Her dizzying, convention-breaking rise to fame was made possible by the rapidly changing world around her. She had a unique understanding of “the new style of modern individuals,” says Anne Higonnet, a professor at Barnard College. Vigée-Le Brun portrayed her sitters as glamorously natural and naturally glamorous, a talent Higonnet likens to “going to a super-intuitive stylist that will make you look perfect for Instagram.”
This gift for transformation—as well as Vigée-Le Brun’s more radical beliefs—were on display during the artist’s first Salon in 1783. In a departure from the structured courtly style, her submission Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress (1783) shows the queen in a loose-fitting muslin frock, hair unadorned, holding a rose. A self-proclaimed royalist, Vigée-Le Brun meant to reimagine royalty in accordance with modern, individualist aspirations toward authenticity, transparency, and natural virtue. To Vigée-Le Brun—and, indeed, to Marie Antoinette—the painting respected the ideas popularized by Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, ideas upon which the 1789 French Revolution would be built.
To her contemporaries at the Salon, however, this styling was frivolous, inelegant, and inappropriate for a queen. “That was one of those collision courses that was bound to end in terrible accident,” explains Higonnet. “The Queen was attracted to everything that was pleasant and comfortable about being a modern individual, but she wanted to hang on to the prerogatives of being queen.” No one, Higonnet continues, wanted “to obey and pay taxes to a modern individual.” Vigée-Le Brun’s portrait was removed shortly after its unveiling, though its aesthetics would remain popular with the Queen and the aristocratic community.
Critics also pilloried Vigée-Le Brun for her very presence in the 1783 Salon. The newsletter Mémoires Secrets rumored that “she does not paint her own pictures, that she does not finish them at least, & that an artist who is in love with her (M. Ménageot) assists her.” For many, it was impossible to believe that a woman could—or would—display her professional achievements so publicly as in the Salon.