BY VAL CASTRONOVO
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) is one of the most important female artists you've probably never heard of. The daughter of a pastel portraitist in Paris who died when she was 12, she went on to do great things, following in the footsteps of Anthony van Dyck and becoming a court painter — the first woman to be appointed painter to the king of France.
Louis XVI, in the hopes of rehabilitating his wife's image, famously commissioned the artist to paint a portrait of Marie Antoinette with their children, a monumental work that is the centerpiece of “Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France,” a glittering retrospective of some 80 portraits at The Met Fifth Avenue.
In the very red “Marie Antoinette and Her Children” (1787), we are meant to see the queen's kinder, gentler side, though critics deemed the portrayal more regal than maternal. Vigée Le Brun found inspiration in Renaissance Madonna and Child paintings and created a triangular composition, with the royal sitter flanked by three of her offspring, one of whom lifts the drapes on an empty cradle — presumably an allusion to a baby girl who died during the painting's execution.
Like van Dyck, whose collars and costumes she emulated, the painter showed her talent at a young age and was entrusted with commissions from royals and aristocrats early on in her career. Her profligate husband, art dealer Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, vigorously promoted her work (they would eventually divorce), and she became rich and famous in her lifetime.
Her allegiance to the royals necessitated a hasty emigration from Paris in October 1789, when revolutionaries were rushing the gates of Versailles. She began a 12-year exile, first in Italy, then in Vienna, St. Petersburg, Moscow and Berlin. In each locale, her ambition showed as she showed her work and lined up patrons. The exhibit here is organized chronologically, beginning with the pre-Revolutionary period in France. When an informal portrait of Marie Antoinette in a breezy chemise and straw hat caused a stir at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture's 1783 salon, she was asked to remove the picture. She started over and produced a larger, formal portrait, substituting a lacy satin dress for the milkmaid costume. The two works are displayed side by side, a testament to the artist's versatility and “can-do” attitude — same pose, same prop (a pink cabbage rose), different outfit.
She mostly painted women (elites, family, friends, friends' mistresses) and, in the 1780s especially, favored depictions of subjects in casual attire, despite her role as court painter. The court set, in fact, chafed at structured formal wear, eschewing corsets and panniers in informal settings for the more relaxed look and feel of the “chemise à la reine,” a loose muslin dress cinched at the waist with a sash. The shepherdess look is perfectly captured in “The Duchesse de Polignac in a Straw Hat” (1782) and “The Comtesse Du Barry in a Straw Hat” (ca. 1781), the latter a mistress of Louis XV and who was later guillotined.
The artist's portraits were renowned for their high prices and use of color and praised for their sensitivity and expressiveness. History painter Jacques-Louis David is said to have studied her portrait works and was in awe of her skill. Some of the most striking paintings here are those of children — the queen's son and daughter (“Madame Royale and the Dauphin Seated in a Garden,” 1784) and the artist's own daughter, Julie, shown in profile holding a mirror with her reflected image (“Julie Le Brun Looking in a Mirror,” 1787).
But her self-portraits are equally appealing, evidence of her reputed grace, charm and beauty. The show's signature image, a self-portrait from 1790, was produced after she visited the Uffizi's famed Vasari Corridor, a repository of self-portraits founded in the 17th century. Asked to join the club, Vigée Le Brun offered a painting, “with a palette in hand, in front of a canvas in which I am drawing the queen in white chalk,” she wrote in her memoirs. She is dressed in a black gown, with crimson sash and frothy white collar and turban, looking every bit the part of painter to the French court.
Equally beguiling is “Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbons” (ca. 1782), painted when Vigée Le Brun was only 27 and at the height of her powers. Another tour de force in black, white and red, it shows the influence of “the age of Rubens” with its ribbons — and van Dyck, specifically, with its plumed hat, per the catalog, which states: “Although awareness of her own beauty suffuses all the self-portraits of these years, the artist's seduction of the beholder is most intense here. The hint of a smile and the slightly open mouth and beautiful teeth convey direct address, as she uses her femininity to promote her art.”
Come hither and note the contemporaneous van Dyck show, “The Anatomy of Portraiture,” at the Frick, through June 5.