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





En 1783, Vigée-Lebrun peint un portrait de Marie-Antoinette beaucoup plus simple, sans doute conforme aux tenues que la jeune souveraine privilégiait à Trianon, libérée de l’étiquette. Marie-Antoinette apparaît en gaulle ! Comprenez qu’elle est vêtue d’une robe de mousseline, simple et légère comme une chemise. La tenue est complétée par un chapeau de paille et la jeune femme semble saisie sur le vif, presque à son insu, composant un bouquet de roses ! Scandale lorsque la toile est exposée ! On s’écrie qu’une femme de chambre ne serait pas habillée autrement. Scandale certes, mais accompagné d’un grand succès car chacun veut avoir son portrait par Vigée Lebrun dont les finances deviennent florissantes.

D’après Vigée Lebrun, Marie-Antoinette, 1783, huile sur toile (93 x 73 cm), National Gallery of Art, Washington

Toujours est-il que le tableau est retiré et qu’un nouveau portrait est exécuté. La reine choisit cette fois une robe de soie et de dentelle, elle est parée de ses perles et munie d’un chapeau décent !

Ces deux dernières toiles sont donc deux représentations opposées de la reine, jeune femme avide de liberté ou princesse majestueuse, mais remarquez leur ressemblance : la composition est la même : mêmes positions du corps, du visage, du bras. Et même petit bouquet de roses que la reine est en train de nouer du même ruban. Malgré ces ressemblances, la portée des deux portraits est bien différente et le public et la cour sont soulagés de retrouver une souveraine royale et conforme à l’étiquette. Ouf, la morale est sauve et la monarchie garde la tête sur les épaules, au moins pour quelques années encore …

Vigée Lebrun, Marie-Antoinette à la rose, 1783, huile sur toile (113 x 87 cm), château de Versailles
Vigée Lebrun, Marie-Antoinette à la rose, 1783, huile sur toile (113 x 87 cm), château de Versailles

Source: Les humeurs de Sophie


French Revolutionary Artist Vigee Le Brun Reigns Supreme at the Met


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.


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.)


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.


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


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 mode, la mode, la mode

Portrait de Marie-Antoinette vers 1776 par Jean-Marie Ribou - A droite en haut: portrait de Marie-Antoinette par Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun en 1778. A droite en bas: chaussures ayant appartenu à la reine Marie-Antoinette, vendues aux enchères à Drouot à Pris en 2012 © RMN-Grand Palais/Domaine de Chantilly/Thierry Ollivier - The Art Archive / Musée du Château de Versailles / Gianni Dagli Orti - KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / AFP
Portrait de Marie-Antoinette vers 1776 par Jean-Marie Ribou – A droite en haut: portrait de Marie-Antoinette par Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun en 1778. A droite en bas: chaussures ayant appartenu à la reine Marie-Antoinette, vendues aux enchères à Drouot à Pris en 2012 © RMN-Grand Palais/Domaine de Chantilly/Thierry Ollivier – The Art Archive / Musée du Château de Versailles / Gianni Dagli Orti – KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

En ce mois de décembre, le Royal Blog de Paris Match termine sa série qui vous propose de mieux connaître la reine Marie-Antoinette. Quatrième et dernier épisode: Marie-Antoinette, une vraie fashionista qui lance les modes dans la seconde moitié du XVIIIe siècle.


«La jeune reine n’est pas à la mode, elle est la mode». Dans son livre-coffret «Un jour avec Marie-Antoinette», publié en octobre dernier aux éditions Flammarion, Hélène Delalex, attachée de conservation du patrimoine au château de Versailles, en charge de la Galerie des carrosses, est formelle. «Ses goûts affirmés et toujours dans l’air du temps, comme son audace à arborer les créations d’«avant-garde», font d’elle une icône de la mode: à la Cour, à Paris, toutes les femmes essayent de lui ressembler», explique-t-elle au sujet de l’épouse du roi Louis XVI.


