Considered one of the most important female artists of all time, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, a savvy, beautiful and smart woman who carved out a career in a man’s world, is celebrated in a summer-long exhibit of 90 works from around the world at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, to Sept. 11. Paintings by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun.
A husband who gambled away a fortune, a beloved daughter who died too soon, a painter who had the ear of the queen, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s life is the stuff of an HBO series.
Her work, meanwhile, is on view in a stunning show at the National Gallery of Canada to Sept. 11 where 90 luminous portraits bring back a society long vanished and thrill viewers with the artist’s mastery at light, colour and exquisite detail.
Le Brun was a shrewd, self-made businesswoman in 18th-century France when few women had professional careers. By the time she was a teen she had clients coming to her door, at the age of 23 she first painted Queen Marie Antoinette, her contemporary, and by 28 she was accepted into the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, rare for women.
One of the keys to her success was her ability to “soften” any facial imperfections in her wealthy and noble clients, says exhibit co-curator Paul Lang, deputy director and chief curator at the National Gallery of Canada. “She did a kind of plastic surgery for Marie Antoinette.”
“You’ll see that Marie Antoinette was not a beautiful woman. She had a very heavy chin typical for a Hapsburg.”
However, in Le Brun’s portraits “the people can still recognize the queen but it’s just softened.”
Considered the most important female painter of her day, Le Brun was the daughter of a portraitist and expert in pastel. She was passionate about painting from a very early age.
“That passion has never waned,” she wrote as an elderly woman in 1825 in her memoir, Souvenirs. “I believe, in fact, it has only grown with time.
“It is, moreover, to that divine passion that I owe not only my fortune but also my happiness, since in my youth — as at the present time — it established relations between me and all the most amiable and distinguished men and women in Europe.”
Le Brun’s father gave his daughter her first drawing lessons and said, “You will be a painter, my child, or no one will.”
When he died from choking on a fish bone, he left his 12-year-old daughter bereft. Le Brun’s mother thought it would help her daughter if she studied painting seriously. She enrolled her at a female-run drawing academy, gave her a room as an atelier and took her to the city’s most important galleries.
Le Brun taught herself by copying historical and contemporary paintings and by painting from models, initially family members.
She is such a great painter, says Lang, because as well as being a technical virtuoso, she synthesized the past and the present in her art.
“She’s self-trained but is able to look at Italian art mainly Raphael and Domenichino, but she’s also able to look at British art and looking at Reynolds and bringing it all together in a magical way for an intimacy and a monumental composition.
“She was able to renew her vocabulary in Italy opening to landscape and remaining always faithful to Rubens and Van Dyck and the Flemish art of the 17th century.”
After a trip to Flanders to see Rubens’ work she used wood panels for her easel paintings and transparent glazes “over warm, light-toned preparations to suggest the effect of blood pulsing beneath the surface of the skin,” writes co-curator and Le Brun expert Joseph Baillio.
After Le Brun’s mother remarried a goldsmith, a nasty man who took the artist’s earnings, the family moved to a town house occupied by art dealer and trained artist Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun. He lent the beautiful young artist works from his collection to copy and asked for her hand in marriage.
“I was far from wishing to become his wife, though he was very well built and had a pleasant face,” Le Brun writes in Souvenirs. “I was then twenty years old, and was living without anxiety as to the future, since I was already earning a deal of money, so that I felt no manner of inclination for matrimony.”
On her mother’s urging, she accepted, mainly to escape her stepfather. “So little, however, did I feel inclined to sacrifice my liberty that, even on my way to church, I kept saying to myself, ‘Shall I say yes, or shall I say no?’ ”
The one joy of her union — though LeBrun had to be dragged from her studio to take the time to give birth — was her daughter Julie. She adored the child, nicknamed Brunette, and always painted children with affection, sensitivity and the naturalness that was championed by Rousseau and that she brought to all her subjects.
A celebrity herself and often a subject for malicious, sexist gossip and condescending art criticism, she was known for her lively salons and was very much a member of the society she painted and a society she never disavowed.
On the night of Oct. 6, 1789, as mobs surged into Versailles to drag the royal family to Paris, Le Brun grabbed her daughter and fled revolutionary France, initially for Rome. She had only 20 francs thanks to her husband, “… although I had earned more than a million. He had squandered it all.”
She made her way to Europe’s capitals, where her reputation and profits grew, and spent six years in St. Petersburg, painting members of the Russian imperial family and living in an apartment overlooking the Winter Palace.
Sadly, this is where her daughter met her sad fate when she fell for a Russian theatre secretary, Guitain Nigris, whom Le Brun described as a “man without talents, without fortune, without a name.”
Julie, seen in three portraits in this exhibit from ages six to 18, married against her mother’s wishes. The marriage turned sour immediately and only lasted eight years. Mother and daughter fell out over money and stopped speaking.
