New York City women, always warm and fuzzy towards our out-of-town sisters who visit, welcome Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France, an exhibition now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Known as France’s last great portraitist, Vigée Le Brun enjoyed the patronage of powerful women during a turbulent era. The exhibition presents 80 of the artist’s portraits; a veritable Who’s Who of Europe’s women of the era (plus some guys in very pretty costumes).
Vigée Le Brun and her most important French female patron, Marie Antoinette, were both born in 1755. Portraits of the French Queen provide the visitor with a visual record of the changing values and attitude towards women of the 18th century.
Two portraits of Marie Antoinette painted in 1783, when Vigée Le Brun and the Queen were both 28 years old, are presented side by side in the exhibition. Marie Antoinette in a Chemise shows the monarch in pastoral costume holding a pink cabbage rose, her signature flower, at the peak of its bloom. Vigée Le Brun displayed this portrait at her first Salon, where it was violently condemned as inappropriate for a public portrayal of royalty. This was the sort of costume that Marie Antoinette enjoyed at the Petit Trianon, built for informal moments at Versailles away from the demands of court life–and fashion.
The portrait was promptly removed, and replaced by a new, more formal portrait of the Queen deemed more fitting by the Salon. Same pose, same rose, same sitter….but a change of dress.
New York women, living in a city known for its fashionistas, creative designers and flamboyant dressers, can readily appreciate the implications of the sartorial change.
Gone is that insipid straw hat with the boring blue ribbon; replaced by a sort of Turkish turban festooned with drooping ostrich feathers. Missing is that fussy gold silk belt that tied at the back of the baggy skirt. We see instead, a shimmering expanse of slate grey silk decorated with yards of lace, a double strand of Jackie O pearls, and a strategically-placed striped bow at the low décolletage. It looks as if our girl finally got out of Versailles and took herself to Dry Bar for a decent blowout to have her hair arranged in a delicate pouf.
In place of the shocking pastoral gown is a pastoral setting for the Queen herself. She stands beside a rose bush from which she has gathered a bouquet of buds that surround a large, central bloom. A tree trunk seems to grow directly from the panniers of her skirt. Tree branches, heavy with green leaves, back up the pouf hairstyle making her seem to be a sort of human manifestation of the garden that is France. Perfect for the Salon.
Another of the many portraits of the Queen on display at the Met exhibition was painted by Vigée Le Brun as a sort of propaganda piece for the monarchy. Presented at the Salon of 1787, this was the last of approximately 30 portraits of the Queen painted by Vigée Le Brun.
Marie Antoinette and Her Children shows the Queen as a regal mother. The Queen is shown seated within the palace at Versailles and surrounded by three of her children. Vigée Le Brun based the composition on pictures of the Holy Family and also consulted the Neoclassical painter Jacques Louis David. The portrait was a direct response to the Affair of the Necklace the previous year. Vigée Le Brun’s goal was to present Marie Antoinette as a devout and loving mother in order to garner the affection and approval of the public. She failed.
Things did not go well for Marie Antoinette during or after the painting of the portrait. Vigée Le Brun shows the Dauphin, Louis Joseph, gesturing towards an empty cradle. This is the cradle of his little sister, Marie Sophie, who died at the age of 11 months, before the portrait could be finished. During the Revolution, David, the Neoclassical painter who had been consulted on the composition for this final portrait, became the virtual dictator of art in the New Republic and a good friend of Robespierre. As for the French public, they saw only the extravagance of the Queen’s surroundings, dress and hairstyle.
At the Revolution, Vigée Le Brun initially fled to Italy, where she was invited to present a self-portrait for the Corridoio Vasariano at the Uffizi in 1790. She depicted herself painting a portrait of her French patron, Marie Antoinette, who would meet her death at the guillotine in 1793.
The artist traveled to various courts of Europe before returning to France in 1802 and living another 40 years before her death in 1842. At a time in history when women were not supposed to be artists at all, Vigée Le Brun painted both intimate and public portraits of the powerful women of the day. She used her self-taught technical skills to capture the animation of her sitters and create a portrait of European women of the 18th century. Her recognition as an outstanding portrait painter is long overdue and warmly welcomed by New York women.
Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France is on view in the Special Exhibition Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from February 15- May 15, 2016.