June 5 - August 8, 1982
History's judgment of Vigee Le Brun has been, on the whole, less than favorable. The fame she enjoys derives largely from the fact that she was the artist most consistently patronized by Queen Marie Antoinette of France. Her only truly familiar works are the portraits she painted of the Queen and the two depictions of herself as a young mother tenderly embracing her daughter (figs. 24 and 26). Though well-publicized, these paintings have not usually been interpreted within the framework of history, nor have they been set into a proper inconographical context. Scholarship has had little to do with Vigee Le Brun.|
She has fared poorly even at the hands of her most enthusiastic biographers. By treating her more as a social phenomenon than as a serious artist, they have unwittingly done her reputation a disservice. "She does not belong to the lineage of great painters," writes Pierre de Nolhac, who adds almost grudgingly, "but she holds a rank among the masters of the portrait" (Nolhac, 1908, p.1). If one is to believe the same author, Vigee LeBrun was incapable of formulating conceptions of any scope and her approach to her art was invariably simplistic. His Vigee Le Brun is a fragile, shallow, and trivial creature of whom he frequently speaks with patent condescension: "She is appealing because she is a woman, Academician though she may be, with her charms and her faults, which are themselves charming. Her talent is effortless, without pretension" (Nolhac, 1908, p. 2). The other authoritative monographs on the artist-be they by Pillet, Helm, Hautecoeur, or Blum - are equally belittling of her talent and her intelligence.
To some extent, the artist is herself responsible for this state of affairs. A very pale reflection of her personality comes across from a reading of her autobiography upon which are based all subsequent interpretations of the meaning of her life and work. Her Souvenirs were an apologia written in a spirit of self-protection by a woman who all her life had experienced hatred and envy. In them, the artist, then very old and facing death, glossed over the more soul-revealing aspects of her personal history. The often saccharine style in which they are written, or rather rewritten, can betray her thoughts and make the account tedious and self-adulatory.
What has been insufficiently emphasized is Vigee Le Brun's total devotion to her art. She was ambitious for professional recognition, social status, and financial success, all of which she attained to a remarkable degree. At the height of her career, acknowledged as one of the foremost painters of her generation, she was made a member of Europe's most distinguished academies and institutes of art. By her style of living and her social allegiances, she fits all the criteria which traditionally define the courtier-artist (see M. Levey, Painting at Court, New York, 1971, pp. 117-149). She was befriended by monarchs, lionized by the aristocracies of the various countries in which she lived and worked, and was often treated by them as an equal. Finally, those of her colleagues who sensed no threat from her rivalry greatly respected her.
As it stands, Vigee Le Brun's oeuvre is replete with scores of spuriously attributed works. The uncritical catalogues of Pannier (published in Nolhac, 1908), Helm, and Blum are pathetically out-of-date. More often than not, these compilers were content to cite the names of sitters and titles of subject pictures as they appeared in the appendices of the three volumes of the artist's memoirs. Furthermore, they tended to accept without reservation paintings that for over a century had been invading the sales rooms. Of the forty-one paintings illustrated in Helm's monograph, the sitters of four authentic portraits are misidentified, nine anonymous copies are treated as originals, and five paintings by other artists are incorrectly ascribed. Nikolenko's more recent catalogue of the artist's Russian works also contains grave errors of attribution.
The most clumsily executed paintings, whose true authors will probably never be discovered, have been given to Vigee Le Brun as a matter of course, simply because they date from the period during which she was most prolific. Without rhyme or reason, paintings by distinct personalities-among them Rosalba Carriera, J.H.W. Tischbein, Anton Graff, Giuseppe Grassi, Giovanni Battista Lampi, Antoine Vestier, jean Laurent Mosnier, Marguerite Gerard, Marie Victoire Lemoine, and Rose Ducreax -have been assigned to her. At the same time, perfectly authentic paintings, most dating from the incipient stages of her career, have been sold and published with attributions to Quentin de La Tour, Perronneau, Duplessis (see cat. no. 6), Labille Guiard and, incredible as it may seem, the great Watteau.
