After big summer show, National Gallery predicts more triumphs ahead

The Marquise de Pezay and the Marquise de Rougé with Her Two Sons, 1787, oil on canvas, 123.4 x 155.9 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The National Gallery in Ottawa is sighing with relief and patting itself on the back after receiving the news that its big summer show, a survey of paintings by the late 18th-century portraitist Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, was seen by just more than 90,000 patrons.

That’s 20 per cent more than the 75,000 it was projecting before the three-month exhibition opened June 10. Further, gallery officials see the success as one more marker of the gallery’s improving circumstances and perhaps a harbinger of greater triumphs ahead.

La Paix ramenant l’abondance by Élisabeth Louise Vigée – 1780, oil on canvas, 102 x 133.

La Paix ramenant l’abondance by Élisabeth Louise Vigée – 1780, oil on canvas, 102 x 133.

“A wonderful surprise” is how Paul Lang characterized the news in a recent interview. The gallery’s deputy director and chief curator, he also was one of the three senior curators of the roughly 90 works that made up Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842): The Portraitist to Marie Antoinette, as it was called in Canada. Not only was attendance strong, the NGC sold every copy, both the French version and English, of the exhibition’s hardcover catalogue. “What makes me happy is that the people were really happy,” said Lang, 58, who joined the NGC in 2011 after a lengthy museum curatorship in Geneva. “There is something that happened around this exhibition, that’s for sure. It’s really a public success.”

The show’s good fortune certainly was no slam dunk. While Le Brun is, to Lang’s cultivated eye, “the most important female artist of the 18th century,” she was largely an unknown quantity on these shores. This was even true, to some extent, in her native France, where she’s been regarded, variously, as a society artist, a panderer to the pre-Revolutionary aristocracy and a reactionary beguiler. In recent years, though, her cachet has seen to be in the ascendant. She was, after all, largely a self-taught and self-made success, not to mention a rare female member of the Académie royale whose travels and talent took her into the highest circles of Russian, Swiss, English and Austrian society.

Countess Tolstoya by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1796 oil on canvas, 137.7 × 104

In short, a substantial touring retrospective seemed long overdue. Indeed, during its three-and-a-half month stay last year at the Grand Palais in Paris (the retrospective’s debut venue), the show drew 237,000 visitors. Its next stop, a February-to-May run this year at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, recorded 165,000 patrons.

The NGC has what could charitably be described as “mixed results” in both summer attendance and overall attendance in the past 10-plus years. While last year’s summer retrospective of Alex Colville was, with almost 114,000 paying visitors, an indisputable hit, its 2014 summer survey of the oeuvre of 19th-century French illustrator/painter Gustave Doré was a thumping failure: fewer than 50,000 attendees. The previous summer, an ambitious, path-breaking survey of international contemporary indigenous art, titled Sakahan, was similarly disappointing: just 60,000.

Marie-Antoinette with a rose by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1783. Oil on canvas, 116.8 x 88.9 cm

Of course, there have been successes – 2012’s Van Gogh: Up Close enjoyed slightly more than 230,000 visitors; Renoir Landscapes 1865-1883 scored 172,000 in 2007; Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome, from 2011, had almost 109,000. But you expect venerables of this ilk to send people through the turnstiles. Much more sobering was the attendance, in the summer of 2010, for Pop Life: Art in a Material World. An ample potpourri of modern and contemporary work by such high-recognition names as Warhol, Hirst, Koons, Haring and Murakami, it was a huge hit at London’s Tate but polled only 68,000 attendees during its three-month stay here.

Still, Lang is convinced the NGC is “on an upward trajectory,” especially in light of the back-to-back summer successes of Colville and Vigée Le Brun, not to mention the positive notices earned by recent non-summer presentations such as the Jack Bush retrospective and Monet: A Bridge to Modernity.

Countess Varvara Nikolayevna Golovina by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, c. 1797–1800 oil on canvas, 83.5 × 66.7 cm

Statistics seem to confirm his optimism: The gallery had 397,000 visitors in calendar year 2015, a 47-per-cent hike over 2014’s 270,208. That tally, in turn, was 12 per cent higher than the 241,173 recorded in 2013. (To date, for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2017, the NGC has had close to 240,000 visitors.)

