A French Beauty Makes Her New York Debut

By Brenda Cronin

The 18th-century portraitist Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun gets a retrospective at the Met

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s ‘The Duchesse de Polignac in a Straw Hat’ (1782)
Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s ‘The Duchesse de Polignac in a Straw Hat’ (1782) PHOTO: MUSÉE NATIONAL DES CHÂTEAUX DE VERSAILLES ET DE TRIANON

An alluring French beauty renowned as an artist and hostess is about to take Manhattan.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun made a fortune painting portraits of the even more rich and famous. Her operatic personal life would rival that of any pop star. News about her ricochets under the nom de Twitter #VigeeLeBrun. But this self-made artist had her heyday in 18th-century France. A retrospective of her work opens on Feb. 15 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Her portraits of French royalty and aristocracy, striking for their sensuality and immediacy, depict the nation’s most privileged classes on the eve of the revolution.

The show includes a portrait of Marie Antoinette and her children, lent by the palace of Versailles, that has never traveled further than Paris. Queen Elizabeth II sent a 1784 portrait of Charles Alexandre de Calonne, a dashing French minister whom gossips pegged as more than just Vigée Le Brun’s subject—a rumor the painter denied and chalked up to envy.

Vigée Le Brun’s portrait of Marie Antoinette and her children

Vigée Le Brun’s portrait of Marie Antoinette and her children PHOTO: MUSÉE NATIONAL DES CHÂTEAUX DE VERSAILLES ET DE TRIANON

Vigée Le Brun soared to the top of a male-dominated profession at a time when women were barred from some institutions of official study.

The vivid colors, expressiveness and sumptuous brushwork in her portraits are a testament to an exceptional technique, learned in part from studying other artists, said Katharine Baetjer, the organizer of the Met’s show and a curator in the museum’s department of European paintings.

Among her influences were members of the Flemish school, such as Peter Paul Rubens, as well as Vigée Le Brun’s father, who was known for his pastel portraits.

Born in Paris in 1755, the same year as her patron, Marie Antoinette, Vigée Le Brun started working as an artist while still a teenager and dexterously climbed to the heights of French aristocracy.

“She was evidently a social phenomenon,” Ms. Baetjer said. “She was knowledgeable about the theater, knowledgeable about music, she had elegant parties, and the people she painted came to them. She was very beautiful and I think…also a very good businesswoman.”

An Olympian networker and charmer with colossal ambition, she ingratiated herself with Marie Antoinette and completed royal portraits before fleeing revolutionary France one step ahead of the guillotine.

Vigée Le Brun went on to conquer the capitals of Europe, landing lucrative commissions in Florence, Naples, Vienna, St. Petersburg and elsewhere.

Vigée Le Brun’s 1784 portrait of Charles Alexandre de Calonne
Vigée Le Brun’s 1784 portrait of Charles Alexandre de Calonne PHOTO: ROYAL COLLECTION TRUST / H. M. QUEEN ELIZABETH II

“She brought a level of skill…that not many artists in middle Europe or Russia or Italy could match,” said Thomas Crow, associate provost for the arts at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. “She was just better than just about everybody else.”

At the peak of her celebrity, Vigée Le Brun also earned more for her portraits than just about everybody else.

“She was the most sought-after portraitist in France before the Revolution,” said Laura Auricchio, a professor of art history and a dean at the New School. “If you were anybody in Paris and you were going to have your portrait painted, you were going to want to get painted by her.”

The Met worked on the retrospective with France’s Réunion des Musées Nationaux–Grand Palais, as well as the National Gallery of Canada. At Paris’s Grand Palais, a sweeping exhibition—twice the size of the 80 works to be displayed at the Met—drew more than 230,000 visitors during its run from September 2015 to January. After New York, the show moves to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

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At 23, was summoned to Versailles to paint Marie Antoinette, who was a few months younger than she.

A public figure ahead of her time, Vigée Le Brun took pains to manage her image, a task she addressed with enticing self-portraits as a younger woman and later, with her memoirs.

In a typically breathless and witty passage, she recalls misgivings about her star-crossed marriage to a spendthrift art dealer just moments from the altar: “I kept saying to myself, ‘Shall I say yes, or shall I say no?’ Alas! I said yes, and in so doing exchanged present troubles for others.”

The autobiography, published several years before her death just shy of her 87th birthday, is “famously optimistic,” Ms. Auricchio said. “In her memoirs she tends to report things through rose-colored glasses.”

Other than a 1982 exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas, this is believed to be the first Vigée Le Brun retrospective. For Ms. Baetjer, who has had a 40-year career at the Met, it is also the first retrospective of a woman artist she has curated.

Pressed to pick a favorite Vigée Le Brun work, she settled on a 1787 portrait of Alexandre Charles Emmanuel de Crussol-Florensac. Although the subject, a decorated soldier, actor and courtier, is swathed in a gold-embroidered heavy dark cloak before a simple background, the painting bristles with life and energy.

“He has the most lively vital face and he had red hair. Look at his red eyelashes!” Ms. Baetjer said of the work, which the Met acquired more than 50 years ago. “I love this picture. Always have.”

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