Her works have been copied, sometimes quite adeptly, more than those of any other French portraitist of the period. For example, the Musee de Longchamp at Marseilles has on deposit from Versailles a copy of the 1789 Duchesse d'Orleans, which has always been considered the prime version of the portrait, whereas it is merely an excellent copy of the panel we exhibit here as cat. no. 28. The Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, houses a copy of the ravishing Bacchante in the Mus6e Nissim de Camondo in Paris (fig. 17), so close to the original that it has been universally accepted as by the artist. Michel Florisoone, the author of one of the few comprehensive studies of French portraiture, reproduced in color an undistinguished version of Mme Le Brun's Self-Portrait "aux rubans cerise" (cat. no. 11) which at the time of its publication belonged to the Cognacq collection (see M. Florisoone, Portraits franqais, Paris, 1946, p. 115). Such copies often show up in the auction houses, and some have fetched handsome prices. One of the major aims of this exhibition is, therefore, to present a representative sampling of the artist's more significant achievements. Published in the catalogue with an extensive critical apparatus, they will set a standard for distinguishing Vigee Le Brun's work from that of other artists and from imitations, copies, and outright forgeries.
Elisabeth Louise Vigee was born in Paris during the reign of Louis XV. She was the daughter of a minor portrait painter, Louis Vigee, and a hairdresser of peasant origin, Jeanne Maissin. Her father died when she was only twelve, but he can be credited with instilling in her a love of painting and the desire to become an artist. By dint of will power, discipline, and fierce labor, she acquired her artistic training outside the system of studio or academic apprenticeship; she must, therefore, be considered as self-taught. While studying the art available to her in private collections, artists' studios, and the Salon exhibitions, she copied numerous works by old and modern masters. The models for her first very impressive attempts at portraiture were the members of her own family (see cat. no. 2). Possessed of a sharp visual memory, a flair for innovative poses, an unerring instinct for costume and drapery, and the ability to capture a likeness with relative ease, the adolescent Mlle Vigee began to paint portraits on a professional basis. At the age of nineteen she was licensed as a master painter by the Acad6mie de Saint Luc.
Somewhat over a year later, she married Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun-artist, restorer, critic, and dealer -a man deeply involved in the evolution of taste and connoisseurship in late eighteenth-century France (on Le Brun, see Emile-Mdle, 1956, and F. Haskell, Rediscoveries in Art..., London, 1976, pp. 18-23). Only one child was born to the couple (see cat. nos. 25 and 50), and the marriage was dissolved during the Revolution (see Chronology, 1794). Le Brun exerted considerable influence on his wife's development as a painter. In the opulent surroundings of their Parisian townhouses, the Hotel de Lubert and the Hotel Le Brun, she was exposed to a constant flow of stimulating works of art imported from all over Europe. Le Brun is commonly described as a libertine who ruthlessly exploited his wife's career for his own ends. He was instrumental in orchestrating and promoting her career, and he also helped to chart the course of her social life. Vigee Le Brun was gregarious and the musical and literary salon held in her home was one of the most popular in pre-revolutionary Paris. Like the great actresses of the stage with whom she associated and many of whose portraits she painted, Vigee Le Brun at the height of her reputation lived on the fringes of the aristocracy and the wealthy to whom her undeniable talent, her savoir-faire, and the sheer glamour of her person gave her access.
In 1778 the young Mme Le Brun was called to Versailles to paint her first portrait from life of Marie Antoinette (fig. 15). Five years later her admission to the Acad6mie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture was secured by nothing less than a royal command. For years she had been barred from this honor by the fact of her husband's profession. This momentous event marked the official consecration of her ambitions. Between 1783 and 1789, she exhibited more than forty portraits and historical compositions at the Acad6mie's biennial Salon. Artistically these were her most creative and productive years. The critic of the Memoires secrets, an astute observer of art and society during the final years of the ancien regime, clearly defined the secret of her phenomenal success in his account of the Salon of 1783:
Today, ... despite the history paintings found [at the Salon] in such abundance that one has never seen so many, despite the excellence of the numerous masters competing in the arena of the grand genre, who would believe, & would it not be blasphemous to say, that Apollo's scepter seems to have turned into a spindle, & that it is a woman who bears the palm of victory? This is not to imply that there is more genius in a painting of two or three knee-length figures [see cat. no. 9] than in a vast composition of ten or twelve figures in full-length; in a picture based on a simple idea, than in one whose complex design is the equivalent of an entire poem. This only means that the works of the modern Minerva are the first to attract the eyes of the spectator, they call him back repeatedly, take hold of him, possess him, elicit from him the exclamations of pleasure & admiration which artists are so anxious to hear & which are the usual signs of superior works of art. The paintings in question are also the most highly praised; they are talked about, they are the topics of conversation at court and in Paris, in suppers, in literary circles ... . When someone announces that he has just come from the Salon, the first thing he is asked is: Have you seen Madame le Brun? What do you think of Madame le Brun? And immediately the answer suggested is: Madame le Brun, is she not astonishing? Such is the name ... of the woman to whom I am referring, who has become so famous in such a short period of time, for it was only [recently] that she was made an Academician without any of the usual formalities, in conformity with the privilege accorded her sex, & given one of the four seats assigned especially to women.