Lang was quick to attribute much of this renewal to “strengthened relations between curatorial and marketing” – the result, in part, of the NGC having commissioned in early 2015 a broad market research study by Ipsos Reid to get a fix on its local, regional and national audiences, both actual and potential. The first such comprehensive survey in more than 15 years, it found Canadians generally favourably disposed toward the NGC and keen to learn about other cultures and history through the art and complementary events it might present. Hence, at the Vigée Le Brun, the popularity of an ancillary, multifaceted presentation devoted to the “immodest” white muslin dress Marie Antoinette wore for a 1783 portrait.

Marie Antoinette and Her Children by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1787 oil on canvas, 275 × 216.5 cm

Admittedly, it’s unlikely the NGC will ever enjoy the mid-six-figure tallies it did in each of the seven or eight years after opening its Moshe Safdie-designed quarters in 1988. At the same time, Lang believes the years of annual attendance being well below 300,000 are “really behind us.” Certainly, guaranteed draws remain few and far between – but, as Vigée Le Brun demonstrated, audiences can be led toward (relatively) unfamiliar content. In its marketing and promotion, the NGC smartly stressed the artist’s spunk as a divorced, financially independent woman in a man’s world, her position as Marie Antoinette’s preferred painter and the soon-to-be-beheaded Queen’s status as Vigée Le Brun’s most famous sitter. Also, Marie Antoinette died at 37 – only a year older than that other young, doomed and tragic royal, Diana, Princess of Wales.

“Content matters, too, of course,” Lang said. “I don’t think you can be successful with a poor artist or with something uninteresting. The success of an exhibition … is to deliver something that is, in a way, already known, consciously or unconsciously, and something new. That’s the balance that has to be found. Completely unknown territory – we know that it is difficult.”

Another lesson learned, or at least reinforced, by the Colville/Vigée Le Brun tandem: “Our high season, unlike other museums in Canada or elsewhere, is definitely the summer,” said Lang. “And the summer will remain our high season, that’s for sure.”

For 2017, Canada’s sesquicentennial, this means visitors will be treated to a complete reinstallation of the Canadian and indigenous galleries. For 2018, there’s an epic exhibition of paintings by John Constable (1776-1837), plus “something else I’m not ready to speak about,” Lang said.

by James Adams

Source: The Globe and Mail

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French Revolutionary Artist Vigee Le Brun Reigns Supreme at the Met

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Though she was Marie Antoinette’s favorite portrait painter, Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun (1755-1842) was not a queen herself.  She was, however, an extraordinarily gifted artist.  Beautiful, witty, unassuming and largely self-taught, she is arguably the finest of 18th century French portrait painters and to her credit—through a long and illustrious career—she kept her head.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibit, Vigee Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France, fast on the heels of its showing at the Grand Palais in Paris, is long overdue.  Katherine Baetjer, Curator in the Department of European Paintings, remarked to Roberta Smith in the New York Times’ own coverage, that it was the first time in her 40 years in the Department that a monographic exhibition has been held for a woman artist.  Better late than never, this first time retrospective of 79 portraits and one landscape will leave little doubt that the viewer is in the presence of true genius.

Vigee was the daughter of an accomplished pastel portraitist, who helped to guide her precocious talents.  It was a lucky stroke, for when he died when she was only 12 years of age, she was quick to contribute to the family’s support.  Upon first entering the exhibit, a trio of family portraits reveals a remarkable sensitivity toward her sitter.  The portrait of her mother shows a trusting, genteel fatigue, while the brother is confident, totally at ease with his school book and tri-cornered hat.  Even her stepfather, an ambitious playwright whom she suspected of hoarding her income, exhibits a benignly relaxed countenance.  By 19, she was exhibiting publicly and two years later, married to Jean Baptiste  Pierre Le Brun, the principal art dealer in 18th century Paris.  It’s interesting to note the dealer’s self-portrait included here, proudly posed with an artist’s palette, appearing every bit the artistic dandy of his day.

