A retrospective of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, a remarkable French female Rococo portraitist of the eighteen century, is currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A phenomenal and informative exhibition, the selection of works from multiple museums and private collections reveals the successful international career in France, Central and Eastern Europe of the artist who lived for 87 years.
Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbons, 1781, oil on canvas, 64.8 x 54 cm. Kimball Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
The exhibition begins with a biography of Vigée Le Brun and crucial artworks that define the beginning of her career. She was mostly self-taught and introduced to portraiture by her father. The artist was brought to court by Marie Antoinette, and a painting by Alexis-Joseph Perignon depicts the moment when they met. In order to stand out in the art world that was dominated by male artists, Vigée Le Brun found a way to catch the attention of the Queen. Vigée Le Brun spilled her brushes to identify herself as a painter; therefore, the Queen immediately acknowledged the painter’s skill and commissioned several individual and family portraits.
Marie Antoinette with a Rose, 1783, Oil on canvas, 116.8 x 88.9 cm. Lynda and Stuart Resnick
Vigée Le Brun was married to Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, an art dealer who was trained as a painter. A self-portrait of Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun is included in the show to give a sense of his background in painting. A marriage to an art dealer could be a disadvantage and a prevention of the admission to the French Academy, but Vigée Le Brun managed to maximize her connection and set foot in the art world. She was one of fourteen women admitted to the French Academy. However, the couple divorced not long after 1789.
We would expect the lives of women artists would be easier more than 200 years later, but there is still a limited number of women artists becoming well-known and the monetary value of their work is still not comparable to male artists. The art world is still dominated by men. Artnet contributor Eileen Kinsella reported that the first woman artist made it to 74 on the top 100 lots by living artists and only one woman is considered a top ten living artists.¹
The Duchesse de Polignac in a Straw Hat, 1782, Oil on canvas, 92.2 x 73.3 cm. Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Versailles, France
Vigée Le Brun had to maximize her social skills and focused on mastering female portraiture, depicting femininity, and the luxurious style in order to keep her reputation and distinct among artists, mostly male. Although male artists would face the same issue of keeping their reputation and self-promotion, the role of court painter was dominated by men. Her proximity to the Queen and her hard work in networking granted the artist more commissions by the aristocrats. A portrait of the Comtesse Du Barry with a white muslin dress and a straw hat became a fashion icon. Many noble women commissioned a portrait with the same outfit, including the Queen. Orientalism and Neo-Classicism were also a trend thus the noble women started customizing their costume, which is usually Turkish or related to mythological goddesses, to let the artist portray them in a moment of fantasy.
It is a patriarchy art world. Women artists are in fact outnumbered and have to fight harder to advance their practice—the art world is still a majority of male artists, although women artists seem to be doing so much better now. The first female artist ranked no. 3 and four out of ten top living artists in 2015 are women. It is still dominated by men and the number is slightly less than men, but we are getting there. Hopefully, we can manage to keep the number pretty even and I cannot wait to see when men and women are sharing the same amount of spotlights. ²
Madame Grand, 1783, Oil on canvas, Oval, 92.1 x 72.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Despite the connections to the same gender, Vigée Le Brun was also recognized by male patrons. Several portraits of noblemen are represented in the show. She would also paint controversial images, such as using a young boy to portray Venus instead of a female figure to challenge the perception of masculinity and femininity. She also plays with the viewpoint; several portraits show figures facing upward instead of directly towards the viewer. Toward halfway of the exhibition, a room full of massive portraits of Marie Antoinette and aristocrats is as impressive as large-scale History Paintings in the Salon. She proves that a woman artist is just as versatile, talented, and skilled as male artists.
Charles Alexandre de Calonne, 1784, Oil on canvas, 155.5 x 130.3 cm. Royal Collection, Windsor Castle, London, UK
After the room of large-scale portraits, a room of small sketches and pastel drawings stands in contrast. The drawings are painterly with well-rendered figures in fresh-tone. They also show the process of the artist, who contemplates the final painting through studies and drawings. Word of her talent and hard work began to spread outside of France. During the Revolution, she was given opportunities to travel to Switzerland and work at the royal court in Vienna and St. Petersburg. Although she is well-known for her portraiture, an atmospheric landscape of the Swiss Alps, one of the last paintings in the exhibition, is equally compelling. The landscape is beautifully painted with hundreds of tiny detailed figures that are comparable to The Procession to Calvary by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Stanislaw August Poniatowski, formerly King of Poland, 1797, Oil on canvas, Oval, 98.7 x 78 cm. Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Versailles, France, on deposit from the Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
Overall, this is a worthwhile show that I could see many times. The show includes moving works by Vigée Le Brun from different collections that are not often shown together. The texts placed alongside with the artwork in chronological order sum up the artistic skill and intelligence of the artist. Gender was not an issue for her. Vigée Le Brun made a name for herself because of her persistence and talent and became a key figure in the art world in the eighteenth century. She proves that a female artist can be as skillful as a male artist.
I am hoping the art world continues to be more open to female artists when we are equally as skilled and talented. It is getting more female students going to art school, based on my observation, but I do not know how many of them could make it in the art world. People should pay more attentions to women artists; we should get recognized when we execute phenomenal work. I hope works of art by women, continue to become sought after, and the value reflecting their hard work.
Kinsella, Eileen. “Who Are the Top 100 Most Collectible Living Artists?” Artnet. October 27, 2015. https://news.artnet.com/market/100-collectible-living-artists-2015-346139
“The Top 10 Living Artists of 2015.” ARTSY. December 16, 2015. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-the-top-living-artists