Famous 18th-century portraitist gets her due in sumptuous Ottawa exhibit

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.”

Élisabeth Louise Vigée LeBrun Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbons, c. 1782. Oil on canvas, 64.8 x 54 cm Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée LeBrun, Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbons, c. 1782. Oil on canvas, 64.8 x 54 cm Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.

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.

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Peace Bringing Back Abundance, 1780, the history painting she submitted for admission to the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, Oil on canvas, 102 x 133 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Peintures

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.”

Marie Antoinette and Her Children, 1787, Le Brun's most important commission and intended to restore the queen's reputation, which it did not. Oil on canvas, 275 x 216.5 cm. Musee National des Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon, France (MV 4520). © RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY.
Marie Antoinette and Her Children, 1787, Le Brun’s most important commission and intended to restore the queen’s reputation, which it did not. Oil on canvas, 275 x 216.5 cm. Musee National des Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon, France (MV 4520). © RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY.

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.”

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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.

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

Source: LOCALXPRESS.CA

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Vigée Le Brun exhibit to bring faces of French aristocracy to Ottawa

‘She’s probably the most important woman artist France ever produced,’ says curator.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) Woman Artist in Revolutionary France opens on Feb. 15 in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art. (CBC)
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) Woman Artist in Revolutionary France opens on Feb. 15 in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. (CBC)

She was the favourite painter of Marie-Antoinette, and other members of the French royal court, capturing the last vestiges of a gilded age before the revolution.

Once the most celebrated woman artist in Europe in her time, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s reputation gradually faded from the history of art.

A major traveling retrospective is hoping to change that.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) Woman Artist in Revolutionary France was originally mounted in the Grande Palais in Paris — now it is set to open at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, on Monday, Feb. 15.

Exhibit traveling to Ottawa in June

A self-portrait by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842). ( Galleria degli Uffizi, Corridoio Vasariano, Florence (1905))
A self-portrait by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842). ( Galleria degli Uffizi, Corridoio Vasariano, Florence (1905))

Following that, it will move to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa in June. Many of the paintings have never left France before.

“She got short shrift in the great histories of 18th century painting,” said Joseph Baillio, curator of the exhibition, “Great women artists were not recognized for what they were.”

Baillio was speaking at the media preview for the exhibition in New York.

“She is probably the most important woman artist that France ever produced. She’s not a well known painter because most of her pictures were in private collections. She was only rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century,” said Baillio.

“A painter like Renoir would not have known of her, but he would have loved her,” he said.

‘An extraordinary technician… a magnificent colourist’

Vigée Le Brun painted more than 600 portraits, lush, warmly coloured, intimate reflections of European aristocracy.

She fled France for Italy during the French Revolution, where she continued to capture the faces of nobility.

Baillio says Ottawa art lovers are in for a treat.

“This show is going to show her at her finest. You get some really splendid examples and when they are in perfect condition you can see what an extraordinary technician she was….

“[She was] also the greatest colourist with [French painter Jean-Honoré] Fragonard at the end of the 18th century. She was a magnificent colourist.”

The retrospective of Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) runs at the National Gallery of Canada from June 10, 2016 to Sept. 11, 2016.

by Sandra Abma

source: CBC News

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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

La Russie comme seconde patrie

Autoportrait au chapeau de paille (après 1782), Londres, National Gallery. Crédit : Nationalgallery.org.uk

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun illustre parfaitement la maxime cornélienne selon laquelle la valeur n’attend pas le nombre des années – encore qu’il faille ici donner au mot valeur son sens actuel. Après la mort de son père, le pastelliste Louis Vigée, la jeune Élisabeth poursuit ses études auprès d’amis du peintre et, dès 14 ans, réalise des portraits de commande. Elle acquiert rapidement une clientèle parmi les aristocrates et se voit vite baptisée « peintre de la beauté et son incarnation ». Elle doit le tournant décisif de sa carrière à Marie-Antoinette qui fait d’elle sa « première portraitiste ».

Le succès dure plusieurs années. Survient la Révolution. L’artiste est contrainte de s’exiler avec sa fille Julie. Elle vit alors à Rome, Naples et Vienne. Ses espoirs de retour rapide en France s’évaporent et, en 1795, Élisabeth part pour Saint-Pétersbourg, séduite par les rumeurs du règne éclairé de l’impératrice Catherine la Grande. Dans ses mémoires, rédigés bien plus tard, en 1835, l’artiste avoue : « J’ai supposé judicieusement que même un court séjour en Russie me permettrait de reconstituer mon capital ». Son séjour s’avère franchement prolongé : elle passe sept ans et demi de sa vie en Russie.

À la conquête de Saint-Pétersbourg

L’artiste est fascinée par Saint-Pétersbourg dès le premier jour, et la ville semblait être tout autant éprise d’elle. Le luxe de la vie aristocratique y allait au-delà de ce qu’elle avait connu dans les autres capitales européennes. La « Parisienne russe » est reçue à la cour et par les meilleures familles comme une égale, sans la moindre allusion à ses modestes origines.

Portrait de la grande duchesse Élisabeth Alexeïevna (1795), Saint-Pétersbourg, Musée de l’Ermitage.. Crédit : V.Terebenine , L.Heïfets/Musée d’État de l’Ermitage, Saint-Pétersbourg, 2015

Élisabeth noue rapidement des relations avec le grand monde, dont les membres de la famille impériale et est même reçue par Catherine la Grande en personne sans en avoir fait la demande. Mais c’est de la grande-duchesse Élisabeth Alexeïevna, épouse du futur empereur Alexandre 1er, que l’artiste est particulièrement proche.