Portrait de Marie-Antoinette par Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun en 1778 The Art Archive / Musée du Château de Versailles / Gianni Dagli Orti
Portrait de Marie-Antoinette par Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun en 1778 The Art Archive / Musée du Château de Versailles / Gianni Dagli Orti

Habilement conseillée par sa modiste Rose Bertin, Marie-Antoinette dépense sans compter pour enjoliver ses toilettes. «La représentation est pour elle une ivresse et rien n’est jamais trop beau pour éblouir l’assemblée à chacune de ses apparitions», souligne Hélène Delalex. Celle-ci signale que trois fois par an, à chaque saison, la garde-robe de la reine s’enrichit de 36 nouvelles tenues, réparties en trois ensembles. Soit «douze «grands habits» pour les grandes circonstances, douze «robes riches sur grand panier», et douze «petites robes de fantaisie» pour les après-midi et les petits soupers. À cela s’ajoutent les robes particulières, habits de grossesse et costumes d’amazone pour la chasse…».

Si l’on imagine généralement Marie-Antoinette vêtue de ses somptueuses robes à paniers richement ornées de bijoux, rubans et autres guirlandes de fleurs brodées, la jeune femme privilégiait aussi des tenues plus confortables. «Le port du grand habit de Cour constituait une véritable épreuve physique pour les femmes, raconte l’historienne de l’art. Aussi, vers 1780, Marie-Antoinette préconise de ne le porter qu’exceptionnellement. Il est remplacé par la robe à française caractérisée par son dos flottant formé de plis amples partant sous l’encolure et dégageant la taille, plus souple et confortable.»


La reine va même plus loin. «Dans son Petit Trianon, Marie-Antoinette adopte un style très en vogue. Les robes à l’anglaise, dites «en chemise» ou «en gaulle», réalisées dans une seule pièce de linon ou de mousseline de coton», indique Hélène Delalex. Retenues par de larges rubans noués dans le dos, celles-ci sont portées, les cheveux détachés, avec de grands chapeaux de paille piqués de fleurs. Un look qui était, bien évidemment, plus facile de copier que les traditionnelles robes de Cour. «Ces «robes à la reine», bientôt imitées par le Tout-Paris, rapprochent dangereusement l’image de Marie-Antoinette de celle des actrices, et abolissent la distinction ancestrale entre la reine et ses sujets, une distinction qui passait aussi par la richesse du costume», analyse-t-elle.

Si Marie-Antoinette, qui se plait à jouer à la bergère avec ses enfants dans son Petit Trianon à Versailles, apprécie la modernité et la liberté de ce type de tenue en cette fin du XVIIIe siècle où Jean-Jacques Rousseau prône le retour à la nature, l’image que renvoie la reine choque l’opinion. D’ailleurs, le portrait de «Marie-Antoinette en chemise» qu’Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun expose en 1783 fait scandale. On trouve que l’épouse du souverain se montre en «négligé», dans son intimité. Heureusement que sa mère, la très stricte Marie-Thérèse d’Autriche, était morte depuis trois ans. Sans doute aurait-elle été horrifiée de voir sa fille ainsi figurée, même si, quelques années auparavant, elle lui conseillait davantage de simplicité. Mais c’était alors de coiffure dont il s’agissait.


Hélène Delalex narre qu’à son arrivée à la cour de France, la toute jeune Marie-Antoinette adopte avec le plus grand bonheur la très excentrique mode des «poufs» qui lui permet d’orner sa chevelure des décorations les plus variées. Et de rappeler que sous ce nom se cachaient des «sortes de coussins gonflés de crin, gazes et faux cheveux sur lesquels sont accrochés les objets les plus extraordinaires: cornes d’abondance, oiseaux exotiques, jardins et prairies, petites scènes de théâtre, mappemondes, navire sur des flots agités… À ces ornements, il fallait encore ajouter les rubans, fleurs, nattes et boudins en cheveux, le tout surmonté d’une touffe de plumes.»

Un look qui accable la mère de la reine. Ayant appris, en 1775, que Marie-Antoinette arborait une coiffure de 87,5 cm de hauteur, Marie-Thérèse prend sa plume. «Vous savez que j’étais toujours d’opinion de suivre les modes modérément, mais de ne jamais les outrer. Une jeune jolie reine, pleine d’agréments n’a pas besoin de toutes ces folies. Au contraire, la simplicité de la parure fait mieux paraître et est plus adaptable au rang d’une reine», écrit-elle alors à sa fille. Mais celle-ci n’a que faire de l’avis maternel et n’hésite pas à adresser un nouveau portrait d’elle «à la dernière mode» à l’impératrice à Vienne. Laquelle renvoie aussitôt le tableau, n’y allant pas par quatre chemins pour dire ce qu’elle en pense. «Non, ce n’est pas le portrait d’une reine de France, il y a erreur, s’écrit-elle, c’est celui d’une actrice…!», rapporte l’historienne de l’art.

by Dominique Bonnet

Source: Paris Match


The portrait of Marie Antoinette by Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun inspired a watch’s design

BUSINESSES have to change in order to adjust to the times. One can see this as either a way of survival, or a dedication to producing quality products no matter what.

