3.21.2016

Vigée Le Brun at The Met

Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France, on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 15, 2016, tells the story of an ambitious self-taught neoclassical painter who pleased the French court and secured a "prodigious" (her word, in translation) amount of portrait commissions, including ones from the Queen herself, but who had the foresight to see the Revolution coming and to get out alive.

The exhibition Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France continues through May 15, 2016 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) was one of the few women admitted to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. While her father was deemed an excellent portraitist and her parents entertained the artist set, young Elizabeth largely taught herself how to paint through copying casts and paintings in the Palais Royal. She steadily built an income through portrait commissions. While supremely skilled, she was not shy in seizing opportunities, including playing on her good looks. The Met exhibit strongly hints at such self promotion. She steadily climbed the social ladder, and in 1776, Mademoiselle Vigée married Jean Baptiste Pierre Lebrun, an art dealer, critic, and a very bad gambler.

In the galleries, Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary Franceat the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The exhibition at The Met presents 80 works, primarily oils on canvas and a small number of pastels. Vigée Le Brun's portraits reveal the artist's keen insights into both the public and private presentations of self in the 18th century. She often painted her portraits in any way that she preferred. For her first Salon, she presented several pictures, including one of Marie Antoinette dressed in the manner of the country. Considered inappropriate for public display, she asked for the work to be withdrawn. Her self-portraits serve as both reflections of her lively features and as engaging advertisements for her trade. If she lived today, she would no doubt excel in social media.

In the galleries, Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The 1789 revolution forced Vigée Le Brun to flee France, escaping with her young daughter on the very night the King and Queen were arrested in Versailles and brought to the Tuileries Palace in Paris. After initially setting up shop in Rome, Vigée-LeBrun worked as an itinerant portraitist throughout European cultural capitals. She secured several portrait commissions in Russia and Prussia before moving back to post-Revolutionary France. She was also an excellent pastelist, a medium she learned from her artist father and a particularly suitable one for artists on the go.

In the galleries, Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Significant work of other French women artists are located in the museum's European galleries, including works by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749–1803), Marie Denise Villers (1774–1821), and Marie-Guillelmine Benoist (1768–1826). Labille-Guiard, admitted to the French Académie Royale in 1783 along with Vigée Le Brun, managed to weather the revolutionary storm in France. Both the works by Villers and Benoist currently on display share the fact that they were once ascribed to Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), the most famous painter of Revolutionary France.

Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France continues through May 15, 2016 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Resources:
• Pages on The Met's website devoted to the Vigée Le Brun exhibit.
• An online version of Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) is available at UPenn online library. Translated by Lionel Strachey. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1903.

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