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.
What should you bring? A Rubens painting.
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.
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.
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.
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.