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Though the marriage was beneficial to both, producing one daughter, Vigee Le Brun was denied access to the prestigious Academie royale due to her husband’s profession as a dealer.  Such association with the trade was strictly prohibited.  It was only through the intervention of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI that the painter was allowed access, and a large, symbolic canvas, Peace Bringing Back Abundance, was her reception piece in the 1783 salon.  It’s an eye-catching example of her mastery of the female form, the figure of  abundance greets the viewer with exposed breast and  a cornucopia of fruit placed nearby.  But the figure of Peace hovering overhead with a dramatic sweep of emerald green cape gives a feeling of high drama to the whole composition.

Not surprisingly, some of the biggest crowd-pleasers are the three life-size portraits of Marie Antoinette.  The first to greet visitors, Marie Antoinette in Court Dress, was the result of the Queen’s summoning of the young 23-year-old artist to Versailles.  It was specifically commissioned for the queen’s mother, Empress Marie Theresa of Austria who wanted to see her daughter in royal splendor. The portrait is predictably grand, with a perfect mastery of attitude and dress in every stroke.  In all of the portraits, the subject exhibits the Hapsburg trait of a long narrow face and full lower lip, yet the painter was impressed with the queen’s carriage and said that “she walked better than any other woman in France.”

More intriguing are the paired portraits of the queen shown together for the first time—one in a simple pastoral setting wearing a white muslin frock and the other a corseted formal portrait, more befitting her role.  It’s hard to imagine today the scandal and uproar the informal portrait created—the pose is practically identical—but it was soon removed from display. (A trip to Versailles for any visitor curious about daily life for the royal inhabitants must include a train ride to Le Petit Trianon, the farm created for the queen in her role as shepherdess.)

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One of Vigee Le Brun’s favorite poses for her aristocratic sitters was an over-the-shoulder glance at the viewer, a pose ideal for projecting a moment frozen in time.  One such example is the fetching Baronne de Crussol Florensac (1785) interrupted in her studies of a musical score.  It’s easy to imagine in a great many of these portraits that painter and subject were in the throes of sharing an intimate and joyful afternoon together.  Was it the artist’s intent or the ebullient nature of her subject?  She once admitted that “I painted them as dreamers and nonchalantly intent.”

The only portrait that stands out in obvious contrast is one depicting the writer Madame de Stael. Painted in the guise of Corinne, one of her more famous literary creations, it’s perhaps the only singularly unflattering portrait in the exhibit—an open mouthed, toothy impression, looking heavenward with lyre in hand, it’s an effectively eye-catching rendering but one rejected by the author.

Vigee Le Burn also exhibited a talent for self-portraiture not easy to achieve, even for the most adept.  My favorite on display, Self Portrait with Cerise Ribbons (1782) is a beautiful study of a young woman, confident in her grace and intelligence, yet exhibiting an unaffected openness.  She has chosen the contrasts of red and black hues, the black hat setting off the luminous face, the drop earring a perfect point of focus.

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She could be just as adept in her portrayal of children and not to be missed is a charming portrait of her daughter Julie.  The subject is in profile, holding an angled mirror with her reflection seen in full-face.  It’s not only a totally captivating portrait but one that shows the great love and trust she must have shared with the child.

A major showstopper is surely Marie Antoinette and her Children (1787).  It’s a grand majestic painting, with the queen surrounded by her brood in a powerful, triangular composition.  Never one to forego a helpful suggestion, the painter had sought out Jacques Louis David’s advice at the outset.  The image of the young Dauphin pointing to an empty crib in the background is bittersweet, perhaps referring to the youngest offspring who had died at 11 months.

Such a close association with the queen forced Vigee Le Brun in 1789 to flee France.  While violence raged in her home country, she was quickly embraced by those who could afford her talents.  Traveling to Italy with daughter Julie, she was elected to membership in the Accademia di San Luca in Rome.  While she often worked independently, she was commissioned by the queen of Naples whose daughter Maria Louisa is on view.  Napoleon’s sister Caroline was a sitter as were several of the royalty in Vienna.  One of her most successful sojourns was the six years she spent in Russia where the family of Catherine the Great was only too happy to take advantage of her artistry.

