Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun – Réunion des Musées Nationaux - Grand Palais

Stephanie van den Hende
Sep 18, 2015 2:47PM

This exhibition is co-produced by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Canada. It will be presented in New York from 8 February to 15 May 2016 and in Ottawa from June 10 to September 12, 2016.  

This first retrospective devoted to the works of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun presents an artist whose life stretched from the reign of Louis XV to that of Louis-Philippe (one of the most eventful and turbulent periods in European and above all French history in modern times). Self-portraits by Vigée Le Brun abound: paintings, pastels and drawings that elegantly associate womanly refinement and self-respect. With the Ancien Régime and its arts establishment coming to an end, she surpassed most of her rival in the field of portraiture. Vigée Le Brun used self-portraits to assert her status, advertise her image and demonstrate her maternal pride despite the constraints of a career. In this respect, her most masterful performance was shown at the 1787 Salon where she presented two paintings that cannot be dissociated. First, a portrait of Queen Marie- Antoinette surrounded by her children, an attempt to counter the public’s impression of her as an extravagant libertine; secondly, the portrait of a female artist pressing her daughter Julie to her bosom in an effusive Raphael-like manner. The latter is one of the finest and most popular of the many works by the artist in the Louvre and has remained emblematic of maternal affection since its first public exhibition. The culture of the Enlightenment and the influence of Rousseau induced the artist to assume this role, which she did gladly and with resounding success. As a counterpoint, she painted the Portrait of Hubert Robert. These paintings have become absolute icons embodying joie de vivre and creative genius, complementing and responding to each other in kind.

What is even more remarkable was her determination to overcome obstacles standing in the way of 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. The latter died when she was barely an adolescent. Drawing inspiration from his example, the brilliant young artist was accepted as a master painter in the old artists’ guild, the Académie de Saint-Luc. In 1776, she married the most prominent art dealer of her generation, Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun (1748-1813), but his profession prevented her from being accepted in the prestigious Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture because its regulations formally forbade any contact with the art trade. That being said, the marriage had a beneficial effect on Vigée Le Brun’s career. As the price of Flemish paintings soared, she became better acquainted with them, she learnt how to master the magic of colour and the secrets of the technical mastery of Rubens and Van Dyck. Until her marriage her clientèle had mainly come from the upper middle class and the aristocracy, but by 1777, she was working for the members of the royal family, and the following year for Queen Marie-Antoinette, her exact contemporary. However, it was not until 1783, after intense polemical debate within the Académie, that the opponents to her admission to the Royal Academy were thwarted by the direct intervention of king Louis XVI.

Since the Académie Royale was founded in 1648, during the Regency of Anne of Austria, only a very limited number of female artists had been elected to the establishment. As they were not allowed to draw nude males in life classes, they were excluded from practicing the most prestigious genre, history painting, which required a perfect of anatomy and the assimilation of codes of gesture, emotion and bodily movement. Therefore, Vigée Le Brun concentrated on portraiture, despite some very accomplished incursions into the fields of history and genre painting. 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 colour and improvised a whole range of poses and costumes that brought great variety to her portraiture. This exhibition succeeds in emphasizing the artist’s extraordinary professional ambitions and discredits the vacuous condescension of her first biographers and some more recent writers who have vitiated our understanding of the various challenges that Vigée Le Brun had to face during her long and nomadic career. During the Revolution, Emigration, Consulate and Empire she lived and worked in Italy, Austria, Russia, Prussia, England and Switzerland. She engaged in a dialogue with the old masters and competed on an equal footing with her contemporaries, often to her own advantage. In the eyes of Academicians, portraiture was a secondary genre, but after the upheavals in France the ‘social self’ had begun to gain ascendancy over the ‘inner self’.

The art of Vigée Le Brun cannot be limited to the obvious seductiveness of her art or any qualities attaching to the “fair sex”: her portraits of men, such as her Portrait of Hubert Robert, have tremendous strength of character. Contrary to the strictly feminist approach to art history, which sometimes treats Vigée Le Brun as a victim of her condition as a woman, wife and mother, this exhibition highlights the reasons for her enduring success in a series of theme-oriented spaces: the auto-didactic charter of her training, her forceful entry into the male-dominated bastion of the Académie Royale; the challenges posed by the demands of the Court; the strategies she devised to succeed in the Salon during the 1780s when she was at the top of her game. Moreover it provides historical context by delineating the stages of her long exile, the nature of her social achievements while living abroad and the steps taken to regain her citizenship. A chronological, but also theme-based approach has in the main been adopted. However there are a few tangential sequences relating to family, friends and the artistic, theatrical and musical communities in which she lived and worked, the symbolization of political power, her use of topoi taken from such inspirational masters as Raphael, Titian, Domenichino, Rubens, Van Dyck and even her contemporary Greuze. Finally in her incursions into allegorical and mythological painting both in her history paintings and in her portraiture.

Vigée Le Brun was without doubt an “exceptional woman” (Mary Sheriff) who advanced with incredible resolve and tenacity. She used the tools of her art not only as allurements but also as armement.

France’s first tribute to Vigée Le Brun brings together over 150 works executed in different techniques and in various media, some of which are exhibited for the first time. They come from prestigious institutions, among them the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, the Louvre Museum, the National Gallery and The Royal Collection Trust in London, the Château de Versailles, the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and from many private collections.


Curators: Joseph Baillio, Art Historian, Xavier Salmon, Director of the Graphic Arts Department at the Louvre Museum.
Scenography: Loretta Gaïtis.

Stephanie van den Hende