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Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun: A Study in Courtly Charm and Artistic Empathy

By Arielle C. Frommer, Crimson Staff Writer

Marie Antoinette is an iconic, larger-than-life historical figure who has long embodied the French cultural and social milieu pre-Revolution. I am equally amused, disturbed, and fascinated by the Rococo lifestyle that suffused every aspect of her life at Versailles, characterized by its gross extravagance often verging into tackiness and frivolity. And yet the portraits of Antoinette that emerged at the time are not necessarily characteristic of such elaborate overindulgence. Instead what we have is a refreshing image of a regal, lovely, yet unusually sympathetic lady. One artist in particular can be held responsible: Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette’s court painter and a talented artist with a keen sensitivity to the nuances and quirks of her patrons.

Her portraits are a clear and vivid depiction of Marie’s likeness, featuring delicate pastel colors and showcasing her dainty features. The fact that these images are so widespread has perhaps contributed to our preoccupation and fascination with Marie Antoinette and the surprising but powerful empathy that people feel towards her. Vigée’s works have almost certainly shaped our perception of Antoinette’s cultural identity, laden with regal elegance and youthful vulnerability, especially in contrast to the larger presence of the French Rococo movement.

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“Rococo” refers to the ornamental and theatrical style of decoration that arose in pre-Revolution France, permeating everything from the elaborate gilded architecture in Versailles to the pastel-hued frivolity of famous artworks like “The Swing.” While Vigée’s portraits feature this exquisite treatment of light, color, and attention to beautiful details, her works also contain elements of naturalism that defy the typical Rococo aesthetic of excessive luxury. Take the portrait “Marie Antoinette with a Rose.” While Marie’s sumptuous skirts and graceful beauty evoke elements of Rococo, the simple naturalism of the scene and her understated, knowing smile create a sense of timeless elegance that transcends the Rococo artistic tradition. Moreover, it demonstrates Vigée’s particular efforts to understand her patron and depict the truest essence of Antoinette’s self.

Vigée herself was known to be charming and pleasant, an easy conversationalist who could draw out the personalities of her patrons in their sittings and was affectionately known as Madame Le Brun at court. She was well-liked with all the people she worked with and was thus able to draw out the best qualities of them in her portraiture. Today, we are gifted with dozens of lovely portraits that bring out the humanity and vulnerability of the French nobles she painted, shaping our perception of their beauty and character.

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Yet even as one of the most popular portraitists of her time, she struggled to gain academic recognition for her art. She was rejected several times from the French Academy of Painting and Sculpture mainly because of her gender and her husband’s profession as an art dealer. It was only through Antoinette’s influence that she was finally accepted.

Her application was not a work of portraiture, but instead an allegorical work titled “Peace Bringing Back Abundance.” This work’s sophisticated blending of styles and technical virtuosity are particularly fascinating. The two figures are allegorical representations of peace and abundance. The rosy and fair Abundance is on the left: The flowing drapery, bursting bouquet of fruits, and delicate flowers in her hair highlight her femininity and embody aspects of the Rococo era. Peace, who guides her, is clad in darker colors and decidedly more masculine in appearance. The relative austerity and realism of Peace’s features, as well as the choice of an allegorical classical theme, all lean towards the rising movement of Neoclassicism that was beginning to emerge in Europe. This work skillfully plays on this tension between the decorative and lavish Rococo and the stately and representational Neoclassicism and displays Vigée’s keen awareness of artistic techniques and traditions.

While Vigée had to flee France at the start of the Revolution, she managed to escape with her life and career relatively unscathed. She went on to paint aristocrats in Austria, Germany, Italy, and Russia, and her works were exhibited in the Paris Salons throughout her exile. Her portraits continued to refuse an era or tradition, and her sensitive and empathetic portrayals of high-ranking individuals garnered even more popularity for her works.

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Vigée was finally allowed to return to France in 1802, where she continued to produce virtuosic and charming works. “Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat” is one painting that falls within this period of her work, painted in the style of Rubens that indicates Vigée’s study of the Old Masters. This work is executed with great skill and naturalism; the bright colors of the flowers in her hat, lilac dress, and silk shawl light up the canvas and her rosy blush and delicate features lend her character a coyish and fair demeanor. As a painter in the circles of Marie Antoinette and numerous nobles and courtiers, Vigée valued self-image, and this work is a superb example of how she represented her persona as the beautiful and pleasant Madame Le Brun. She appears both elegant and approachable, her lips parted in a faint and knowing smile, and she holds a palette and brushes, emphasizing her role as artist first and foremost.

As the artist who shaped our view of so many aristocrats, “Self Portrait in a Straw Hat” is a rare example of her shrewd and empathetic gaze turned on herself. This work embodies her skill at rendering forms naturally, knowledge of past artistic precedents, synthesis of newer styles, and acute understanding of the subjects she painted. Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun is truly one of the most notable and talented portraitists of all time, and her talent, ambition, and charm paint a portrait of a truly remarkable artist.

– Arielle C. Frommer’s column "Portrait of a Female Artist" explores the lives, art, and stories of the most celebrated and empowered female artists of the ages.

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