Published on June 12th, 2017 | by Julie Chaizemartin1
Irresistible Madame Vigée Le Brun, painter of Queen Marie-Antoinette
Praised for her beauty and talent, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun is mostly known for being the portraitist of the Queen Marie-Antoinette. Such gentleness and tenderness could only appeal to the artistic circles of the Enlightenments. And eventually appeal to us.
She was able to grasp the innocence tainted with mischief in the eyes of the youngest ones, the maternal tenderness of those who just experienced the happiness of being mother, the false modesty of the boldest ones and the aristocratic and royal elegance of the greatest ones. She had the gift to enhance the beauty of the women and flatter the pride of the men, so much so they finally liked their image: « I don’t know her in painting but you are making me love her » said Louis the 16th, as he looked at the painting she just presented at the salon of 1787. The painting represented Marie-Antoinette surrounded by her children.
No one in the Paris of Enlightenments resisted the charm of this so pretty artist, the prettiest of the models no doubt. Men were all too pleased to pose for the real pleasure to contemplate her for hours. She would have them posing staring in the distance, as she told with humor in her Memoirs, so that their stares would not cross. Women would obey without complaint to the fantasy of her brushes, maybe with a secret envy to look like her. The fact is, she knew how to best hide flaws, bring up a natural complexion. In her oils and pastels, soft colors emerged, shimmering nuances, curving lines and distinguished figures. The great bourgeoisie then aristocracy delighted in them. Finally, the Queen, the most prestigious model, consented to pose. ‘Feminine’ is the word that Xavier Salmon, Director of the Arts Graphics department of the Louvre museum, picked to describe the painting and the personality of Vigée Le Brun. That word is enough to suggest the grace in her portraits and also, in a more modern sense, the freedom of spirit which describes the female artist, at a time where she was pretty rare.
Conquering the Acadamy
No one could have foreseen such destiny for little Elisabeth, born in 1755, except her father’s work: he was a talented pastellist. His death when she was only 12 was a loss she never overcame. She adored her father. Then, only drawing and painting would bring some relief from her grief. She dived into it. Far from the self-taught artist people often describe, VLB learned from painters like Gabriel Birard Marie Rose Bocquet, and used the advices of her father’s friends, painters Doyen and Joseph Vernet. The latter encouraged her and recommended she would not follow any school but always paint after nature. At that time, the young woman lived in Paris with her mother who just remarried with the jeweler Jacques Francois Le Sevre. She complained that he took advantage of her first earnings as a portraitist of her loved ones and some local celebrities. As she turned 17, she was quickly promoted on the artistic scene of Paris, and in 1776, her marriage with painting dealer Jean-Baptiste Le Brun provided even more openings among the most prominent members of society.
Her portrait of her own mother, Jeanne Massin, a magnificent woman, definitely established her talent. “It caused quite a stir” she wrote in her Memoirs. On her canvas, then, between 1776 and 1788, the faces of the Duchesse of Chartres, the Comtesse of Segur, the Comtesse Du Barry, the Comtesse of Provence or the Duchesse of Polignac, the Comte de Baudreuil or Duke Louis-Philippe d’Orléans. She also welcomed the artistic inspiration from artists and actors. Then came the Queen’ request that she would paint her portrait, in formal court attire, to be sent to Empress Marie Therese of Austria. This privilege was usually only for painters from the Fine Arts Academy. But the Queen was desperately looking for a talented painter. She had been disappointed several times when she noticed her and maybe, secretly hoped she would also become her friend. The year was 1778. Marie-Antoinette named Vigée Le Brun her official portraitist and in 1783 she had her enter the Fine Arts Academy. The artist was then at the noontide of her fame, one of the few female academicians. The many self-portraits she executed demonstrate the awareness she had of her own image and her pride for a situation that only a man so far could have dreamed of.
The Queen’s negligée
Like Rosalba Carriera did a few decades earlier, Vigée Le Brun used pastel as her favorite instrument to give life to the texture of the clothes. In her female portraits, barely romanticized, the scarfs were casually left on shoulders, drapes and hair hanged loser than in real life, without any of the white powder the artist hated – except when it came to paint Marie-Antoinette, who chose to never let go of this fashion. Some sensuality would appear in this milky white nude shoulder, or that troubling neckline. By 1780, the frivolous 18th Century got infatuated with negligées and under clothes. Usually only visible in the intimate circle, they now appeared and showed themselves. This budding trend is represented in Vigée Le Brun portraits of the Comtesse du Barry in dressing gown and straw hat. She painted also the Duchesse de Polignac in negligée and the Queen Marie Antoinette « en gaulle » (or chemise). The outfit was daring for the royal body. The portrait symbolized the independence and eccentricity of the Queen and caused a scandal. The negligée and the painter became the target of slanders. Around them, voices – mostly male ones – said they preferred the art of Adelaide Labille-Guiard, great rival of Vigée Le Brun, who painted in a more conventional way, above all less feminine.
Liberating the body and the ostentation of femininity disturbed but Vigée Le Brun took responsibility for it: “Since I hated the outfit the women were wearing then, I would make every effort to transform it, making it more interesting and I was delighted when I got the trust of my models and they would allow me to drape them to my fancy.”
She also used her imagination in many allegoric portraits she created with the European aristocracy during her 12 years in exile. Vigée Le Brun, too close to the Queen, had preferred to leave for Italy in the night of October 6th 1789.
She continued her work as portraitist in Europe while revolution raged in France. From courts to courts, she promoted her art to Italian, English or Russian aristocrats. Her naturalist style perfectly fit with the aristocracy at a time where they were concerned with their decline. We can discover a less famous Vigée Le Brun, who painted a delightful Lady Hamilton as a Bacchae dancing in front of Vesuvio, or as a Sibylle de Cumes (a painting she carried with her wherever she would go). She also made the portraits of the Imperial family and of the Russian aristocracy for 6 years.
In her Memoirs (published in her lifetime between 1835 and 1837) which gathered letters she sent to her friend the princess Kourakine – on a tone rather hagiographic, she recounted this exile, both enriching and testing. In her collection of portraits and self-portraits complete with hats and silk clothes, we recognize her most faithful friends such as painter Hubert Robert. If we had to pick only one painting, that painting should be “Maternal Tenderness” (her self-portrait with her daughter Julie on her lap) which marvelously sums up her art.
Steeped with new ideas from Rousseau and the sweetness of the Virgins with Child by Raphael – that she particularly admired – this oil on canvas seems to be the manifesto for her sentimental side, far from the psychological portraits of a David, for instance, which became more appreciated in the 19th c., reflecting a new society coming up.
After she came back in France, Vigée Le Brun continued to paint and receive the survivors of the Former Regime. But now all was about nostalgia and fallen splendor. The theatre of social whirl was far away, as well as the big dinner she had hosted rue de Cléry where the greatest aristocrats had rushed in, all draped in antique robes, all now killed by the guillotines. The country sides she drew outside with pastel on paper revealed the nostalgia and the deep solitude of an artist who had almost become romantic, at the eve of her death in 1842. Those were probably her most personal works, without masks or lace.
This article was translated in English by Anne-Cécile Baer Porter.