The glitter and glamour of Russian society was obviously to her liking.  A portrait of the Countess Varvara Nikolayevna Golovina dramatically clutching her red stole against the cold, has an unmistakable boldness.  Likewise, a portrait of the young Tolstoy, draped in a rich crimson cape against a bare background, benefits from the singular focus on its subject.  The male subject hardly received short-shrift from the painter and a vibrant and powerful portrait of Stanislaw August Poniatowski, formerly King of Poland, attests to this fact.

There are additional delights in this sumptuous exhibit worth mentioning.  The only landscape,  The Festival of the Shepherds at Unspunnese, was painted near Interlaken, Switzerland and a careful look will reveal the artist with her sketchbook in the foreground.  A series of pastels includes a sketchy self-portrait in broad brimmed hat and curls reminiscent of Boticelli’s mythical beauties.

Vigee Le Brun would enjoy 40 more productive years upon her return to France, giving a detailed account of art and life in post-revolutionary Europe in her journals.  If international recognition for this major artist has been slow in arriving, the Met’s impeccable exhibit is well worth the wait.  The Musee National des Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the Musee du Louvre and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II are also responsible in no small measure for its success.

The exhibition is on view through May 15, 2016.

by Sandra Bertrand

Source: Highbrow Magazine

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The Met’s Enigmatic Red Shawl, Inspired by Revolutionary France Painter Vigée Le Brun

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Countess Varvara Nikolayevna Golovina, Ca. 1797-1800 Photo: The Henry Barber Trust, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham
Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Countess Varvara Nikolayevna Golovina, Ca. 1797-1800 Photo: The Henry Barber Trust, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was a pretty tough chick.  This gifted portraitist, born in 1755, showed enormous early talent as a painter, but it was hard (then as now!) for young women like her to be taken seriously. She married Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, an art dealer who by reports was a bit of a sleazy gambler, in 1776, and this didn’t exactly hurt her career.

Le Brun is being honored with a major exhibition that opened today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and though the show is subtitled “Woman Artist in Revolutionary France,” she in fact hightailed it into exile as soon as things got hot.

And could you blame her? Before she fled the scene, Le Brun made her reputation specializing in painting the sorts of aristocratic types who liked to pose as peasant girls and grape gatherers. Her favorite subject was none other than Marie Antoinette, whom she rendered variously in a chemise dress, with a rose, wearing a blue velvet frock, helping pick up Le Brun’s paintbrushes (!), and with her kids in an enormous 108 1⁄4-by-85 1⁄4-inch oil-on-canvas that is maybe some kind of masterwork.

Was it any surprise that when the people of Paris took to the streets there were targets on Le Brun’s subjects’ backs, causing the artist to depart, first to Italy and then to Russia and Austria, before finally making it back to Paris in greatly reduced circumstances?

For some reason lost in the mists of time, Le Brun kept a red shawl in her studio and draped it around a variety of her subjects. It shows up as a sash in a self-portrait; enhancing the gowns of Countess von Bucquoi and Princess Yusupova; fluttering behind the artist’s daughter in Julie Le Brun as Flora; and encircling Count Emmanuel Nikolayevich Tolstoy in 1823.

The Met Store has chosen to reproduce this item, which it calls the Palmette Border Jacquard Shawl, in conjunction with the exhibition, and at $95 it is very nice (and who doesn’t like a souvenir for trooping all the way up to 81st Street?).

Now if only they would make me a shredded tutu in honor of Degas’s LittleDancer.

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A 1790 self-portrait of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Photo: Galleria degli Uffizi, Corridoio Vasariano, Florence (1905)

by Lynn Yaeger

Source: Vogue

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Marie-Antoinette’s favourite painter

A self portrait by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1790) Photograph: Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy / Bridgeman Images
A self portrait by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1790) Photograph: Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy / Bridgeman Images

Before the sans-culottes had her beheaded, Marie-Antoinette was immortalised by an extraordinary young woman. Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) was good-looking, witty, independent-minded and one of the best portrait painters of her time. An exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris is paying tribute to her work.