Les portraits de Vigée Le Brun se distinguent par leur volonté d’éviter les poses trop solennelles et les habits officiels. Cette qualité se manifeste déjà à Paris où, peu avant la Révolution, Élisabeth jouissait d’une réputation d’arbitre des élégances. À Saint-Pétersbourg, sa tendance à vêtir les dames de la cour de tuniques amples et de dénouer leurs cheveux à sa guise était parfois perçue comme un affront à la décence, mais de telles réactions étaient rares. Les aristocrates russes laissaient volontiers l’artiste expérimenter avec leur physique. Elle était, bien entendu, beaucoup plus réservée avec les hommes nobles, ce qui ne l’empêchait pas de se faire une renommée de portraitiste à la mode dans la gente masculine également. Les commandes pleuvaient. Son entrée à l’Académie impériale des arts peut être considérée comme l’apothéose de son séjour en Russie. On peut dire que la « période russe » coïncide avec sa véritable maturité artistique.

Témoin de son époque

À l’époque, à Saint-Pétersbourg comme à Moscou, il était de bon ton de commander des portraits à des artistes étrangers. Pourtant, cette mode touchait à sa fin : des noms russes synonymes de talent faisaient leur apparition sur la scène artistique du pays – Fedor Rokotov, Dmitri Levitski, Vladimir Borovikovski. Vigée Le Brun a exercé une influence évidente sur ce dernier, ainsi que sur plusieurs autres jeunes portraitistes russes : c’est elle qui définit le plus clairement la transition en douceur du sentimentalisme au préromantisme dans la peinture de portrait. Autrement dit, outre son succès en tant qu’artiste invitée, elle a laissé sa marque dans l’histoire de la peinture russe. Sans oublier que la galerie de portraits qu’elle a créée est également un témoignage historique de la portraiture à la période charnière qui chevauche les XVIIIème et XIXème siècles.

Les sept années et demie qu’Élisabeth passa à Saint-Pétersbourg et à Moscou eurent leur lot de joies, mais aussi de troubles (le plus dramatique étant la discorde et la rupture quasi-totale avec sa fille Julie qui se maria contre la volonté de sa mère). Néanmoins, son expérience de la vie en Russie reste très positive.

Portrait du baron Grigori Stroganov (1793), Saint-Pétersbourg, Musée de l’Ermitage. Crédit : V.Terebenine, L.Heïfets/Musée d’État de l’Ermitage, Saint-Pétersbourg, 2015

Dans ses mémoires, Vigée Le Brun raconte cette histoire : en passant un matin à cheval, Alexandre 1er, récemment couronné, s’arrête près de son coupé et entame une conversation amicale. Le lendemain, il lui demande par un intermédiaire de peindre son portrait. En apprenant que le séjour d’Élisabeth en Russie touche à sa fin, Alexandre et son épouse lui font promettre de revenir. Des décennies plus tard, cette promesse non tenue la tourmente encore : « Lorsque j’ai traversé la frontière russe, j’ai fondu en larmes. J’avais envie de faire demi-tour et je me suis juré que je reviendrais auprès de ceux qui m’ont entourée si longtemps de leur amitié et de leurs soins et dont la mémoire restera à jamais dans mon cœur. Mais le destin ne m’a pas permis de revoir le pays qu’à ce jour j’appelle ma seconde patrie ».

​La « période russe » d’Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun a officiellement produit une cinquantaine de portraits – mais ils sont sans doute plus nombreux. Certains tableaux ont disparu dans les révolutions et les guerres du XXème siècle ; quelques portraits de famille ont été emportés par les nobles émigrés qu’elle avait peints et leur destin reste inconnu. Mais les œuvres restantes sont conservées dans les collections nationales russes, principalement à l’Ermitage et au Musée russe de Saint-Pétersbourg ainsi qu’au Musée des beaux-arts Pouchkine à Moscou.

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Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun – La Reine du selfie

Celle qui fut la portraitiste de Marie-Antoinette s’est également beaucoup représentée. Aujourd’hui, elle serait sur Instagram, elle twitterait et disputerait le titre de “Reine du selfie” à Rihanna, Kim Kardashian ou Rania de Jordanie…

 © Paris, musée du Louvre, département des Sculptures - 1783
© Paris, musée du Louvre, département des Sculptures – 1783

De toutes les femmes artistes qui s’illustrèrent dans la France du XVIIIe siècle, seule Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun est aujourd’hui encore un peu connue du grand public. Non seulement, on associe son nom aux portraits de Marie-Antoinette, et peut-être aussi au célèbre tableau du Louvre où elle s’est représentée avec sa fille, mais l’artiste est également restée dans les esprits comme une femme d’une grande beauté.

Tout au long de sa carrière, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun n’a pas hésité à se peindre. Soulignant sa beauté, ses ambitions et son ascension sociale et professionnelle, ses nombreux autoportraits ont ainsi ajouté à sa renommée, de son vivant comme après sa disparition. Par ailleurs, la portraitiste a également été représentée par d’autres, en particulier le sculpteur Augustin Pajou, qui a fait d’elle un chef-d’oeuvre en terre cuite présenté en 1783 au Salon de l’Académie royale, l’année même au cours de laquelle Mme Vigée Le Brun était admise au sein de cette prestigieuse institution.

Vigée Le Brun utilise l’autoportrait pour affirmer son statut, diffuser son image et mais aussi rappeler la mère qu’elle est parvenue à devenir malgré les servitudes d’une carrière. Son plus grand coup de force à cet égard est de présenter au Salon de 1787 deux peintures qui restent associées et qui sont sans doute les plus connues. D’un côté, le portrait de Marie-Antoinette entourée de ses enfants ; de l’autre, le portrait d’une femme artiste serrant contre sa poitrine sa fille Julie.

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