Watches from Breguet, namely Reine de Naples and Secret de la Reine.
Watches from Breguet, namely Reine de Naples and Secret de la Reine.

Take for example the watchmaker Breguet, which was founded in 1755. In 1782, Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, ordered a watch from Breguet, fascinated by its No. 2 10/82, which was a self-winding repeater watch with a date calendar. More transactions followed from the queen. In 1783, Breguet received an order (allegedly from an admirer of the queen) for a magnificent and intricate timepiece which would include many, if not all, the horological features present during that time, all in one watch. The order was finally completed in 1827, meanwhile, Marie Antoinette was executed in 1796, and never saw the watch.

In the carnage of the French Revolution that killed Marie Antoinette, a general from obscure Corsica would rise to become Emperor. He unseated many royals from their thrones in his quest for expansion, including Marie Antoinette’s sister, the Queen of Naples. The throne of Naples would then be occupied by Napoleon’s brother, and then his brother-in-law, who was married to his sister, Caroline Murat.

Queen Caroline would be remembered in history for two things: first, she successfully convinced her brother Napoleon of his wife, the Empress Josephine’s infertility, paving the way for his second marriage to Marie Louise, Archduchess of Austria (who was the great-niece of Marie Antoinette, and granddaughter of the Queen of Naples whom Napoleon had ousted). Marriage to the imperial daughter and the son she eventually bore him lent legitimacy to the former soldier’s shaky empire and bought the emperor some time against his enemies.

Second, Caroline commissioned from Breguet one of the world’s first wristwatches, lovingly executed in an ovoid shape by Breguet.

Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France (left) and Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples (right) both ordered and eventually inspired
The watches inspired by the two queens were shown during breakfast at the Raffles Residence Lounge on Nov. 23. The watch inspired by Caroline, the Reine de Naples, had been a staple in the company since the early 2000s, while a watch inspired by Marie Antoinette, the Secret de Reine, had only become a reality in this decade.

The Reine de Naples watches all share the ovoid shape first seen on the wrist of Caroline.

Meanwhile, the Secret de la Reine incorporates Marie Antoinette’s love for games and luxurious simplicity (this was a woman who commissioned the building of a very expensive farm). The watch itself is shaped like an apple, paved with diamonds, while a cover ornamented with a cameo of a rose discreetly but playfully conceals the dial. The watch is attached to a strap crafted to look like a thick ribbon.

The watch’s design was inspired by a portrait of Marie Antoinette by Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, the queen’s favorite portraitist. The painting, where she is in a blue dress and holding a rose, was intended to pacify citizens who said that a previous version of the portrait had been too informal (in it she was wearing a white dress and a straw hat, holding the rose in the same pose).

“The logic is that, they want to have more of a… recognition of Marie Antoinette’s days,” said Martin Ganz, vice-president of The Swatch Group (Hong Kong), Breguet Division. “It’s still a tribute to Marie Antoinette.”

Another tribute by the company to Marie Antoinette was the restoration of her “farm” retreat, the Petit Trianon, a project that began in 2007 and ended in 2008.

Added a resource speaker from Breguet, who was present during the breakfast, “We launched these pieces because we know that… the original Queen of Naples [watch] is not enough. We want to push, we want to challenge ourselves, that’s why we… find more inspirations from our patrons.”

There’s a trade in products associated with people who have changed the world, or have become simply famous: take for instance, Jackie O’s Hermes Trim bag, or her daughter-in-law Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy’s favorite perfume. It’s a way of connecting our stories with theirs, even if just in their shopping choices. When asked if Breguet’s products, based on the personalities of Marie Antoinette and Caroline Murat, run on the same principle, Mr. Ganz said, “Maybe not necessarily that person — I don’t think so. I think it’s more a question of… these people realizing that, you know, the wealthy, influential heads of states, royalty today, have these watches. That’s maybe the link there.”

“Number one, for me, you must start with a good product,” said the resource speaker from Breguet, about products that tell stories. “With that right product, you can have millions of words.” — Joseph L. Garcia

Breguet is exclusively distributed in the Philippines by Lucerne.

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.


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