24 September 2015
- From the section Magazine
The court painter to Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun, was the first internationally celebrated woman artist. But only now, more than 170 years after her death, has France got round to dedicating an exhibition to her.
Probably the most famous of Elisabeth Louise Vigee le Brun’s paintings is the monumental portrait of Queen Marie-Antoinette and her three children, normally on display at the royal palace in Versailles.
The queen looks serious and demure – nothing like the gadabout many took her to be. Her elder boy – the dauphin – points to an empty crib, where there should have been a baby girl had she not died.
Painted in 1787, two years before the Revolution, Marie-Antoinette and her children was a clear attempt to rehabilitate the image of the unpopular Queen, whose image had just been dragged deeper into the mud by the so-called diamond necklace affair (in which a woman impersonating her had defrauded the crown jewellers).
This was the queen as dynastic mother, faithfully offering her children to the nation.
But it was to no avail. The mood was turning. In 1789 the mob forced the royal family to move from Versailles into Paris. Vigee Le Brun saw that her own life was in danger too, so on 6 October she disguised herself as a maid and fled.
Today Marie-Antoinette and her children is the crowning piece in this first ever exhibition in France dedicated to the country’s most famous woman artist, at the Grand Palais until 11 January.
More than 150 pictures have been assembled from collections all over the world, but that is still only a fraction of the more than 1,000 paintings she made during her long life, from 1755 to 1842.
Together they are an overdue tribute to a woman artist, who defied convention and prejudice by dint of hard work and talent.
Interviewing curator Joseph Baillio, an American who is the leading expert on Vigee Le Brun, is a bit like filling a water bottle from a fast-flowing spring. There is so much to say on his cherished subject and the detail keeps spilling over.
“You know she made more money in her time than any male artist. Put another way – she made a lot of enemies. Including your John Hoppner, who hated her,” he says.
John Hoppner? “You know, the great British portraitist. He was jealous of the prices she commanded and in his work Oriental Tales he was most disobliging about her. Said she was feeble and vulgar!”
I had assumed that Vigee Le Brun was born into the nobility. In fact she was the daughter of a minor painter and hairdresser. Her father encouraged her talent, and at 19 she married Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, the pre-eminent Paris art dealer of the time. By studying and copying the masterpieces that passed through his collection, she taught herself the techniques.
“It was extraordinarily difficult for a woman to gain such skill, because she was barred from the official academic training that men could have. In a way, that is the most remarkable thing about her – she was self-taught,” says Baillio.
Vigee Le Brun caught the eye of the nobility, and in 1778, aged 23, she had her first commission for the royals.
The exhibition introduces a cast of characters who were the doomed elite of the ancien regime. There is Marie-Antoinette again in her official court dress – a portrait that was copied over and again and hung in foreign embassies, much like the presidential photographs of today.
And there are the princesses and the noblemen – most famously the portrait of the Comte de Calonne (now in the possession of the Queen) of which Joshua Reynolds himself said that he would not have been capable of a work so fine.
After fleeing France, Vigee Le Brun travelled around Europe taking commissions to pay her way, and creating a trail of valuable works from Naples to St. Petersburg and London. She returned to France in 1802, and lived for another 40 years.
As Baillio says, she was born in the age of Louis XV, and died in the age of steam trains and photographs.
It is not a little unjust that France has taken so long to honour one of its most famous daughters. The only previous exhibition was in Fort Worth, Texas in 1982.
In her lifetime her reputation suffered because of her association with the old monarchy. The 19th Century ignored her, and more recently critics accused her of exploiting femininity – her own and her subjects’ – to charm her way into influence.
Feminists like Simone de Beauvoir had no time for Vigee Le Brun because she seemed obsessed with expressing love and maternity, instead of more worthwhile themes.
Baillio will have none of this. He notes that two renowned English historians of France – Simon Schama and Colin Jones – have both given Vigee Le Brun pride of place in their treatment of the period (Schama in Citizens, Jones in the Smile Revolution).
“Vigee Le Brun is not worth celebrating because she was a woman. She is to be celebrated because she was a great painter!” Baillio exclaims.
“She could capture a likeness like no-one else, and at the same time knew how to flatter. Her technique is extraordinarily beautiful. And she was one of the greatest pastellists of all time.”
What of the late British critic Brian Sewell’s remark that “Women are bloody awful painters. I don’t know why. They just are.”
“Rubbish”, says Baillio. “You don’t paint with your sex. You paint with your hand, your mind and your intelligence.
“Really every young woman should come and see this show.”
She is one of the greatest portrait painters of all time, yet underrated because she was a woman. Seeing her work has inspired me to bring more “life” into the portraits I colorize. Alan