Of course her pieces do tend to focus on the “happy few”. Apart from a dozen or so landscapes, including an odd oil painting of farmers in the Bernese Oberland – not working, thank goodness, but partying – it’s all countesses, duchesses, princesses, several queens too, a couple of empresses and about as many tsars.

Surprisingly, this is the first time that Vigée Le Brun has been shown in France. In fact only the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, has ever devoted an exhibition exclusively to her work, and that was back in 1982. Perhaps the prospect of viewing a series of over 150 ancien régime portraits may seem daunting. These days people want to enjoy their art and this event is not really a crowd-pleaser. The upside is that most of the visitors really appreciate fine painting. And Vigée Le Brun was certainly gifted.

Her father Louis Vigée was a well-known portrait artist and he ensured that his daughter made an early start with pastels – a genre in which she excelled. She also studied under Pierre Davesne, Gabriel François Doyen and Claude-Joseph Vernet, as well as attending a drawing school headed by Marie-Rosalie Hallé. In those days there was no question of a woman going to the Académie des Beaux-Arts. It would have been unthinkable for her to work with live models, often male and naked.

It was equally inconceivable to live on her earnings as an artist, as she attempted to do in her teens. Not because her stepfather – her mother having remarried in 1768 – stole her income, but because artists had to belong to a corporation. After being reported for her illegal activities, her studio was placed under lock and seal in 1774. So she gave in and applied to join the Académie de Saint-Luc, which accepted her. She had not yet turned 20 but already had an impressive range of clients.

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To be on the safe side, her mother acted as a chaperone during sittings. If the model started looking at her too closely, she would ask him to turn to one side and direct his gaze upwards. Visitors may find it amusing to keep an eye open for the subjects staring into the middle distance. Among their number are painters Vernet and Hubert Robert.

Ultimately she married yet another painter, Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, in 1775. He was mainly known as an art dealer, with several old masters in stock. His young wife was able to study a Titian, copying one of his Danae series. He took her on a trip to the Netherlands in 1781, where she discovered Rubens, in particular a portrait of Suzanna Lunden wearing a straw hat. It cast a light shade over her face, bringing out the half-tones. She tried this out in a self-portrait, and made it a regular thing.

Le Brun decided the price of her paintings too, steadily pushing them up. Partly because it was his trade, but also – taking a cue from his father-in-law – he soon started pocketing the young artist’s fees. She earned a great deal, particularly after finding favour with the queen. Marie Antoinette was sadly no beauty and could not stand her portraits. Vigée Le Brun found ways of softening her features, in particular the prominent Habsburg chin. Louis XVI was delighted to see his spouse in a new light, telling the artist: “I know nothing about painting, but you have made me like it.”

Le Brun’s portrait entitled Marie-Antoinette and her Children (1787).   Photograph: Gérard Blot/RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles)
Le Brun’s portrait entitled Marie-Antoinette and her Children (1787). Photograph: Gérard Blot/RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles)

The queen enjoyed sitting for her. Vigée Le Brun was lively, talkative and blessed with a fine voice. The two women sang popular songs together. Thanks to her royal patron she was allowed into the Académie de Peinture in 1783. Theoretically it was against the rules, not on grounds of gender – there being about 15 women among the 600 members – but because her husband was a picture dealer, a calling academicians would not allow.

Her familiarity with Marie-Antoinette also attracted hostility. Little-liked from the outset, the “Austrian” had fallen from grace in the eyes of society after the diamond necklace scandal, which was seen as an attempt to defraud the crown. This prompted the painter to try her hand at what can only be described as propaganda, portraying the queen with her children. The commission was quite specific, says Gwenola Firmin, one of the contributors to the exhibition catalogue: the painting must “restore the image of Marie-Antoinette and enhance her respectability by playing up her role as a mother”. Unfortunately visitors to the 1787 Salon soon noticed a large piece of furniture lurking in the shadows. It was a jewellery cabinet, producing quite the wrong effect.

Not only was she friends with unpopular policymakers – she was close to the Comte de Vaudreuil and Charles Alexandre de Calonne, in charge of finance – but she also suffered for her good looks and talent. In a particularly slanderous outburst, the pamphleteer Barthélémy François Joseph Moufle d’Angerville suggested that her paintings were actually the work of François-Guillaume Ménageot. Moreover, he alleged that the latter was her lover.

