Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Sumptuous Portraits

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbons, ca. 1782, oil on canvas, 64.8 × 54 cm. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

When Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun gave her self-portrait to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence in 1790, the museum’s director wrote that it was painted “with a rare intelligence that appears to originate from the brush of a man of great merit rather than that of a woman.”

Such were the embarrassingly low expectations for women artists in the late 18th century. Swimming against the current, Vigée Le Brun was a true celebrity, lauded for her supreme talent as well as her charm, patronized by high society, and the top earner among her peers.

The exhibition now on view at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) demonstrates what all the excitement was about. Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) presents 87 splendid works — mostly painted portraits of royalty, aristocracy, statesmen, artists and family members, but also a charming Alpine landscape and a delightful terracotta bust of Vigée Le Brun by the sculptor Augustin Pajou. Many of the works are on loan from such eminent institutions as the Louvre, the Château de Versailles, and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, while others are being exhibited for the first time, having remained in private collections since they were produced.

Born in Paris in 1755 to a pastel artist and a hairdresser, Louise, as she was called, showed a precocious talent, establishing a portrait studio while still in her teens and receiving her first royal commission — to paint one of the king’s brothers — at the age of only 21. She went on to become Marie Antoinette’s designated portraitist, and painted in many other European courts over her 50-year career.

As a female painter, Vigée Le Brun faced many barriers. Women were generally excluded from art schools and academies, anatomy studies and life drawing sessions. They consequently lacked the training required to excel at history painting — considered the highest genre — and were instead confined to still lifes and miniatures. In the 18th century, however, a number of women began making self-portraits, and some, like Vigée Le Brun, were even admitted into the Académie Royale de peinture et de sculpture. 

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Peace Bringing Back Abundance, 1780, oil on canvas, 103 x 133 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris, Départment des Peintures

Election to the Académie royale was critical for an ambitious artist, as it allowed access to the biennial salon exhibitions and to royal and official commissions. As her reception piece, Vigée Le Brun submitted the sensuous Peace Bringing Back Abundance (1780), one of two allegorical paintings in this exhibition. Exhibited for the first time after France had helped bring an end to the American War of Independence, it shows a noble-looking Peace draped in grey and teal and holding an olive branch. Wrapped in a warm embrace, Abundance is rendered with rich softness, her flesh transparent against the volumes of white and gold drapery, the flowers in her braided hair looking fresh and lively. 

This exquisite treatment of colour, fabric and texture is representative of Vigée Le Brun’s masterful technique. In an interview with NGC Magazine, Joseph Baillio, an expert on Vigée Le Brun’s life and work, and general curator of the exhibition, called her “the finest colourist at the end of the 18th century, almost to the degree of Jean-Honoré Fragonard. The colour schemes she created are almost unique. She has a way of laying paint on canvas or panel and harmonizing the final effects with layer after layer of delicate glazing. And when you look closely at her finished pastels, you’ll see that they’re made up of myriad strokes of different colours, especially around her subject’s mouth and eyes.”

Similarly, Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbons (c. 1782) exemplifies the artist’s imaginative palette. Against a dark ground and a predominantly black-and-white colour scheme, the artist’s bright pink ribbons, flushed cheeks and slightly parted lips fairly pop off the canvas. Her characteristic curls fall naturally to her shoulders. Vigée Le Brun used studio props to great effect. Here she wears a black feathered hat that pays tribute to Van Dyck, and a shawl draped casually over her arms that borrows from Raphael and Domenichino. The same shawl and iridescent opal earrings appear in the equally lovely Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat, painted the same year. 

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress, 1783, oil on canvas, 89.8 × 72 cm. Hessische Hausstiftung, Kronberg

“I wore only white dresses in muslin or linen lawn,” wrote Vigée Le Brun in her memoirs. Visitors to the exhibition can amuse themselves by counting the white cotton dresses in her portraits, both of herself and others. The latest fashion, these robes were nevertheless considered suitable only for wearing in the home. Vigée Le Brun dressed a number of her distinguished sitters in muslin, including the queen, in Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress (1783), a painting that was considered so unseemly for its casual dress that it was pulled from the season’s salon exhibition, and replaced with the more formal Marie Antoinette with a Rose (1783). The two portraits make a fascinating pair, displayed side by side in the current exhibition.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette with a Rose, 1783, oil on canvas, 116.8 × 88.9 cm. Collection of Lynda and Stewart Resnick

Although many of her subjects were female — ranging from her daughter Julie to artist friends, princesses and countesses — Vigée Le Brun also painted many magnificent portraits of men. That of her brother Étienne Vigée, made in 1773 when she was 18 years old, is considered her finest early work and expresses the warmth and fondness she felt for him. Her 1778 portrait of a 64-year-old Joseph Vernet is equally sympathetic. Vernet was a preeminent landscape and marine painter who befriended the young Louise, advising her: “My child, do not follow the established system of any one school. Consult only the works of the Italian masters, as well as the Flemish. But especially, you must paint as much as you can from nature. Nature is the best master of all.”

Vernet is pictured here as a kindly, handsome man, dressed in plush grey velvet and holding the palette and brushes that indicate his profession. Like the portrait of Étienne Vigée, this one seems to exude affectionate respect. Katharine Baetjer, Curator of European Painting at New York’s Metropolitan Museum and also co-curator of the exhibition, believes that the artist was unusually adept at conveying social standing, noting, “Vigée Le Brun had a highly developed sense of the place of each individual sitter in their society.” Moreover, she clearly had a gift for putting her sitters at ease. “The fact that she knew music, theatre and costume,” says Baetjer, “and knew people in relatively elevated social positions who enjoyed coming to her home, meant that she was able to communicate with many of her sitters in a fairly natural and spontaneous way. This probably meant that they reacted well to her and were more interested. And if the sitter is interested, it makes a better portrait.” 

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Joseph Vernet, 1778, oil on canvas, 92 x 72 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Peintures (3054)

Such a comprehensive retrospective devoted to Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun has been eagerly awaited by scholars for some time. “She has never been given her due,” says Joseph Baillio, who is thrilled by the rave reviews garnered by the exhibition during its Paris and New York runs. “I’ve rarely seen an 18th-century show that has drawn so many people. I just love the fact that more and more people are getting to know what Vigée Le Brun managed to accomplish.” 

In an interview with NGC Magazine, Gwenola Firmin of the Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, which lent six major paintings to the exhibition, was equally enthusiastic. “This exhibition shows the artist’s entire career,” she said. “You really see her style evolve. The works are magnificent — little known in some cases. It’s a feast for the soul that has a real aesthetic impact.” 

A virtuoso painter, eloquent portraitist and real star of 18th-century French culture and society, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun is richly deserving of renewed attention. Her work is sumptuous, regal and elegant — a feast indeed for the soul, and a banquet for the eyes.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) is organized by the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and Réunion des musée nationaux – Grand Palais, Paris, with the generous support of the Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon. The exhibition is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from June 10 to September 11, 2016. 

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