Official portraiture took a hit last week, at least in the United States. Congress just renewed its 2014 prohibition on spending public money on the portraits of politicians that by long tradition have graced the walls of the United States Capitol. Members of Congress and the executive branch must continue to pay for the images by which they want to be remembered.
Things were very different when monarchies ruled Europe. Painted portraits were serious affairs — whether of state, commerce, historical record or private life, and whether for royalty, aristocrats and their hangers-on, or the bourgeoisie, who usually could afford only pastel.
The career of the French portraitist Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), the subject of a ravishing, overdue survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, unfolded in those earlier times, almost entirely in the courts of Europe. She is best known as a painter of unusually sympathic portraits of beautiful women of high rank. Only one-sixth of the sitters in these works are male, but their portraits confirm that she was equally effective with men.
Stylistically, Vigée Le Brun avoided both the lightness of Late Rococo and the artifice of Neo-Classicism, countering both with a modulated naturalism. She became an artist against great odds, as did any woman in late-18th-century Paris, and aided by the patronage of Marie Antoinette, went on to thrive in a nine-lives, astutely managed sort of way. But her royal ties made her a target of the press, as did her high prices and her gender. She wisely fled France at the start of the revolution. Abroad, she orchestrated an equally successful career portraying the elites of Italy, Vienna, Berlin and especially Russia, before returning to France in 1802 once her name was struck from the list of enemy émigrés. She died in Paris at the age of 86, feeling she had outlived her time.
CreditMetropolitan Museum of Art
Seen last fall in a larger version at the Grand Palais in Paris, this show of 79 portraits (and one landscape) is the first retrospective and only the second exhibition of Vigée Le Brun’s work in modern times. It has been organized at the Met by Katharine Baetjer, curator in the department of European paintings, working with Joseph Baillio, a Vigée Le Brun scholar, and Paul Lang, deputy director and chief curator of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, where the exhibition will make its final stop. Ms. Baetjer said that this was the first monographic exhibition devoted to a woman during her 40 years in the department.
Vigée (pronounced Vee-ZHAY) Le Brun was born with a surfeit of natural talent and ambition as well as beauty, charm, a head for business and making connections, and a gift for conversation that kept her sitters entertained. Her father, a successful artist of pastel portraits, recognized his daughter’s gifts and taught her to paint but he died when she was 12. To distract her from her grief and from a step-father she loathed, her mother, a hairdresser of some reputation, chaperoned her daughter on visits to private and public collections around Paris. Vigée briefly attended a small drawing academy run by a fan painter, and received informal instruction from the landscape painter Joseph Vernet. The best of her early portraits depicts her mother as a woman of refinement with a gentle but appraising gaze; a 1778 portrait of Vernet holding brush and palette in beautifully painted hands is similarly sensitive.
Mostly, Vigée taught herself by looking and copying and starting to work. Even in her late teens she was helping to support her family — so productively that in 1774, when she was 19, the authorities sealed her studio until she joined a guild. (She was operating without a license.) To escape home life, she made a marriage of convenience in 1776 with Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun (1748-1813), a painter and prominent art dealer, who wooed Vigée by lending her paintings to copy. He took her to Holland and Flanders to see those of Rubens and the Dutch masters, promoted her work and partly lived off her money. Soon Madame Le Brun, as she was known, became one of the most sought-after portraitists of her moment. Her position was solidified by Marie Antoinette, whose favor included helping the painter gain entry into the Royal Academy, which excluded artists married to art dealers, in 1783.
CreditMusée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon
Vigée Le Brun painted Marie Antoinette numerous times. The show opens with her freshman effort, an enormous full-length formal portrait of that queen from 1778, painted when the artist was only 22 — as she notes in her signature. Made at the request of Marie Antoinette’s mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, it is less than perfect. The queen’s white satin panniers look so hard and shiny they might almost be enameled metal; the background is crowded with competing architectural elements. But the painting pleased Maria Theresa, who was not as interested in a good likeness as proof of her daughter’s regal bearing in court dress. And the treatment of Marie Antoinette’s face captures her dignity, her sweetness and something of the Hapsburg chin.
The architectural backgrounds in Vigée Le Brun’s full-length portraits always seem slightly off in space or scale, as attested by “Marie Antoinette and Her Children” (1787), which is rarely allowed to leave the palace of Versailles, and “Marie Antoinette in a Blue Velvet Dress and White Skirt” (1788). The portrait with children was intended to prove to the French people, who thought the queen profligate, foreign and cold, that she was a caring mother — the dauphin pointing to an empty crib, possibly a reminder of Marie Antoinette’s youngest, Sophie Hélène Béatrix, who died at 11 months (while the portrait was being painted). Later, Vigée Le Brun would insert fine portraits of women (Countess Anna Potocka in 1791 and Countess von Bucquoi in 1793) into fabricated landscapes, which had become fashionable, with similarly awkward results.
She excelled in more intimate formats, the three-quarter and especially bust-length portraits, where her renderings of expression, lightly powdered ringlets and fabric are beyond reproach. This is confirmed by her 1782 portrait of the Duchess of Polignac in a white chemise and a black wrap, wearing a straw hat decorated with flowers. The image has a casual, almost snapshotlike freshness, and the ruffles at the neckline are as soft as flower petals.
The duchess’s lips are parted and her teeth just visible, a detail considered risqué but that is recurrent here, starting with a radiant self-portrait that hangs next to the Polignac. It creates a directness and a knowingness that is more sensuous than erotic, even when the subject is a slightly drunken bacchante.
Vigée Le Brun was also known for her sensitive depictions of children, best represented here by a 1786 portrait of her beloved daughter, Julie. It shows the 6-year-old holding a mirror and studying her face, and is a kind of double portrait. We see her full-face and in profile, connected to the viewer (and her mother) and aloof.
CreditMichael Nagle for The New York Times
The artist’s portraits are distinctive for their colors, which are unusual, daringly combined and still startling. As suggested by the softened red, yellow and blues that dominate the portrait of the Countess of Ségur, Vigée Le Brun’s color choices give her paintings an unexpected abstract force that often emboldens their subjects. She could also go for blunt elegance: Paintings using different combinations of red, white and black recur throughout the show, including in three self-portraits. (Red was always a particular favorite; its warmth certainly prevails here.) The artist is both bold and subtle in a portrait of Princess Anna Alexandrovna Golitsyna, a Russian hostess, from around 1797, that dresses her in shades of russet with touches of red, including an impressive headpiece, amid deep-green velvet against a wall of violet.
In the final gallery, devoted to 19th-century works, the paintings can seem like parodies of earlier efforts. One exception is a small, alert self-portrait from 1808-09. Another is the 1823 portrait of Count Emmanuel Nikolayevich Tolstoy, a Russian visiting Paris whose mother Vigée Le Brun had painted in St. Petersburg 27 years earlier. Swathed in a cloak of darkest blue with touches of faded red and white, unpowdered and unwigged, he is every inch the Romantic hero and fills the frame with a scale and immediacy unlike anything else on view.
Painted when Vigée Le Brun was 68, it nonetheless can make you feel that she might yet have added another artistic chapter to her remarkable life.