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

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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New App Allows You to Optimize Art History’s Classic Self-Portraits for the Selfie Age

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self-Portrait, 1790, Uffizi Gallery.
Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, 1659, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, 1659, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

If you’re a selfie aficionado, you’ll already know that there are selfie-enhancing apps like CamMe, Perfect365, #Selfie, Facetune, and Makeup. You can alter your eye color, narrow your face, crank up your smile, add blush, lighten your skin, and even add luscious blond locks.

But how do the classics of art historical self-portraiture benefit from a nip here, a tuck there, and a new hairdo? We submitted some of them to the Perfect365 treatment.

Rembrandt van Rijn, above, is known perhaps as much for his searching self-portraits as for his history painting and Biblical scenes. Here, he’s brightened his eyes and put on a little lipstick.

Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait,; c. 1630, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait,;
c. 1630, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Rembrandt’s countrywoman, Judith Leyster, was that very rare figure: a female artist in the 17th century. She was just 19 when her contemporaries started to notice her talent. She’s perked up her look, which concealed her hair, with a stylish red wig that gives her a punk edge.

Parmigianino, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, c. 1624, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
Parmigianino, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, c. 1624, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Parmigianino’s small Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror may have served as a way to demonstrate his talent to potential patrons. Here, he puts his best foot forward with some striking lips and lids.

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Self portrait?), 1433, National Gallery, London.
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Self portrait?), 1433, National Gallery, London.

It’s not altogether certain that this painting is a self-portrait by Jan van Eyck, but in any event, the severe-looking man staring out from this panel has softened his appearance by brightening up his eyes and adding some pink to fill out his narrow lips.

Hannah Wilke, S.O.S. Starification Object Series, 1974-82.
Hannah Wilke, S.O.S. Starification Object Series, 1974-82.

One of art history’s great feminist artists, Hannah Wilke examined conventional ideas about beauty and femininity. In her S.o.S. Starification Series, she covered herself in vulva-shaped pieces of chewing gum, making the viewer look twice at the typical objectified female form. Here, the black-and-white image gives way to a bit more color.

Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait with Arm Twisting above Head, 1910.
Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait with Arm Twisting above Head, 1910.

Egon Schiele’s self-portraits, and his portrayals of his lovers, got pretty steamy at times. Here, he spices things up a bit by adding a duckface, lipstick and blush, and a wig that bursts off the page. Hedwig would be proud.

Horace Pippin, Self-Portrait, 1944, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Horace Pippin, Self-Portrait, 1944, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

After sustaining an injury to his arm during World War I, untrained artist Horace Pippin took up art-making as physical therapy. In this self-portrait, one of just two that he painted, he glams it up with some pink lipstick.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin
Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin

Frida Kahlo transmuted a painful life into captivating self-portraits that are emblematic of suffering with attributes like a necklace of thorns. In this work, we’ve brightened things up, narrowed her face, put on some lipstick, and added a slight, knowing smile.

Gustave Courbet, Self-Portrait (The Desperate Man), c. 1843-45.
Gustave Courbet, Self-Portrait (The Desperate Man), c. 1843-45.

Artists have often used their own faces and bodies as the place to test out poses and expressions—as Cindy Sherman will tell you, the artist is the cheapest model around. In his self-portrait as a desperate man,Gustave Courbet hammed it up, tore at his hair, and sent his eyebrows to the sky. Here, sporting a smile and pretty blue eyes, he looks a lot less desperate.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self-Portrait, 1790, Uffizi Gallery.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self-Portrait, 1790, Uffizi Gallery.

A popular contemporary of Marie Antoinette, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was one of the few highly sought-after female artists admitted to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, and exhibited frequently at the Salon. The artist had a very natural look in her self-portrait, so here, she’s really amped up the femininity.