Now, what has contributed more than just a little to the spread of Madame Le Brun's fame is the fact that she is a young and pretty woman, full of wit & grace, very charming, seeing the best society of Paris and Versailles, giving exquisite supper parties for artists, writers and persons of quality. This is because her house is a refuge where the Polignacs, the Vaudreuils [see cat. nos. 14 and 16], the Polastrons, the most distinguished and refined courtiers come to seek a retreat from the boredom of the court & encounter the pleasures that escape them elsewhere. Nothing less than such powerful patronage was necessary to allow her to break through the barriers of the Acad6mie to which, notwithstanding her merit, she would not have gained entry because her husband degrades art by his commercial dealings, the principal cause of her exclusion. (Louis Petit de Bachaumont ' et al., "Premiere lettre sur les Peintures, Sculptures & Gravures expos6es au Salon du Louvre," Memoires secrets pour servir d I'histoire des lettres et des arts depuis M. DCC. LXII. jusqu'd nos jours, XXIV, 1783, pp. 3-5).
In the summer of 1785, a grotesque portrait of the discredited and now widely unpopular Marie Antoinette, shown strolling in the gardens of Trianon with her two oldest children, was presented at the Salon. This large painting (now in the National Museum, Stockholm) was the work of a young Swedish artist, Adolf Ulrich Wertmciller. The exhibition of the portrait caused a great hue and cry among critics who deplored the casual manner in which the august sitters had been portrayed. Wertmtiller's failure to produce a monarchial image capable of redeeming Marie Antoinette in the eyes of her disabused subjects caused alarm in the highest echelons of government. When the salon closed, the Minister of Fine Arts, the Comte d'Angiviller, officially ordered on behalf of the Crown a second portrait of the Queen and the royal children, which was to be completed before the opening of the following exhibition. Only a French artist could invest the subject with the dignity required by the propagandistic message the painting had to convey. The painter designated was Mme Vigee Le Brun.
The practical implications of this event cannot be overemphasized. It acknowledged Mme Le Brun's position of the artist most favored at court and demonstrated that her abilities were such that the State could entrust her with a commission of the greatest political significance. Conceived as a history painting, the portrait gave Vigee Le Brun the opportunity to prove her skills once and for all. Her intent was to communicate with simplicity and grandeur a moral lesson demonstrating the virtues of the Queen both as a Sovereign and as a mother. The elaborate composition evolved slowly. It was finally based on the triangular configurations of certain Italian Renaissance altarpieces. Any study of Vigee Le Brun must ultimately concern itself with this crucial image, since many of the elements which characterize her art coalesce within it (fig. 30). The artist displayed her technical proficiency and her love of belle matiere; she illustrated the themes of maternal and filial piety so frequently associated with her; and she translated human emotions into dramatic facial expressions and individual gestures. Lastly, the portrait is the quintessential statement of Vigee Le Brun's monarchist convictions. Its complex design and impeccable workmanship are the result not of accident but of a long and rigorous intellectual process. Every detail of the composition was painstakingly chosen to merge harmoniously and meaningfully into the grand didactic scheme. When the painting appeared in the Salon of 1787, its reception was marred only by the worsening political situation.
Vigee Le Brun's success made her a figure of controversy. She began to suffer from the unpopularity of those whose portraitist she had become, whose society she frequented, and whose philosophy she shared. The liberal press and scandal sheets found it easy to villify her in a series of scathing attacks, impugning her morals and suggesting that she was the mistress of Finance Minister Calonne, the Comte de Vaudreuil, and the painter Menageot (see cat. nos. 14, 15 and Appendices I, III, IV, VII). In 1789, she left France, horrified by the blood-letting that had already taken place and in fear for her safety. Had she remained, she would undoubtedly have met the tragic fate which befell many of her friends and patrons.
