The sumptuous retrospective Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), the National Gallery of Canada’s main summer attraction, will open to the public on Thursday June 9 at 6 p.m. The exhibition features some 90 works by the celebrated portraitist to Queen Marie Antoinette, many on loan from such prestigious institutions as the Louvre, the Château de Versailles and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. It presents a number of historic firsts: some paintings are leaving France for the first time, others are being shown to the public for the first time, while still others are being brought together for the first time. Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun is organized by the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), Ottawa, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Réunion des musées nationaux–Grand Palais, Paris, with generous support from the Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun will be on view at the Gallery until September 11, 2016, after a highly successful run at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York this winter and having drawn large crowds to the Grand Palais in Paris last fall. The exhibition has captivated visitors as it reveals Vigée Le Brun’s virtuoso technique as well as her ability to forge a remarkable career in the male-dominated world of the 18th century.
"We are proud of our collaboration with partners in Paris and New York to organize this superb international retrospective, and are confident that Canadian audiences will be eager to see it after its great success in those two cities," said NGC Director and CEO Marc Mayer. "Among other things, they are sure to be fascinated by the portrayal of certain members of a society that was unaware it was living its final days. Our congratulations go to the co-curators Joseph Baillio, Paul Lang, Katharine Baetjer and Xavier Salmon for having the foresight to restore this brilliant artist's rightful place in art history, and for helping us discover her extraordinary life story. We are also deeply grateful to the institutions and individuals who so generously agreed to lend their valuable paintings."
About the artist
Born into an artistic family, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun demonstrated a precocious talent for painting. In 1778, at the age of just 23 and largely self-taught, she became the portraitist to Queen Marie Antoinette and by 1783 was accepted into the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture - an honour granted to very few women.
While her beauty, grace and wit often sparked jealousy, Vigée Le Brun commanded the respect of her clients because she succeeded in imparting charm, distinction and elegance to her models – women, men and children – even while defying certain conventions or customs. She painted some of the most prominent and intriguing figures of the 18th century ¾ royalty, statesmen, and fashionable aristocrats ¾ and was also known for her endearing portraits of children and scenes of motherly love.
Forced to flee revolutionary France in 1789, she made her way to the great capitals of Europe – in Italy, Austria, Russia and Germany, then in England and Switzerland – where her reputation as the era’s leading portraitist continued to grow. Her exile, which was meant to last only 12 months, continued for 12 years. A free thinker throughout her nearly 90-year life, Vigée Le Brun is still considered ahead of her time.
Yet, despite an extraordinary career, Vigée Le Brun’s significant accomplishments have often been overlooked, making this first retrospective devoted to the artist all the more compelling.
Among the works presented is the superb oil on canvas portraying Countess Anna Ivanovna Tolstoy, 1796, the very first Vigée Le Brun work to enter a Canadian public collection, thanks to a generous gift to the National Gallery of Canada by a Canadian collector.
Paul Lang, Chief Curator at the National Gallery of Canada and coordinating curator of the Ottawa presentation of Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, has installed the works according to three different phases in the artist’s career. The rooms devoted to the period before the French Revolution are painted “Marie-Antoinette blue,” while those representing the artist’s 12 years in exile are “Pompeii red” and her lengthy swan song, when she concentrated mainly on writing her memoirs, is shown against a grey background.
The exhibition’s other curators are Joseph Baillio, the leading Vigée Le Brun expert and author of the forthcoming catalogue raisonné on the artist, and Katharine Baetjer, curator in the Department of European Paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. They are also co-authors of the catalogue that accompanies the retrospective. Xavier Salmon, Director of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Louvre, organized the Paris presentation of the exhibition.
The National Gallery of Canada thanks PACART, transportation sponsor of the exhibition Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. The exhibition was also supported by the Department of Canadian Heritage through the Canada Travelling Exhibitions Indemnification Program.
Visitors can enhance their experience by listening to an Audioguide presented by Paul Lang, Chief Curator at the Gallery while they explore the exhibition.
The exhibition Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun is accompanied by an extensively illustrated and documented catalogue. This 289-page publication aims to show how the artist’s life and work continue to offer a vast and compelling field of investigation. It is available in a hardcover edition, in French or English, for $49.99 at the NGC Boutique or online at ShopNGC.ca.
