This post is about an extended (one and a half hour) private tour on Tuesday, April 12th at 11am of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition VIGEE LE BRUN, focusing on the French portrait artist. Lunch will be afterwards in the Museum’s Petrie Dining Room. Members, go to the Reservations/ Payments page to secure your spot, get meet-up information and let us know if you can join us for lunch. Somehow art and Spring go together, don’t you think ?
QUICK – NAME FIVE FEMALE CLASSICAL PAINTERS. Unless you were an Art History Major (and even so) it’s pretty hard to come up with even five names. (Most of us struggle to get beyond Morisot and Cassatt.) Yet, among that small band there was a female painter with prodigious output, a fascinating role during the French Revolution and, most important of all, an extraordinary talent. ELISABETH LOUISE VIGEE LeBRUN (1755-1842) is perhaps one of the most important of all female artists (ever!) and, yet, is only now having her first career retrospective.
THE MOST FAMOUS ARTIST YOU NEVER HEARD OF. But when you look at her paintings, particularly her portraits, you can’t help but feel that you’ve seen them many times. And you probably have. Her subjects were often famous people from the period. And somehow her renderings are more personal, focused and memorable than others. They are posed realistically. Their gazes are soft yet direct – as though you’re pausing briefly mid-conversation.
THE EYES HAVE IT. AND SO DOES THE SKIN. The most marked characteristic of her painting is that there is a luminescent softness which radiates the warmth of human skin – and touch. It is almost impossible to see brush strokes; some describe Vigee LeBrun as having painted with a single hair brush. The skin is not “flesh-colored” but like actual skin is ivory and blue and white and pink and lavender and yellow and gray and has a perceptible shape and dimension to it. You can almost feel yourself putting your hand on the arm of one of her subjects. Even more communicative are her eyes. Her subjects never stare into space; they look right at you –not in a confrontational way but in a simply human and engaging one. And she never seemed to paint two pairs alike. To borrow a phrase, they reach out and touch someone. (Ooops … wrong century!)
In her own time and among her peers, Vigee LeBrun was considered to be a prodigy. By her early teens she was already accepting portrait commissions and owing to her mother’s second marriage to a wealthy, aristocratic Frenchman (a M. LeSevre, of the porcelain amily) she had easy access to those in the upper reaches of high society who could afford portraits. She is perhaps best known for her Rococo paintings (more than 30) of Marie-Antoinette. Many of these portraits show Marie Antoinette with her family, especially her children, in a public relations attempt of the day to show her in a more human and sympathetic light. For that particular time and place, Vigee LeBrun couldn’t have had a more influential patron! It seems funny now, but at this same time she painted a “scandalous” self-portrait which was widely reviled because she showed herself smiling, heaven forfend!, and even showed her teeth.
But the flip side of her association with Marie Antoinette and the aristocracy was that when the French Revolution began (1789), Vigee LeBrun was regarded as a royalist counter-revolutionary and had to leave the country. Thus began a long peripatetic time when she spent extended periods in Russia (where she painted Catherine the Great’s grandchildren), Austria, Berlin, Italy and England (where she painted Lord Byron). Not surprisingly, she was in great demand by the local aristocracies wherever she went. In her lifetime, she painted over 660 portraits and another 200 landscapes.
After a campaign by her ex-husband and friends, Vigee LeBrun was able to return to France during the reign of Napoleon I. But given her association with Marie Antoinette she was still regarded as a royalist and her career in France never returned to its pre-Revolutionary heights. She continued to paint pretty much until the end of her life, dying in 1842 at the age of 87.
You will be surprised at how many of the portraits you are already familiar with. Many of us saw some of them when we were studying French History and the focus was on the subject, not the painting. But the painting is truly extraordinary and now’s a good time to look at these works for the art they are and to appreciate a talent who’s been hiding in plain sight for over 200 years. There was a terrific article about Vigee LeBrun by none other than the famous historian Simon Schama which appeared in the Financial Times about a month ago, CLICK HERE to read it.