She spent 13 years in exile, but nevertheless thrived. In Rome she met up with Ménageot, who now headed the Villa Medici and duly found her lodgings. Many of her former clients were there too, still able to pay the stupendous fees she continued to charge for her work. Having left her husband in Paris, the income for once was hers to keep.

In the eyes of European aristocracy she was the portraitist of Marie-Antoinette, a martyr in the cause of nobility, so she was very popular. In Naples she was commissioned to paint the French queen’s sister, Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples and Sicily, and was also commissioned to paint a portrait of composer Giovanni Paisiello. As she had not yet been blacklisted, this work was sent to Paris and was shown at the 1791 Salon. Jacques-Louis David, seeing it hanging near one of his own works, purportedly said: “You’d think my painting had been done by a woman, and her Paisiello by a man.” Apparently this was meant as a compliment.

She travelled, staying in Bologna – where she became a member of the academy – Parma, Florence, Siena, Milan, Mantua and Venice, among other cities, enhancing her understanding of Italian art. She even considered going back to France. But following the massacres of September 1792 and her name being added to the list of renegade emigrés, she lost her civic rights and her property was seized.

Her wanderings continued. In 1793 she went to Austria. Two years later, after crossing Hungary and Germany, she arrived at St Petersburg, where she was presented to Catherine II (the Great). In 1800 she settled in Moscow, before moving back to St Petersburg, then crossing Germany again and finally returning to Paris where her husband had managed to have her name removed from the blacklist.

Here she only stayed for a year, long enough to pay off her husband’s debts, subsequently moving to London. Later she returned to the French capital, then set off for Switzerland. Vigée Le Brun had led a most unusual life for a woman of her time. She died, during the reign of the citizen king Louis Philippe, after painting an apotheosis of Marie-Antoinette, writing and dictating her memoirs, which took her a good 12 years.Her salon was frequented by eminent literary figures such as François-René de Chateaubriand and Honoré de Balzac. She read books by lesser-known authors, such as Victor Hugo, without fully grasping the thrust of their work. Notre Dame de Paris prompted the old lady to say that she no longer belonged in “this century”. Her tomb, at Louveciennes cemetery, near Versailles, bears a particularly appropriate epitaph: “Here at last I rest.”

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun is at the Grand Palais, Paris, until 11 January 2016

Marie-Antoinette, reine de France et ses enfants : un tableau chargé d’Histoire

En 1785, l’image de la reine Marie-Antoinette est dégradée. En pleine affaire du collier, les pamphlets contre « l’autrichienne » pullulent. Cette dernière, pour reconquérir l’opinion du peuple français, commande à son peintre officiel, Madame Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, un portrait la représentant entourée de ses enfants.

Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Marie-Antoinette, reine de France et ses enfants, 1787. Huile sur toile, 275,2 x 216,5 cm. Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Versailles. Raphaël, La Sainte Famille Canigiani, vers 1507-1508. Huile sur bois, 131 x 107 cm. Alte Pinakothek, Munich.
Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Marie-Antoinette, reine de France et ses enfants, 1787. Huile sur toile, 275,2 x 216,5 cm. Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Versailles.
Raphaël, La Sainte Famille Canigiani, vers 1507-1508. Huile sur bois, 131 x 107 cm. Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

C’est un grand défi pour Vigée-Lebrun qui avait toujours peint la reine seule et qui n’avait alors pas l’habitude des portraits de groupe. C’est avec l’aide de Jacques-Louis David, qu’elle choisit de faire un portrait de composition pyramidale à la manière de la Sainte Famille de Raphaël. La reine Marie-Antoinette est représentée avec  ses trois enfants, sa fille Marie-Thérèse, et ses deux fils Louis-Joseph et Louis-Charles (le futur Louis XVII). Il y a aussi un berceau vide, c’est celui de Sophie-Béatrice qui meurt peu de temps après sa naissance, le tableau étant presque terminé, on décide de laisser le berceau vide.

