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



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.

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.”

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



Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun est la définition même de l’artiste victime de son succès. Peintre favorite de Marie-Antoinette, elle doit fuir Paris dans la nuit du 5 octobre 1789, au même moment où la famille royale est conduite de force dans la capitale. C’est la fin du faste héliocentrique de Versailles, et ainsi, de l’illustre position de madame Lebrun au sein de la cour de France. Mais si sa réputation de proche de la reine la plus impopulaire de l’histoire lui ferme les portes d’un royaume, sa renommée d’artiste lui en ouvre bien d’autres. Son exil hors du royaume de France sera long, quoique certes pas des plus déplaisants puisqu’elle sera reçue avec tous les honneurs à la cour de Catherine II de Russie, en Italie, en Angleterre ou encore en Autriche.


Célébrée pour sa beauté et son esprit avant que la Révolution ne la chasse, c’est toutefois ses talents de portraitiste qui achèvent de lui assurer une situation à la cour. Elle est tout particulièrement vantée pour ses portraits féminins, tant ses toiles qui toujours restent au plus près du naturel apparaissent douces et personnelles, et surtout flatteuses pour le modèle. Ses portraits ne sont guère conventionnels, et cette représentation de Marie-Antoinette vêtue d’une chemise de coton, ou cette autre où elle la peint en présence de ses enfants, ne manquent pas de faire froncer les sourcils : la reine n’est pas une femme en négligé ou une mère ; la reine est la reine ! Sa virtuosité lui vaudra néanmoins une place à l’Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture et une véritable reconnaissance de ses talents dans un monde d’homme où la femme reste généralement cantonnée au rôle de modèle.

Plus de 90 œuvres de Vigée-Lebrun sont actuellement visibles pour la première fois au Canada, à la National Gallery d’Ottawa, jusqu’au 11 septembre 2016. Quant aux œuvres que vous n’y trouverez pas, cherchez-les dans Vigée-Lebrun dans la collection Mega Square, chez Parkstone International.

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.

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

by Lynn Yaeger

Source: Vogue


La Russie comme seconde patrie

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

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.

Droits réservés

Vigée Le Brun, madame rêve

Le Grand Palais consacre une belle rétrospective à celle qui fut la portraitiste préférée de Marie-Antoinette avant de devenir celle de la plupart des grandes cours d’Europe.


Ce peintre souffre d’un triple handicap. Et il fallait bien le Grand Palais pour redresser l’image. Primo: Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) a servi de caution féminine à l’histoire de l’art. Quand elle est mentionnée, c’est surtout comme un caractère ayant eu le courage de s’imposer dans un milieu masculin. Secundo: ayant traversé les temps agités, du crépuscule de l’Ancien Régime au règne de Louis-Philippe, Vigée a écrit. Beaucoup. Au soir de sa vie, ses Souvenirs étaient devenus très épais. Ils constituent aujourd’hui une source de première main sur les cours et les salons d’Europe dans laquelle les historiens puisent à plaisir. Mais, du coup, voilà notre dame réduite à son rôle de grand témoin; d’abord chroniqueuse avant que d’être peintre. Tertio: quand Vigée est tout de même étudiée comme telle, on évoque essentiellement ses premiers succès. Ceux qui la conduisent à devenir la portraitiste préférée de Marie-Antoinette. Or la majeure partie de sa production est postérieure à 1789. L’exposition décline cette dernière au premier étage du Grand Palais, après avoir rappelé au rez-de-chaussée la formation, les amis, les concurrents (et aussi les concurrentes!), l’établissement à l’Académie et à Versailles, enfin la gloire, notamment acquise comme reine de la mode puis comme maître des scènes de tendresse maternelle.

Digne de Chardin

On découvre alors une artiste qui connaît parfaitement ses classiques, qui traite les carnations avec l’ambition d’un Rubens (dont elle se rêvait la compagne) ou d’un Van Dyck, qui joue parfaitement du langage de la couleur, qui s’attache à la précision des matières et à la vivacité des étoffes avec le soin des génies romains, vénitiens ou bolognais. Enfin, Vigée excelle dans l’art délicat d’enjoliver sans que cela se voie. Ses modèles ne sont jamais trahis par un excès de tricheries. Toutefois, celles-ci existent.

Cette science infuse de la grâce, sans doute l’a-t-elle acquise également à l’étude de Raphaël. Au Grand Palais, alors qu’on ignore l’identité de la majorité des modèles, les portraits émeuvent. Le sourire d’une bouche pulpeuse découvrant volontiers ses dents, un regard pétillant, sérieux ou rêveur, la superficialité en réalité très travaillée des chapeaux ou des rubans à la mode, tout, jusqu’à ce sang bleuté qui semble circuler sous les peaux laiteuses, concourt à un sentiment de fraîcheur, de délicatesse et de liberté sensuelle. Tant chez les hommes que chez les femmes. Et, par-dessus tout, chez les enfants. À commencer par ses plus proches: son frère cadet, Étienne, et sa fille unique, Julie. Le premier, Vigée le peint alors qu’elle n’a que 14 ans. Voilà d’emblée un chef-d’œuvre digne de Chardin. Campé de trois quarts, coiffé d’un tricorne et muni de son matériel de dessinateur, Étienne nous fixe avec une fierté d’adulte seulement démentie par ses joues roses. Ironie de l’histoire, à la Révolution, il deviendra membre du Comité de nationalisation des biens du clergé. Autant dire un ennemi pour Vigée la monarchiste. De son côté, Julie, qu’on découvre en bébé aux grands yeux, lovée dans un giron maternel rayonnant, se métamorphose en Vénus adolescente (Rubens encore). Sa mine mélancolique prélude aux pires orages. Ils ne manqueront pas et la rupture sera vécue comme un échec par Vigée. Le seul peut-être d’une carrière et d’une vie en tous points exceptionnelles.

