Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun Scandalized the 18th-Century Paris Art World with Her Smile
Update: Jan. 31st, 2019
On Wednesday, at Sotheby’s Old Masters sale in New York, Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun’s 1788 work Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan was auctioned for $7.2 million, smashing its high estimate of $6 million. The sale marks a record for a woman artist working in the pre-modern era.
In 1787, Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun debuted her latest self-portrait at the prestigious Paris Salon. In it, her lips are parted in a demure smile; she cradles her young daughter, effusing maternal intimacy. Both are clad in gauzy white dresses that tenderly suggest a shared identity.
The Salon was appalled. “The painting shocked because it ignored rules about facial representation,” explains historian Colin Jones, a professor at Queen Mary University of London. “The idea of the smile with the teeth showing was not exactly new, but to have Madame Vigée-Le Brun actually identified with this gesture is seen as throwing away the rulebook of Western art.” A teeth-baring grin was for genre paintings, irreverent images of bourgeois domesticity à la Jan Steen. It was certainly not intended for the refashioning of Mother and Child, one of the oldest motifs in the Western canon.
One contemporary journalist wrote that Vigée-Le Brun’s display of teeth was “an affectation which artists, connoisseurs, and people of good taste are unanimous in condemning”—a fervor representative of the controversies that filled the French painter’s life. As Jones notes: “She liked breaking conventions.”
Vigée-Le Brun was born in 1755 to humble Parisian beginnings. She exhibited a gift for the arts from a young age, although she was rejected from formal training on the basis of her gender. Instead, the aspiring artist worked in a history painter’s atelier, took oil painting lessons, and visited the city’s most important galleries. By the 1770s, she was taking clients. By 1783, she had claimed one of the four seats reserved for women at the Academy, due to direct intervention from Queen Marie Antoinette, her most famous subject, and King Louis XVI.
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.
Scathing as it was, this review in Mémoires Secrets actually points to one of the profound contradictions of Vigée-Le Brun’s work. By professionalizing and publicizing her talent, Vigée-Le Brun was actually breaching the Rousseauian ideas that she championed. As Higonnet puts it, Rousseau was “very conservative” toward women, despite his efforts to liberate mankind. Both parents, the French philosopher wrote, were necessary for the stable rearing of a child—but a woman’s role was purely domestic. It did not extend beyond the crucial bearing, nurturing, and nourishing of offspring.
“Rousseau had a bunch of ideas, which he wanted to bundle together, and Vigée-Le Brun wanted to pick and choose: the mother-child relationship or the rights of the individual, for instance,” Higonnet says. “Vigée-Le Brun reasoned that the rights of man must logically include the rights of women. She out-Rousseaued Rousseau.”
For this, she believes that Vigée-Le Brun deserves recognition as a key painter of 18th-century France—or maybe something more. “Her move into the public domain was so radical for a woman,” Higonnet says, “that, in a way, she was the most radical painter of the period.”