Endowed with sense, sensibility, and an enormous capacity for work, she heroically embarked on the second phase of her career. Over a period of twelve years she worked in Italy, Austria, Germany, and Russia. By the force of circumstances she became a practical business woman, quickly learning to capitalize on her international reputation as an artist and the prestige she had gained at the court of Versailles. The lists of her European sitters read like the Almanache de Gotha. She aroused the jealousy of local artists and the ire of prospective patrons by what was termed her "overweening presumption," for she demanded and obtained for her work prices that no other portraitist would have dared to charge (see Appendix VI).
Wherever she traveled she introduced her own taste in costume and sustained high standards in her technique. What her works lost in polish and chic, they gained in romantic sensitivity and picturesque appeal.
Repatriated after twelve years of exile, she rejected the new order and joined her fellow gmigrgs in England. When she returned to Paris, this time permanently, the tremendous fortune she had earned abroad, judiciously invested, allowed her to live in comfort for the rest of her life. Except for brief excursions into Switzerland and to southwestern France, she led a sedentary existence divided between her country house at Louveciennes and her apartment in Paris. Without the challenge of academic rivalry or the stimulus of travel, her inspiration faded. After 1825 her painting is without great character. A similar decline marked the late career of her contemporary Greuze. Vigee Le Brun could never come to terms with the fierce emotionalism of the Romantic aesthetic, which in reference to Victor Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris, she said was too strong. She had far outlived her century.
Nevertheless she did not vanish into oblivion. Her salon was the place where the old generation met the new. As with her portraits, she came to be admired as a symbol of France's monarchic past. She had watched the fall of the Empire she detested and the return of the Bourbons for whom her loyalty had never lagged. With a heavy heart, she witnessed their own debacle in 1830. The installation of the July Monarchy of Louis Philippe filled her with sincere contempt. The great undertaking of her last years was the publication of memoirs that she hoped would reflect the variegated texture of her life and work and give voice to her artistic principles, philosophical beliefs, and ideology (see cat. no. 57). More than mere anecdotal history, her Souvenirs constitute one of the essential records of the interaction of art and patronage in the last decades of the eighteenth century. Mme Vigee Le Brun died in Paris at the age of eighty-seven.
Vigee Le Brun's works fit into the long tradition of French portraiture. She knew this tradition well and responded to it creatively. Rigaud, Tocqu6 and the Van Loos provided her with conventional schemes for her large state commissions. Nattier and Quentin de La Tour shaped her concept of society portraitur g. She sought ideas for her paintings of children from Chardin, Lepicie and Francois Hubert Drouais. From the works of contemporaries like David, Duplessis, Fragonard and even Houdon, she culled compositional devices or technical methods. Above all, Greuze's paintings proved for her an inexhaustible fountain of inspiration.
She also avidly absorbed the art of the past. Her maternites or mother and child images, to be fully appreciated, must be traced back to their Raphaelesque prototypes (see cat. no. 40). Berlin's allegorical Prince Henry Lubomirski as the Genius of Fame derives its pose from a Hellenistic sculpture, the so-called "Crouching Venus" (see H. Bock, "Ein Bildnis von Prinz Heinrich Lubomirski...," Niederdetallation Beitrdge zur Kunstgeschichte, XVI, 1977, pp. 87-88). The connection between Vigee Le Brun's portrait of her daughter holding a mirror (cat. no. 25) and The Philosopher, a work attributed to Jusepe de Ribera, is much too close to be fortuitous. In Italy, figures of women dancing amid swirling veils on the walls of Pompeii gave the artist a theme for a number of compositions (e.g., cat. no. 50). Her historical portraits of Emma Hart were based on classical sculpture and on specific seventeenth-century Italian paintings (see cat. nos. 31 and 36).
