The Praise and Prejudices Vigée Le Brun Faced in Her Exceptional 18th-Century Career

Posted by: Kevin Coyle

Curated from and article written by Tiernan Morgan for Hyperallergic.com

The daughter of a pastelist and a hairdresser, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) painted and befriended Marie Antoinette, escaped the horrors of the French Revolution, and forged a career as one of the 18th-century’s greatest portraitists. It was only late last year that the first retrospective of her work, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun: 1755–1842, was held in her native France.

The Met’s iteration of the show, which is organized by European paintings curator Katharine Baetjer, was renamed Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France — a misleading title given that Le Brun fled the country in 1789 and travelled across Europe for a dozen years. The show marks the first US exhibition dedicated to Le Brun’s work since 1982. The exhibition, which will travel to the National Gallery of Canada in June (where it will revert to its original title), was first held at the Grand Palais in Paris. The curators of all three institutions — Xavier Salmon, Katharine Baetjer, and Paul Lang — have contributed to the Met’s excellent accompanying catalogue, as has Le Brun expert Joseph Baillio, whose scholarship has been integral to the project. In his introductory essay, “The Artistic and Social Odyssey of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun,” Baillio addresses the critical neglect of the artist’s work. Despised as a royalist during the Revolution and forgotten about during the advent of Romanticism, Le Brun continued to be assailed during the 20th century. Consider this passage by art historian Michael Levey:

It must be admitted that in the very real success Madame Vigée Le Brun enjoyed there is significance. She was to employ — if not positively exploit — her own femininity, throwing it over her female sitters with almost exaggerated effect.

Levey’s take parrots and reinforces the misogynistic gossip that dogged Le Brun throughout her entire career — that she was a beautiful woman of moderate talent who seduced her sitters — none of which was true. A number of historians footnoted Le Brun’s unique depiction of children and her emphasis on maternal values, but even this came under attack, most prominently from Simone de Beauvoir. In her iconic work of feminist philosophy, The Second Sex (1949), the philosopher asserted that Le Brun’s paintings acquiesced to societal expectations regarding a woman’s self-image.

Instead of giving herself generously to a work she undertakes, a woman too often considers it simply as an adornment of her life; the book and the picture are merely some of her inessential means for exhibiting in public that essential reality: her own self. Moreover, it is her own self that is the principal — sometimes the unique — subject of interest to her: Mme Vigée Le Brun never wearied of putting her smiling maternity on her canvases.

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