Feminism was already under serious discussion in enlightened 18th-century France. In 1790, the Marquis de Condorcet (1743–94), for example, published an essay entitled “On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship” (a right they did not receive until 1944!), and the writer Olympe de Gouges (1748-93) and many others advocated for the rights of women. While Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) was not an avowed feminist, she lived the life, successfully supporting her family as a court painter and, after the Revolution, surviving by painting her way across Europe. Gita May, author of The Odyssey of an Artist in an Age of Revolution, calls her “a woman artist who managed to achieve greatness in spite of numerous obstacles due to her gender and to the explosive political times in which she lived.”
The exhibition “Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun,” at Paris’s Grand Palais is, amazingly, the first major Vigée Le Brun retrospective ever held in France (one was held at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1982). Could the reason be a lingering disdain for a woman painter who portrayed primarily women, most notably Marie-Antoinette (as the queen’s official portraitist)? Hard to say for sure, but it wouldn’t be at all surprising, especially considering that women artists are still so underrepresented in museums today.
Vigée Le Brun wasn’t the only woman painter around at the time, however. The show includes accomplished works by such female contemporaries as Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Marie Guillemine Le Roulx de La Ville, Adèle Romany and Marie Victoire Lemoine. One work by Labille-Guiard brings the artist together with her students Marie Gabrielle Capet and Marie Marguerite Carreaux de Rosemond.
The exhibition begins with a series of self-portraits, showing Vigée Le Brun as a beautiful young woman and gradually maturing. Although there are none of her in old age, they seem to be honest appraisals of her changing features. Another section presents works by her father, Louis Vigée, a talented pastel portraitist, who taught her the basics before dying when she was 12 years old.
Vigée Le Brun ended up supporting her family with her art by the time she was 15. She painted her first portrait of Marie-Antoinette in 1778 and was admitted to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1783.
Here we have a number of portraits of the queen by Vigée Le Brun, variously showing her in full, outlandish regalia, complete with a towering hairdo topped with feathers and ribbons (and a bright-red nose that looks incongruous to us today); in a simple dress and straw hat; and, in a painting meant to provide positive propaganda presenting her as the fecund mother of France, surrounded by her children (a poignant detail not mentioned in the exhibition is the empty cradle the dauphin Louis Charles points to; his sister, Madame Sophie, had died as a baby and was painted out of the picture).
A few of Vigée Le Brun’s lovely, almost impressionistic landscapes are also on show, and one wishes that more had survived to better demonstrate her artistic diversity, for, although her remarkable talent is undeniable, I must admit that by the end of this extensive and mostly highly pleasing show, I was growing tired of the too-great similarity among the portraits, whether of French or other European royalty.
It has been said that she flattered her subjects, and having just seen an exhibition at the Royal Academy in London of the work of another 18th-century painter, Jean-Étienne Liotard, who most certainly did not flatter those whose portraits he painted, even the aristocrats, I tend to agree. Ironically, her paintings of babies, so difficult to capture with their smooth features, are full of personality and individuality, while many of the women she painted have similar turned-up noses, pink cheeks, cherubic lips and angelic expressions.
Vigée Le Brun’s great skill still shines through, however, in masterful paintings that are the equal or better of many of her male contemporaries.