Ce tableau marque un changement dans la communication politique de la reine. Si l’on observe les premiers portraits de la reine par Vigée-Lebrun, on y voit une reine à la mode avec des robes et des bijoux somptueux ou alors la reine en bergère, la frivole du Petit Trianon. Dans ce tableau la reine est sérieuse, sans apparat, elle porte une robe rouge symbole de la royauté. Elle est représentée comme une mère aimante, proche de ses enfants. Elle remplit le rôle que définit Rousseau dans son Emile, ou De L’éducation.

Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun Marie-Antoinette, reine de France dit « à la Rose », 1783. Huile sur toile, 116 x 88,5 cm. Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Versailles. Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun Marie-Antoinette, après 1783. Huile sur toile, 92,7 x 73,1 cm. Collection Timken, National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Marie-Antoinette, reine de France dit « à la Rose », 1783. Huile sur toile, 116 x 88,5 cm. Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Versailles.
Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Marie-Antoinette, après 1783. Huile sur toile, 92,7 x 73,1 cm. Collection Timken, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Quand le tableau est présenté au Salon de 1787, Vigée-Lebrun se souvient : « Ma peur était si forte que j’en avais la fièvre. J’allai me renfermer dans ma chambre, et j’étais là, priant Dieu, pour le succès de ma Famille royale, quand mon frère et une foule d’amis vinrent me dire que j’obtenais le succès général ». C’est un triomphe auprès de la cour mais le peuple n’est pas du même avis. Deux ans plus tard, la Révolution éclate. Le berceau vide de la toile de Vigée-Lebrun était un mauvais présage. Le petit Dauphin meurt lors des Etats généraux en 1789. Marie-Antoinette et ses proches sont contraints de quitter le palais de Versailles. La fuite de Varennes est un échec, on connaît la triste fin du couple royal. Le tout jeune Louis XVII meurt à la prison du Temple en 1795, après trois ans de captivité. Seule Madame Royale survivra. Le même jour que la Reine, Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun prend la fuite avec sa fille Julie. Elle visita l’Italie et surtout la Russie. Elle continua à fréquenter les cours d’Europe. Après 13 ans d’exil, elle rentre en France, Napoléon Ier est alors au pouvoir.

Après la mort du Dauphin, la reine ne supportait plus voir ce tableau dans ses appartements, elle le fit décrocher. C’est ainsi que le tableau ne fut pas détruit pendant la Révolution et, qu’à son retour à Paris Vigée-Lebrun put le voir :

« Sous Bonaparte on avait relégué dans un coin du château de Versailles le grand portrait que j’avais fait de la reine entourée de ses enfants. Je partis un matin de Paris pour le voir. Arrivée à la grille des Princes, un custode me conduisit à la salle qui le renfermait, dont l’entrée était interdite au public, et le gardien qui nous ouvrit la porte, me reconnaissant pour m’avoir vue à Rome, s’écria : Ah! que je suis heureux de recevoir ici madame Lebrun ! Cet homme s’empressa de retourner mon tableau, dont les figurés étaient placées contre le mur, attendu que Bonaparte, apprenant que beaucoup de personnes venaient le voir, avait ordonné qu’on l’enlevât. L’ordre, comme on le voit, était bien mal exécuté, puisque l’on continuait à le montrer, au point que le custode, quand je voulus lui donner quelque chose, me refusa avec obstination, disant que je lui faisais gagner assez d’argent. À la restauration ce tableau fut exposé de nouveau au salon. Il représente Marie-Antoinette ayant près d’elle le premier dauphin, Madame, et tenant sur ses genoux le jeune duc de Normandie. »

Pour découvrir ce tableau, rendez-vous à l’exposition du Grand Palais à Paris, grande rétrospective sur l’œuvre de Vigée-Lebrun, du 23 septembre 2015 au 11 janvier 2016.  Et surtout, procurez-vous au plus vite l’ouvrage publié par les éditions Parkstone !