Julie contracted syphilis and died destitute in Paris at the age of 39 in 1819 when Le Brun was back in Paris.
The artist describes the “cruel grief” she experienced.
“When, going to see her the last day, my eyes fell upon that dreadfully sunken face, I fainted away. My old friend Mme. de Noisville rescued me from that bed of sorrow; she supported me, for my legs would not carry me, and took me home. The next day I was childless! Mme. de Verdun came with the news, and vainly tried to soften my despair. All the wrong-doing of the poor little one vanished — I saw her again, I still see her, in the days of her childhood. Alas! she was so young! Why did she not survive me.”
After Le Brun died in Paris in 1842 at the age of 87, she was underrated and didn’t influence many other artists. “She couldn’t have,” says Lang, “because after that, people were expecting something else. It’s the last firework of a society which disappeared with the ancien regime.”
Le Brun was also dismissed because of a prejudice against female artists, which still exists today, says Lang, and against self-trained artists. She painted mainly portraits, another strike against her — when the Academie valued history painting and landscape — and in the 1940s and 1950s feminists like Simone de Beauvoir denigrated women artists who were “the so-called upper class artists,” says Lang.
“Le Brun sought out the powerful and the rich and the famous. The sitters were more important than the painting.”
The 90 paintings on loan from institutions such as the Louvre, the Château de Versailles and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg include her massive, official family portrait of Marie Antoinette and her family, never before exhibited outside Paris, self-portraits up until the age of 55 and oodles of beauties of the ancien regime.
Their pristine milky complexions, red cheeks, heart-shaped faces, sensuous lips and opulent dresses indicate none of the politics of the time or the fate awaiting Louis XVI’s court.
These, as well as Le Brun’s many Russian portraits, are gorgeous in the artist’s use of light and shadow with many faces shadowed by elaborate hats, in her saturated colours and in her astonishingly exquisite detail in lace, ribbons, plumes of white feathers, lavish fabrics, opalescent pearls and ubiquitous roses, a symbol for grace and femininity as well as Marie Antoinette’s favourite flower.
Le Brun renewed the official portrait genre, says Lang, by “bringing an ambiguity between the official and private portrait.” He cites her intimate, three-quarter portrait of a gently smiling Charles Alexandre de Calonne, controller general of finances, where white powder is visible on his shoulder. “You never see that in an official portrait.”
Le Brun was able to capture fleeting emotional states and her subjects often smile directly at the viewer, which was frowned upon.
“She is really also a colourist,” says Lang, noting Le Brun’s 1785 painting of the baronne de Crussol de Florensac.
This beautiful young woman, whose head turns as she is caught reading the score of a Gluck opera, sits on a green Louis XV bench and wears a lush red silk dress trimmed in black velvet and fur. “The red and green, complementary colours, it’s like what Monet would do 60-70 years later. She had this sense of colour and it’s very daring, sometimes it’s at the edge of what works — incredible.”
Lang’s favourite work is a 1787 group portrait of the Marquise de Rouge, wearing a shimmering blue-bronze dress with a giant gold ribbon, with her two sons and her close friend the Marquise de Pezay. Both women, who were widows, were regulars at Le Brun’s pre-revolution musical soirees and are painted with great intimacy against a lush landscape.
“It’s the only group portrait and it’s the first time she uses a landscape before exile. You see all her qualities. She is looking at Domenichino, at Rubens, at Reynolds, and it’s for me an allegory of friendship and maternal love.”
In the last years of her life, Le Brun worked on her memoirs and painted less while keeping up with entertaining. Before she died she saw the invention of the daguerreotype as spelling the end to painted portraiture.
The frozen black and white stares from the earliest stages of photography are lifeless compared to her vital art, that still speaks to us in its beauty and painterly skill albeit with an eerie hindsight, over 200 years later.
IF YOU GO: Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), organized by the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Réunion des musée nationaux–Grand Palais, Paris, has already been a hit in Paris and New York and is at its only Canadian venue and last tour stop. It runs to Sept. 11 at the National Gallery of Canada. Tickets range from $7 for youth to $16 regular with children 11 and under admitted free.
It includes a dress-up area with hats and wigs, a great film on the artist at the exhibit’s end, souvenir items in the regular gallery gift shop and the complementary exhibit, The White Dress: Masterpiece in Focus, to Sept. 25, based on Le Brun’s controversial portrait of Marie Antoinette in a chemise instead of court dress, and about the evolution of the chemise and other changes in fashion.
Also on exhibit at the National are Joseph Beuys, of 15 sculptures and drawings by the famous conceptual artist who visited the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in the 1970s, to Nov. 27, and Picasso: Man and Beast, The Vollard Suite of Prints, to Sept. 6.
by Elissa Bernard