by Eric Bietry-Rivierre

Source: Le Figaro


Norton Simon Museum exhibit explores impact of the first synthetic blues on French painters

“The Seine at Charenton” by Jean-Baptiste Armand Guilaumin in the exhibit, “A Revolution of the Palette: The First Synthetic Blues and Their Impact on French Artists,” at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena July 17-Jan 4. Photo courtesy of the Norton Simon Museum.
“The Seine at Charenton” by Jean-Baptiste Armand Guilaumin in the exhibit, “A Revolution of the Palette: The First Synthetic Blues and Their Impact on French Artists,” at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena July 17-Jan 4. Photo courtesy of the Norton Simon Museum.

Think of a color. Any tone you imagine can be found in the form of paint at your local art supply or hardware store, but this wasn’t always the case. It took the discovery of true blue to change things.

“Ancient Romans would have vied for the chance to dye their robes a certain color purple or to achieve a particular pure, sometimes called a true blue, the blue that we see in the ocean or the sky. To re-create that on a painting or any kind of object was so far out of reach that it’s something we can’t relate to now,” said John Griswold, Norton Simon Museumconservator.

Griswold is curator of “A Revolution of the Palette: The First Synthetic Blues and Their Impact on French Artists,” which opens at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena on July 17.

The story of true blue starts in Berlin in 1704 when a colorman (a person who made and sold colors to artists and textile dyers) was borrowing laboratory space from an alchemist in Berlin, Griswold said. The alchemist was creating “animal oil” for the king. His “cure-all” tonic was made with a mixture of ingredients, including blood and potash. The colorman borrowed some potash without knowing it had been contaminated with blood and added it to the blend, which he left overnight in his distiller. The next morning he returned to the lab expecting to see a red hue, but instead the mixture had made the vivid color we now call Prussian blue.

“Prussian blue was cheap. It was super strong in its ability to tint oil paint. If you added white to it or any other color it wasn’t just blue, you had a whole new range of greens available. You could modify whites or yellow to have a different kind of harmony. It opened up all these possibilities,” Griswold said.

Prussian blue allowed artists to also paint ala prima (wet on wet), using thicker paint, leaving their brushstrokes on the finished pieces.

“(‘A Revolution of the Palette’) all began with the paintings talking to me, certainly under the microscope, looking at the brushstrokes and recognizing the pigments and ‘Oh, this is the earliest, most crude version of Prussian blue, the homemade stuff,’ ” Griswold said.

“That’s what this exhibition does, it tells this story and it just gets more amazing because these two other blues (synthetic or French ultramarine and cobalt blue) appeared at the right time that really propelled things toward impressionism.”

Griswold’s favorite painting in the exhibit is the 1793 “Portrait of Theresa, Countess Kinsky” by Marie-Louise-Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun. In it, the countess poses in a flowing, deep blue satin dress with a soft blue sky behind her.

“That dress she is wearing and the sky behind her would have been impossible without Prussian blue,” Griswold said.

"Happy Lovers" by Jean-Honore Fragonard in the exhibit, “Fragonard’s Enterprise: The Artist and the Literature of Travel,” at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena July 17-Jan. 4. Photo courtesy of the Norton Simon Museum.
“Happy Lovers” by Jean-Honore Fragonard in the exhibit, “Fragonard’s Enterprise: The Artist and the Literature of Travel,” at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena July 17-Jan. 4. Photo courtesy of the Norton Simon Museum.

For even more perspective on Prussian blue’s importance, visitors can view a detail from the painting “Self Portrait in a Straw Hat” by Vigee-LeBrun. It shows a close-up of the palette Vigee-LeBrun holds in the piece with the dabs of the paints she needed to begin her work. The paints are all earth tones, traditionally used by artists to create the base of their pictures, except next to her splotch of white is a large blob of Prussian blue.

“For that to be right there, so ready for her to use it, that really underscored to me how an artist at that time would have used a little tiny bit of Prussian blue to modify the tones of the greens in the background,” Griswold said.

Another part of the exhibit is the invention of oil paint in a tube in 1841. With a proper storage container, standards for colors could be set and artists could now request hues by name from their vendor. Plus, paint in a tube was easily portable.

“The Seine at Charenton” by Jean-Baptiste Armand Guillaumin is a plein air work with dashes of blues in the sky, water and even pathways, which wouldn’t have been possible prior to paint tubes, Griswold said.

And Prussian blue is still changing the world today, as the properties used to create it are currently used in medical research and as an antidote to certain types of radiation sickness, Griswold said.

The Huntington has also loaned the museum books to display by Isaac Newton and Voltaire that examine the changing theories on light and color.

“It’s an exciting exhibition and I think that it’s really great. As John said, these are old friends that we are examining from a scientific perspective,” said Leslie Denk, the museum’s director of public affairs.

“Fragonard’s Enterprise: The Artist and the Literature of Travel,” 60 drawings created by French artist Jean-Honore Fragonard during his first stay in Italy during the mid-18th century, also will be on exhibit at the Norton Simon Museum beginning July 17.

by Michelle Mills

Source: San Gabriel Valley Tribune