Vigée Le Brun: Revolutionizing Womanhood in Revolutionary France
Issue   |   Tue, 04/19/2016 - 23:30
Metropolitan Museum of Art
“Marie Antoinette and Her Children,” 1787

If you find yourself in need of a day trip away from your final paper or your textbooks, the “Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France” gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is a must see.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun is one of the finest 18th-century French painters and among the most significant of all female artists. Her unique perception of womanhood and the grace with which she painted created works unrivaled in artistic expression and stirred up controversy concerning propriety in art. Vigée Le Brun began her journey as an artist at a young age, mastering pastel portraits well before the end of her teenage years. Vigée Le Brun cultivated talent in portrait painting and began attracting wealthy clientele. Because she was one of the only woman painters in 18th-century France, Vigée le Brun garnered a lot of attention from the French elite, including Queen Marie Antoinette. Over the course of their lives, Vigée Le Brun maintained a close friendship with the queen, whom she painted frequently in a variety of attitudes, the most controversial being that of her in informal dress and another of her with her children. Though many considered these portrayals to be misaligned with the propriety of the age, Vigée Le Brun’s work continued to be heavily commissioned by aristocratic and royal women, as they favored and admired her style.

Vigée Le Brun rose to fame during a turbulent time in European history. Because of her close friendship with the French queen and much French aristocracy, the French Revolution forced Vigée Le Brun to flee France in 1789 and to relocate to Italy. From then on she continued to work and paint women in Florence, Naples, Vienna, St. Petersburg and Berlin and to capture feline royalty, which distinguished her as a new kind of painter. Her portraits of royalty and the wealthy are breathtaking, giving the women of the age a playfulness and livelihood that was well overdue.

With dark walls and dim overhead lighting, each Vigée Le Brun painting hung a well-illuminated gem on the walls of the MET. The ladies preserved in the many fine portraits grinned with pleasure as dozens of other spectators and I sauntered through the gallery, observing their fine composition and compassionate craft. When first entering the Special Exhibition Gallery, visitors are greeted with two behemoth portraits; the first a self-portrait and the adjacent a portrait of the French queen. The immediate contrast in formality between the two was only rivaled by their similarity in warm expression. In the first moments of touring the gallery, visitors get a taste of the kind of relationship Vigée Le Brun had with her sitters. Many of the faces radiate with passion and comfort.

A common characteristic of Vigée le Brun’s paintings is large, expressive water-brimmed eyes. All of her sitters maintain their playfulness and emotion through this technique. Vigée Le Brun portrayed both her sitters and herself in this manner. All of her portraits pay attention to the complexion of the subjects. Her work exhibits rosy cheeks, pumping life through the gallery.

Vigée Le Brun continued to use pastel throughout her travels. Midway through the gallery, I came across a series of pastels. A few of the portraits were ladies’ portraits as is most of her other work. However, what struck me the most were her pastels of sleeping babies. At the time of Vigée Le Brun’s artistry, portraits of babies were commonly captured with pastels because the compassion needed to be completed timely. Still, Vigée Le Brun’s understanding of her subject and the emotional states she rendered from them proved to transcend a confinement to medium.

Vigée le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France leaves the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 15, and I urge everyone to pay a visit and view Vigée Le Brun’s work. Her remarkable talent and historic role as a female artist make this exhibit well worth the trip.