Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun — 1755-1842

Exhibition

Painting

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun
1755-1842

Past: September 23, 2015 → January 11, 2016

Self-portraits by Vigée Le Brun abound : paintings, pastels and drawings that elegantly associate feminine grace and pride. With the Ancien Régime and its School of Fine Arts coming to an end, she supplanted most of her rival portrait artists.

Vigée Le Brun used self-portraits to assert her status, circulate her image and show people the mother she had become despite the constraints of a career. In this respect, she made her greatest coup de force at the 1787 Exhibition where she presented two paintings that cannot be dissociated. First, a portrait of Queen Marie-Antoinette posing for a portrait surrounded by her children in an attempt to rectify the image of an extravagant libertine; secondly, the portrait of a female artist hugging her daughter Julie to her chest in an effusive Raphael-like manner. The latter is one of the finest and most popular of the many works by this painter owned by the Louvre and has remained the emblem of “maternal tenderness” since it was first exhibited to the public. The culture of the Enlightenment and the influence of Rousseau obliged the artist to take on this role, which she did happily and with resounding success. As a counterpoint, she painted the Portrait of Hubert Robert. These paintings are absolute icons illustrating the joy of life and creative genius, complementing and communicating with each other.

What is even more remarkable was her determination to overcome obstacles hindering her career. Born in Paris in 1755, she came from a relatively modest background, her mother a hairdresser and her father a talented portrait artist. Her father died when she was a young adolescent. Drawing inspiration from his example, the brilliant young artist was accepted as a master painter at the Academy of Saint-Luc. In 1776, she married the most important art dealer of her generation, Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun (1748-1813), but this prevented her from being accepted at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture because its regulations formally forbid any contact with mercantile professions. However, this union had a beneficial effect on her career. When the price of Flemish paintings soared, she learnt how to master the magic of colours and the fine craftsmanship of Rubens and Van Dyck. Her clientèle had mainly been the bourgeoisie but in 1777, she started working for the aristocracy, descendants of royal blood and finally Queen Marie-Antoinette. However, it was not until 1783 and the intervention of the Queen’s husband, Louis XVI, that the portrait artist was able to join the Royal Academy of Painting after much polemic.

Since the Royal Academy was founded in 1648, under the Regency of Anne of Austria, only a very limited number of female artists had been admitted. As they were not allowed to draw nude males in life classes, they were excluded from the most esteemed genre, history painting, which required a perfect understanding of anatomy and the assimilation of gesture codes. Therefore, Vigée Le Brun concentrated on portraits, despite some very fine incursions into history and genre paintings. Her desire to break away from the constraints imposed upon female artists enabled her to develop very personal techniques and aesthetic criteria. She mastered the science of colours and invented a whole range of poses and costumes that brought great variety to her portraits and improvisations.

This exhibition reveals the artist’s ambition and is far from the condescension of her first biographers and some historians who may have damaged our understanding of the different challenges of this prodigious destiny and this long and nomadic career. During the Revolution, Emigration, Consulate and Empire she lived and worked in Italy, Austria, Russia, England and Switzerland. She entered into a very special dialogue with ancient masters and competed with her contemporaries, often to her own advantage. In the eyes of the Academy, portraiture was a minor genre but in the upheaval of this new France the “social self” often took precedence over the “inner self”.

The art of Vigée Le Brun cannot be limited to her most apparent seductiveness or the virtues of the «fair sex»: her portraits of men have a great force of character, such as the Portrait of Hubert Robert. Contrary to the feminist approach to history of art which considers Vigée Le Brun as a victim of her condition as a woman and a wife, this exhibition highlights the reasons for her enduring success in a series of theme-based rooms: the academic coup de force; the artisanal but solid training; the Versailles challenge; the Exhibition strategy during the seventeen-eighties, and it provides context — the stages of her long exile, her social circles and her return to France. A chronological, theme-based approach is adopted but there are some exceptions and cross-cutting sequences: family and friendships; portraits of artistes and theatre scenes; the symbolisation of political power; the presentation of schemas from Raphaël, Titian, Dominiquin, Rubens, Van Dyck and even her contemporary Greuze; her allegorical and mythological scenes and even portraits of people in disguise.

Vigée Le Brun was undoubtedly an exceptional woman who advanced tenaciously. Moreover, she used her paintbrushes not only as charms but also as arms.

France’s first tribute to Vigée Le Brun brings together over 130 works, including different techniques and media, some of which are exhibited for the first time. They come from prestigious institutions like the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Louvre Museum, the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and from many private collections.

Curators : Joseph Baillio, Art Historian and Xavier Salmon, Director of the Graphic Arts Department at the Louvre Museum

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The artist

  • Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun