Birthdays / French / Look Back: Art History / Painting

Happy 258th Birthday Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun!

Self Portrait, 1800. oil on canvas, 78.5cm x 68cm. Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

Self Portrait, 1800. oil on canvas, 78.5cm x 68cm. Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

Happy Birthday – Where’s the party? The Palace of Versailles.

Vigée Le Brun lived in and visited many different places over the course of her long career including the Netherlands, Austria, Russia, Italy and England. But her early association with Marie Antoinette shaped the rest of her career – in fact, it was because of this association that she fled France at the outbreak of the Revolution and visited these other places. Her relationship with the queen also shaped her body of work. After the first sitting in 1779, Vigée-LeBrun produced thirty other paintings and drawings of Marie Antoinette.

This portrait of Marie Antoinette (1783) still hangs in the palace of Versailles. For more on the Queen's costume, click on the image.

This portrait of Marie Antoinette (1783) still hangs in the palace of Versailles. For more on the Queen’s costume, click on the image.

What should you bring? A Rubens painting.

Particularly this one. Peter Paul Rubens Le Chapeau Paille, 1622-5, National Gallery, London.

Particularly this one. Peter Paul Rubens Le Chapeau Paille, 1622-5, National Gallery, London.

OK, maybe this one’s a little difficult to bankroll. Still, it’s worth looking at the similarities between his work and some of hers. She was influenced by the paintings of the earlier artist both in Paris and abroad, and strove to capture the lightness and liveliness of his paintings. For example, her 1782 portrait with a straw hat was done in imitation of his La Chapeau de Paille.

See the similarities? Vigée Le Brun lamented that engravings made after the original missed the effect of the Rubeneque colours. Self Portrait in Straw Hat, 1782.

See the similarities? Vigée Le Brun lamented that engravings made after the original missed the effect of the Rubeneque colours. Self Portrait in Straw Hat, 1782.

Try not to…focus too much on her biography.

Vigée Le Brun led a fascinating life and wrote lively memoirs chronicling her travels and experiences among Europe’s upper classes. If you focus on her life too much, you might end up thinking, as some have before, that she was a bit of a silly socialite. You might even end up thinking about her images simply as illustrations on each page of her life. But really, they’re better than that. They deserve to be seen as great works in their own right, as well as interesting because of their historical significance.

Madame Vigée Le Brun and her Daughter, 1789.

Madame Vigée Le Brun and her Daughter, 1789.

And before you go…take a look at Portrait of the Artist’s Brother.

Vigee Le Brun would have painted this portrait of her brother at the age of 18. Even though she’d achieved some commercial success at this point, she provided the principle income for her family (her father died by choking on a fish bone when the artist was 13). Hiring models would have been too expensive, and in periods between commissions it made sense to use the people around her – such as her brother.

Portrait of the Artist's Brother, 1773. Oil on canvas, 61.6 x 50.5 cm, St Louis Art Museum

Portrait of the Artist’s Brother, 1773. Oil on canvas, 61.6 x 50.5 cm, St Louis Art Museum

It seems as though it would be hard to make a lively composition using brown on brown. Still, there’s an energy about this painting. It’s not just the sitter’s young face, but also his stance. He seems to be moving, twisting towards us and moving away from us at the same time. All this movement contrasts with the polished brass buttons of the boy’s coat and his carefully arranged hair. Like the curling page of paper in the book, it’s a good bet that the boy will be messy soon. The suggestion of future messiness makes the portrait seem even more like a moment in time, instead of a timeless monument to a personality.

Up to spend more time Before the Art? Check out what a portraitist across the Atlantic was doing at the same time: Happy 257th Birthday Gilbert Stuart. Or, say a belated Happy birthday to the strange Leon Battista Alberti

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5 thoughts on “Happy 258th Birthday Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun!

  1. I never paid much attention to this artist until she cropped up again and again on a recent road trip to 49 American art museums. Her vitality catches your eye across a gallery. In St. Louis I was immediately drawn to the early portrait of her brother and was delighted to find it here. I’ve been wondering why, at the height of her fame, she doesn’t seem to have painted male subjects. Presumably because she was a woman?

    • I could definitely do with knowing a little more about the artist but this sounds very likely – for the type of extended observation required for portraits, it was probably preferable to have women paint other women. I can’t even tell you how jealous I am of your trip! Thanks for stopping by here, and come back again soon.

      • It’s a pleasure to find this blog. And you would indeed have enjoyed our trip, which by design focused on museums we didn’t know in cities like Detroit and Toledo, as opposed to New York and Chicago. We were amazed at the wealth of great art and the warmth of the welcome in secondary or even tertiary cities. For more on our route and discoveries along the way: http://art-roadtrip.blogspot.ca/

  2. Just a little note in passing to add to your interesting post, for anybody touring round East Anglia, there is a beautiful self-portrait by Vigée Le Brun hanging at Ickworth House, Suffolk. Ickworth House is a National Trust property open to the public which also shows works by Titian, Velazquez, Hogarth and Gainsborough.

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