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HIER SOIR À PARIS… VIGÉE-LEBRUN, UNE EXPOSITION GRAND CHIC

Si vous avez une fille ou un fils à marier, emmenez-les séance tenante à l’exposition Vigée-Lebrun au Grand Palais. Aucun des publics habituels n’était à son inauguration. Ni ministre, ni amateur à l’allure « artiste ». Tout le carnet Mondain du Figaro, en revanche, s’y était donné rendez-vous. Les hommes s’appelaient Louis et leurs épouses Adélaïde. On était au-delà du chic. Des effluves de Guerlain flottaient en plein Vatican bourgeois.

C’est simple : tous les exilés de Bruxelles semblent être venus passer la soirée à Paris. Mieux : on aurait dit que les modèles étaient descendus des tableaux pour rejoindre leurs familles dans la salle. L’accent XVI° (l’arrondissement) régnait, des voix rassurantes sans aucune intonation banlieue, gaies et joyeuses comme dans un rallye. Les cartons d’invitation envoyés par le musée allaient de De… à Du…, de La Rochefoucauld à Du Barry en passant par les Polignac.

VIGÉE-LEBRUN AVAIT INVENTÉ PHOTOSHOP AVANT PHOTOSHOP

Autoportrait d'Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun. The State Hermitage Museum / Vladimir Terebenin, Leonard Kheifets, Yuri Molodkovets, Svetlana Suetova, Konstantin Sinyavsky
Autoportrait d’Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun.
The State Hermitage Museum / Vladimir Terebenin, Leonard Kheifets, Yuri Molodkovets, Svetlana Suetova, Konstantin Sinyavsky

Pas d’inquiétude : les œuvres ont beaucoup plu. Au fond, c’était des tableaux de famille du temps où les ancêtres partaient se réfugier à Coblence. Vigée-Lebrun ayant souvent peint Marie-Antoinette, toute la Cour, puis toute la ville, ont défilé devant son chevalet. Le charme de l’époque passe en entier dans ses poses fleuries. On se croirait au Hameau de la Reine. L’atmosphère est celle des « Liaisons Dangereuses ». Des courtisanes et des femmes du monde suprêmement civilisées nous sourient sans rien voir de la misère où baignent les temps. Toutes sont ravissantes.

Vigée-Lebrun ménageait sa clientèle. Elle avait inventé Photoshop avant Photoshop pour embellir ses modèles. A Paris jusqu’en 1790, puis en Italie, en Autriche, en Russie où elle voyage pendant que les Jacobins épouvantent la capitale, partout elle s’en tient à un art idéal et à des clientes idéalisées. Rien à voir avec la virilité martiale des néo-classiques et de son contemporain David. Avec elle, on est dans le sérail de l’Europe, chez les femmes qui « tiennent » la société en douceur.

Les années passent, puis le siècle, et les régimes se succèdent sans que Vigée-Lebrun change rien à son style. De 1780 à 1840, elle reste fidèle à elle-même. Observer son évolution, ce serait regardé pousser l’herbe. Rien ne change jamais. C’est joli mais un peu ennuyeux. Comme son exposition décevante mais suprêmement élégante.

by Gilles Martin-Chauffier

Source: Paris Match

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Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun, the Movie

« Le film Louise Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun »

Documentaire 2 x 52 minutes, de Arnaud Xainte. Diffusion Arte. Outre l’image de peintre officielle et proche de la reine Marie-Antoinette que nous avons tendance à seule retenir avec celle de la représentation picturale d’une “certaine douceur” de vivre de cette fin de XVIIIe siècle, qui se cache derrière ces visages féminins trop lisses, trop roses, aux doux sourires esquissées ? Née en 1755 et morte en 1842, c’est sans doute grâce à cette exceptionnelle longévité que Louise Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun aura le temps de vivre ses différentes existences. Née sous le règne de Louis XV, elle connut les prémices de la révolution, vécut sous l’empire, la restauration et la monarchie de juillet, fut fêtée dans les plus grandes cours d’Europe et gagna outre la postérité, les cachets parmi les plus élevés de son temps. Son exil pendant la révolution nous conduira en Suisse, en Italien, en Autriche, en Russie et en Angleterre dans les musées et les collections privées où nous découvrirons les portraits des femmes et des hommes les plus influents des cours Européennes de l’époque.

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