The most enduring influence on her, however, was Rubens. In 1781, she and her husband toured the Low Countries. In Flanders she visited churcfies and private collections in which she saw works of the master, as it were, in situ. The experience overwhelmed her and caused her to modify, radically, her working methods. It was at this time that she adopted the wooden panel as a favorite support for her easel pictures (see cat. nos. 16, 25, 26, and 28), but even her works on canvas benefited from her contact with Rubens (see cat. no. 30). Gessoed grounds, tinted brown or ochre, took on a warm tonality. A composition was sketched onto this preparation, paint was applied thinly in the darker areas, and only the highlights were impasted. Often the luminous underpainting was left visible through the scumbling. The pictorial surface was built up in even layers, accounting for the enamel-like quality of many works, as well as their perfect preservation. The subtlest effects, most notably in the flesh tones, were added in superimposed layers of colored glazes. Prior to this time, her painting had tended to be evenly opaque, somewhat chalky in the lights and brown in the shadows. Perhaps this was the consequence of her frequent use of pastel, the medium in which she first gained mastery. She became quite daring in combining or juxtaposing colors. After Vigee Le Brun returned to Paris, she set about painting a tribute to Rubens - a portrait of herself holding a palette and wearing a straw hat which casts a shadow over part of her face. This first experiment in the new technique is an avowed pastiche of Rubens' Chapeau de paille (National Gallery, London), a painting she had seen in Antwerp in the van Havre collection. Her Self-Portrait "au chapeau de paille," finished in 1782 and exhibited the next year in the Salon, is a marvel of bravura painting (fig. 7).
Few painters have rendered with such infinite grace the trappings of privileged existence and the pomp and splendor of monarchy. At her best Vigee Le Brun excelled in the depiction of the beauteous forms and languors of women, the tenderness of motherhood, the appealing manners of children, the elegance of the courtier and the seductiveness of the courtesan. Her society portraits are not mirror images of her models. She represented many of the women who posed for her as hot-house creatures, delicate and sometimes overtly erotic. She imposed her will upon them, dressed them imaginatively according to her own sense of fashion. Plainness or stark ugliness in a sitter was neutralized not only by cosmetic brushwork but also by a clever mise-en-scene, a piquant pose, and a sumfycucus, colorful costume to distract the eye from the truth. She cannot be faulted for this. These were the rules of the game; she understood them as well as any of her rivals, and better than most. Her success as a portraitist in a sophisticated world depended largely on her ability to idealize objective reality. If her portraits, are rarely penetrating, it is because above all they are elegant stylizations reflecting the mentality of an ultra-refined society for whom surface polish was of maximum importance. The same can be said of most of the portraiture produced in the course of the eighteenth century. A painting like David's Mme Siriziat and Her Child (Musee du Louvre) is no more eloquent in its message than Vigee Le Brun's self-portraits with her daughter, from which it clearly derives.
As can be seen from her self-portraits (cat. no. 11) Vigee Le Brun stressed her femininity, making it a valuable asset. It was said of her principal rival, Ad6laide Labille Guiard (whose works are sometimes difficult to differentiate from those of her master Francois Andre Vincent) that she painted like a man. Vigee Le Brun was particularly sensitive to the feminine qualities of women who sat to her. In the works exhibited here one finds a broad range of traits: coquetry in the Self-Portrait (cat. no. 11); wit in the Comtesse de Chastenay (cat. no. 17); tenderness in the Rouge-Pezay portrait (cat. no. 24); regal aloofness in Marie Antoinette (cat. nos. 19 and 27); lymphatic boredom in Countess Skavronsky (cat. no. 30); pure voluptuousness in Emma Hart and Isabella Marini (cat. nos. 31 and 37); ingenuousness in Princess Youssoupoff (cat. no. 44). She also understood the virile strengths of some of her male sitters: Calonne (fig. 10), Hubert Robert (fig. 35), and Stanislas II Augustus (cat. no. 47) are three of the most forceful images of the eighteenth century.
Form was for Vigee Le Brun a function of color. Drawing was not the means to an end; she never used it to solve technical problems of scale or compostion. The few preparatory works that have come to light are either head studies in pastel or oil sketches. Her finest drawings are finished and self-sufficient works, much more painterly than linear in quality (see cat. nos. 21 and 22). In her painting she luxuriated in virtuoso brushwork and in bold coloristic effects; these are the very substance of her art.
Optimism permeates the art of Vigee Le Brun. Her ideal was one of happiness; most often a smile brightens the faces of her sitters. One senses that for her the act of painting was totally absorbing, more a sensual experience than an intellectual one. She states time and again in her writings that she remained oblivious to everything and everyone when immersed in her work and that work was the well-spring of her life. From it she derived pleasure in times of tranquillity and solace in times of trauma and anguish. "All that I have endured," she wrote to her husband from Moscow in the winter of 1801, convinces me that my only happiness has been in painting."
Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.
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