The French feminist painter who flattered Marie Antoinette

A Grand Palais exhibition shows Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun to have been as intelligent, charming, resourceful – and indeed liberated – as she was beautiful


‘Why have there been no great women artists?” The oeuvre of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun seems the perfect rebuttal to the question famously posed by US art historian Linda Nochlin in 1971.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun: 1755- 1842, at the Grand Palais in Paris, highlights the achievement of one of the finest portraitists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, spanning the court at Versailles, 12 years in exile, the Napoleonic empire and the restoration.

Feminists long portrayed Vigée Le Brun as a victim of sexism. “If ever there was a painter, it’s you, my child,” her father Louis, a pastel artist, told her before he died. By the time she was 14, she was earning a living as a portrait painter, though her stepfather pocketed her earnings. Her mother chaperoned sessions with male sitters. To deflect their lascivious stares, the beautiful adolescent ordered men to look off into space, to give them an “inspired” look.

At 21, Vigée married Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, an art dealer who acted as her agent – and who, like her stepfather, kept her money.

Thanks to the intervention of King Louis XVI, Vigée Le Brun was admitted to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1783. The academy’s director, Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre, implied she had used her looks to get there. Painter Jacques- Louis David later paid Vigée Le Brun the sexist compliment of saying that one of her paintings, which hung near his in the Salon, was so good it looked as if it had been painted by a man.


Vain and submissive 

The subtext of the feminist vision of Vigée Le Brun as a victim was that she was vain and submissive. The philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, who saw motherhood as a form of slavery, was disgusted by Vigée Le Brun’s apparent happiness in Maternal Tenderness, a self-portrait with her six- year-old daughter, Julie.

In her 1949 treatise The Second Sex, Beauvoir wrote that “Mme Vigée Le Brun never wearies of displaying her smiling maternity on her canvases . . . by doing nothing other than contemplating herself, she annihilates herself. She is stereotyped . . . an imaginary idol made of cliches.”

However, the Grand Palais exhibition shows Vigée Le Brun to have been as intelligent, charming, resourceful – and indeed liberated – as she was beautiful.

Women of her time were not allowed to paint nude male models, an essential part of history painting then considered to be the highest art form. So Vigée Le Brun painted allegories with female nudes, such as Peace Bringing Abundance, her submission for entrance to the Royal Academy.

Having left her husband behind in Paris, Vigée Le Brun supported herself, her daughter and her governess through 12 years of exile, charging far more than her contemporaries for her portraits. In Rome, she refused to paint the pope because the Vatican demanded that she wear a veil. After returning to Napoleonic France, she again demonstrated her independence by travelling to England and Switzerland. In old age, her salon was frequented by such luminaries as Chateaubriand and Balzac.

In exile in Rome in 1790, Vigée Le Brun painted herself at the easel, in a black dress with a red satin sash, white lace collar and white cloth knotted gracefully on her head. Her lips are parted in a smile, and although she seems to look at a mirror, the features she is sketching are those of Marie Antoinette, not her own. In the midst of the revolution, this was her declaration of loyalty to the doomed queen.

Vigée Le Brun’s first portrait of Marie Antoinette, who was executed in 1778, shows the queen in a panniered white- satin dress festooned with bows and gold tassels. Her crown sits on the table beside her, and a bust of Louis XVI seems to watch over her.

This was probably the most honest of more than 30 portraits that Vigée Le Brun completed as the queen’s official painter. It shows Marie Antoinette’s homely Habsburg features: the large, red nose, strong chin, fleshy lips and bulging eyes. But the queen and her mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, were delighted.

Vigée Le Brun’s effigies of Marie Antoinette became more and more flattering, as the painter learned to maintain a resemblance while minimising flaws. The queen enjoyed her company and would often play the harp while Vigée Le Brun sang after sittings.

By 1787, when she painted Marie-Antoinette and Her Children, the queen was deeply unpopular. Rumours of her alleged sexual depravity were rife. She was accused of a lesbian affair with the Duchess of Polignac and of incest with her son, the dauphin.

The portrait with children was intended to rehabilitate Marie Antoinette as a mother, but it backfired. Conscious of the queen’s unpopularity, Vigée Le Brun hesitated to send the painting to the Salon. Seeing the large, empty frame, the public jeered “There’s the deficit”, an allusion to the queen’s profligate spending.

In 1781, Vigée Le Brun and her husband travelled to the Netherlands. She loved the way the hat in Rubens’s portrait of Susanna Fourment cast a shadow over the sitter’s face, and painted herself, the queen, the Duchess of Polignac, Madame du Barry and others in similar attire.

Maternal Tenderness was modelled on a Raphael Madonna and is Vigée Le Brun’s best-loved painting. The writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau had made emotion and the sensitive education of children fashionable. All over Europe, society women clamoured to be painted in the same pose.

Vigée Le Brun was a trendsetter in other ways. She preferred simple white muslin dresses to elaborate court clothes. When she painted Marie Antoinette in such a dress – equated with a nightgown or undergarment – it created such a scandal that the painting had to be withdrawn from the Salon. She also ushered in the later craze for neoclassical fashion. As she worked her way across Europe, painting surviving aristocrats after the French revolution, she often dressed them in Greek style.

A particularly charming portrait shows Varvara Ivanovna Ladomirskaia, the _illegitimate 15-year-old daughter of the Countess Strogonoff. Vigée Le Brun painted the portrait in Moscow in the winter of 1800-1801, in lieu of rent.

Although some of her finest portraits are of men, Vigée Le Brun was particularly skilled at conveying the personalities and sensuality of female sitters. Like Varvara Ivanovna, most stare at the viewer with an unabashed look of seduction.


Seduction time

The 18th century was an age of seduction, as recorded by Vigée Le Brun’s contemporary, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and shown in another Paris exhibition, Fragonard in Love: Suitor and Libertine, at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris. “Frago,” as he called himself, adapted effortlessly to the evolution of French sexual mores. Author Dominique Bona calls Fragonard’s oeuvre “the most delicious, lightest, naughtiest painting in the most exquisite, lightest and naughtiest of centuries”.

The embers of playful, courtly love, based on tenderness and often represented by shepherds and shepherdesses, are obvious in Fragonard’s Blind Man’s Bluff.

Under Louis XV, libertinage – sex for the sake of pleasure, shorn of sentimentality – became fashionable. (And it still has its advocates: Dominique Strauss-Kahn defended the practice at his trial.) Wanton sex was often portrayed as the gods at play, or as masters taking advantage of servant girls, as in Fragonard’s Futile Resistance.

Female consent seems not to have mattered to 18th-century man. In Fragonard’s The Lock, a young man bolts the bedroom door as a young woman resists him. The painting is ambiguous: is this a case of libertine desire, or rape?

Two subsequent paintings placed it in the context of the new morality established by Choderlos Laclos in his 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The series ends with a painting of lovers signing a marriage contract.

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