Day with Vigée Le Brun
On Saturday June 11, the Gallery is organising a special day with Vigée Le Brun to explore the world of one of the greatest women painters of all time. Scheduled activities include live-model drawing, colouring, literary creation, making paper wigs, talks by leading Vigée Le Brun experts, and more. Full details and the schedule of activities are available at gallery.ca/vigeelebrun.
Talk with Joseph Baillio (Saturday June 11, 11:00 to 11:45 a.m.)
Vigée Le Brun’s Dynamic Portrait of Marie Antoinette and her Children
Vigée Le Brun expert Joseph Baillio will provide a fascinating look at Marie Antoinette and Her Children, one of the jewels in the Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun exhibition. In English, followed by a bilingual question period.
Talk with Geneviève Haroche-Bouzinac (Saturday June 11, 2:00 to 2:45 p.m.)
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun in Souvenirs
Vigée Le Brun biographer and expert Geneviève Haroche-Bouzinac will reveal how the artist drew on the tradition of memoir to create an image of herself as she wanted to be remembered. An in-depth exploration of the life of this revolutionary artist.
Women and Music Conversation with Hélène Blazy and Ana Sokolović (Thursday 16 June, 6 pm)
During a special evening dedicated to women and music, the Gallery, in partnership with the French Embassy and the National Arts Centre, brings together two composers from Canada and France for an engaging conversation. Hélène Blazy, composer of the soundtrack to The Fabulous Life of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, sits down with Canadian composer and musician, Ana Sokolović. This unique event also features live performances of music by both composers. Moderated by Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer. In French. English simultaneous interpretation is available, if a request is made to [email protected] before June 9.
From June 10 to September 11, 2016, visitors can follow the artist’s remarkable life and career through the captivating docudrama The Fabulous Life of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Portraitist of Marie Antoinette, screened in the exhibition space. 52 minutes. In French with English subtitles. © Illégitime Défense – Méroé Films - ARTE France – RMN Grand Palais – National Gallery of Canada – Minimum Fax Média – 2015.
The docudrama will also be broadcast in French in two parts on Sunday June 12 and 19 at 8 pm on Planète+.
Kids and their families can explore the paintings in the Vigée Le Brun exhibition and then use their experiences as inspiration for making art.
Make a Paper Wig: June 11, 12, 18 and 19, and August 20 to September 5, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Dress like a Royal: In this activity, kids can try on a children’s period costume and have a member of their group or family take their photo. Weekends and holidays; daily in July and August, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
A complete schedule of activities planned around the exhibition is available at gallery.ca/vigeelebrun.
Until September 11, the Gallery hours will be extended by one hour. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Thursdays until 8 p.m.
Admission to Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun is as follows: adults: $16; seniors and students (with valid ID): $14; youth (age 12 to 19): $7; families (two adults and three youths): $32. Admission is free for Gallery members and for children age 11 and under. Admission to Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun includes access to the National Collection. Tickets are on sale online at ShopNGC.ca.
Regular admission to the Gallery is: $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and students, $6 for youth age 12 to 19, $24 for families (two adults and three youths). Free admission at all times for Gallery members and children age 11 and under. Free admission Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m. (except for the Vigée Le Brun exhibition). For further details, call 613.998.8888 or 1.888.541.8888.
NGCmagazine.ca, the National Gallery of Canada’s online magazine, is a frequently updated source of information on the Canadian art world and events at the National Gallery of Canada. Correspondents from across the country provide engaging and exclusive content on historical and contemporary art in Canada. This online magazine also includes interviews with artists. Read the article “Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Sumptuous Portraits” online now.
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About the National Gallery of Canada
The National Gallery of Canada is home to the most important collections of historical and contemporary Canadian art. The Gallery also maintains Canada's premier collection of European Art from the 14th to the 21st century, as well as important works of American, Asian and Indigenous Art and renowned international collections of prints, drawings and photographs. In 2015, the National Gallery of Canada established the Canadian Photography Institute, a global multidisciplinary research centre dedicated to the history, evolution and future of photography. Created in 1880, the National Gallery of Canada has played a key role in Canadian culture for well over a century. Among its principal missions is to increase access to excellent works of art for all Canadians. For more information, visit
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