of Marie Antoinette. The first shows the queen wearing a soft muslin dress, as she was wont to do at the small Versailles chateau that Louis XVI had given to her for her private use. When Vigée Le Brun released this portrait in 1783, it caused an uproar; the queen’s informal getup was considered inappropriate for public viewing. A few weeks later, Vigée Le Brun replaced this work with the second portrait, which depicts the queen in the same pose and with the same expression, but dressed in formal attire.

Another highlight of the exhibit is an allegorical painting titled “Peace Bringing Back Abundance”, which served as Vigée Le Brun’s reception painting when she was finally permitted to join the Académie, under the direct instruction of Louis XVI. In its 150-year history, only 14 women were accepted into the Académie, and Vigée Le Brun made her entry with gumption and defiance. Peace Bringing Back Abundance, a lush personification of two allegorical figures, referenced the conclusion of the American War of Independence. Industry belief at the time held that only men were capable of successfully rendering historical scenes, but with a painting that nodded to a specific moment in recent history, Vigée Le Brun was angling for the Académie’s most prestigious categories, gender be damned.

But by the time Vigée Le Brun secured her place among the artistic elite, public opinion of her royal patrons was turning rapidly and viciously. In 1785, Vigée Le Brun released the most important commission of her career: a painting of Marie Antoinette and her three children, flanked by Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors. The portrait, which was displayed at the 1785 Salon in Paris and can now be viewed at the Met, was a propaganda piece intended to rehabilitate the queen’s image by depicting her as a doting mother. The wheels of the Revolution were churning, however, and Marie Antoinette had fallen irreparably out of favor. Vigée Le Brun’s own reputation began to decline because of her association with the queen. In 1789, when revolutionary violence broke out, the artist fled from France with her daughter.

The second portion of the exhibit is thus devoted to the twelve years that Vigée Le Brun spent abroad, travelling from Italy, to Vienna, to the royal court of St. Petersburg. She continued to enjoy a luminous career as an émigré, receiving commissions from the likes of Queen Maria Carolina of Naples, the Queen of Prussia, and Catherine the Great.

"Self-portrait", 1790. (Galleria degli Uffizi, Corridoio Vasariano, Florence)

“Self-portrait”, 1790. (Galleria degli Uffizi, Corridoio Vasariano, Florence)

Sprinkled throughout these images of Europe’s upper crust are intimate representations of Vigée Le Brun’s personal life. She painted her mother, brother, and stepfather. She lovingly depicted her daughter Julie as both a child and an adolescent. In one corner of the gallery hangs a large self-portrait, which Vigée Le Brun painted in Italy shortly after her escape from France. The artist’s expression is sweet, but her ambition is patent: she wears a lace collar that was fashionable in the days of Van Dyck, and a style of cap that can be seen in the paintings of Rembrandt. Her hand, raised to a canvas, is sketching a pastel-hued likeness of Marie Antoinette.

It is difficult to say precisely why Vigée Le Brun has failed to emerge as a well-known name in art history, but Baetjer suspects the answer lies in a declining interest in 18th century art. “The 18th century is an unpopular period now,” she said. “I work in English 18th century art also, and sometimes Venetian. And by and large, these pictures are not the things that principally interest people these days … I have a colleague here who has been interested in modern art all her life. And she told me the other evening that she’d never heard of Vigée Le Brun.”

But the tide of critical interest may be turning. The exhibition on Vigée Le Brun ran at the Grand Palais in Paris before landing at the Met, and it will travel to Ottawa’s National Gallery later this year. It is a thrilling new chapter in the legacy of a woman who shattered the limitations imposed on her sex to perform the work she loved. As Vigée Le Brun wrote in her memoir: “Painting and living have always been one and the same thing for me.”

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