Saturday, November 7, 2020

Inktober Day 1: Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun

She's best known today as the personal portraitist for Marie Antoinette. But Vigée Le Brun's life started far from Versailles as the daughter of a fan painter and hairdresser. She was largely self-taught but soaked up whatever advice she could get, first from her father, and after his death from several professional painters in her limited social orbit. First her widowed mother and then Elisabeth made advantageous marriages, however, and she used her newfound society contacts to open a small portrait studio of her own. When the authorities heard they raided and shut it down because it was unlicensed (a portrait studio can be illicit- who knew?). So she began the official Academic process of becoming an artist,* eventually catching the eye of Marie Antoinette and other nobility. Purportedly Le Brun (also spelled Lebrun) was an excellent conversationalist-- a crucial skill for moving through the ranks at Versailles-- which meant no one dreaded having to sit for portraits with her like they typically would. As a result the images are strikingly friendly and relaxed for their time. 

*I'll write a separate post about the Academic System since it was such a crucial part of the history of European art in the 18th and 19th centuries and is unlike anything we have today. I'll be referring to it over and over throughout these Inktober bios. 

Here are some of her society portraits:

Portrait of Mohammed Dervish Khan, by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (via Wikimedia commons). This depicts him as an immovable mountain of a man, which was unusual for Vigée Le Brun (perhaps she didn't often get a chance as most of her clientele were demure ladies and fancy men). However the fine treatment of the fabric (that white hem!) and Rococo-style lightness of the sky and landscape, were quite typical of her work. Moreover the animated narrative of character-- in Khan's case dominance-- was one of Vigée Le Brun's particular strengths. A client could depend upon her to portray them in an engaging way.

Portrait of Countess Golovina, c. 1800, by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (via Wikimedia commons). This pose is reminiscent of her more theatrical work, as it was common to paint noble ladies in character as classical Greek goddesses or other respectable dramatic roles. Such portraits ranged from striking (such as an unusual pose and costume) to ridiculous (self-conscious nobility floating through the sky in togas) and didn't take themselves very seriously. They were just a way for ladies to be divas without losing their modesty. They're not to be confused with the ultimate respectable genre of History Painting, in which classical events were treated in a very serious and grandiose manner.
Peace Restoring Abundance, 1783, by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (via Wikimedia Commons). Representing abstract ideas as hot ladies was called "allegorical painting." It was taken very seriously. You can see here that Vigée Le Brun was tiptoeing near the glass ceiling which separated portrait artists and decorative artists from "serious" art. This is suitable decorative and "feminine" in nature but can hold its own next to a history painting. Later in her career Vigée Le Brun would again seek to break through to the serious, prestigious side of painting.

Self Portrait With Her Daughter Julie, by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (via Wikimedia Commons). This caused a scandal, believe it or not. One court gossip sheet wrote, "An affectation which artists, art-lovers and persons of taste have been united in condemning, and which finds no precedent among the Ancients, is that in smiling, [Madame Vigée LeBrun] shows her teeth." Vegée Le Brun's self portrait reminds me of Dutch painter Judith Leyster's self portrait of 1630, in which she's also relaxed and smiling with her mouth slightly open. This was likely acceptable because the painting was not only from another era but also misattributed to Frans Hals, who would've been creating an admiring depiction of a woman by a man. That was allowed much more leeway than women frankly depicting themselves, as evidenced in Fragonard's The Swing, 1767 (a contemporary of Vigée Le Brun). The fact that this image drove Simone de Bouvoir to dismiss her from the 20th Century canon of great women artists is more baffling to me; she apparently took issue with its "in your face" motherhood. Weird. Julie was her only child, and I think showing her off like this is... not feminist exactly, but you can tell she's proud of her daughter and genuinely likes her.
Portrait of Hubert Robert (1788), by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. I love this portrait and its vivacity. Vigée Le Brun's skill with painting pretty women, fine fabrics and dainty accessories served her well at court, but she certainly didn't lean on those gimmicks to create a good painting. Her portraits of men are where her best techniques had freer range; in terms of surface, brushwork, composition, power and originality, many have noticed that her male and female portraits are markedly different.
Portrait of the Artist's Brother (1773) by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (via Wikimedia Commons). This sensitive portrait is of Elisabeth's little brother around age 15 in "schoolboy dress." The extreme light and dark is called "chiaroscuro" and was a favorite of the generation of painters who came before Le Brun, like the Italian Baroque painters Caravaggio and Gentileschi. However you can see the clear Rococo style in the softer "breathier" outlines and brushwork, the more delicate handling of light and reflection, and the almost Impressionistic color play on the cheeks and background. Where the Baroque painters created a bold sense of monumental timelessness carved neatly in stone, the Rococo painters were after a lifelike essence, that spark of wit and gust of wind which reflected the Enlightenment ideals of humanism and the gallop of social progress, ideas and culture.

Marie Antoinette With Her Children, 1787, by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (via Wikimedia Commons). The goal here, aside from the Queen's personal fondness for her family, was to improve Marie Antoinette's public image as a loving mother. Marie Antoinette relied upon Vigée Lebrun to help her public image to walk the fine line of respectability and relatability. They obviously didn't succeed in the end, but what portrait could quell the French Revolution?

Marie Antoinette in a Robe de Gaulle (1783) by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (via Wikimedia Commons). This created a significantly larger scandal. This was during Marie Antoinette's "farm girl" phase, when she had a small, relatively informal palace and farm-like garden constructed where she could retreat and let her hair down a bit, acting out her bucolic fantasy with her friends and letting her children run around and play. The dress she wears is, believe it or not, extremely informal and therein lies the scandal. These sorts of casual gathered muslin dresses, called Robe a la Creole or Robe de Gaulle, were a striking departure from the boxy formalwear of the day. It's topped off with a simple straw hat and gold sash, with a bouquet of roses that the Queen appears to have gathered herself. This portrait contains no reference to the King or to her role as Queen or mother, nor any reference to courtly life at Versailles which she had grown to loathe and rebel against. It shows her instead as a fully private, independent, rustic entity. It did NOT go over well. The court was outraged at the overt diss and took her personal independence as an insult to the institution of monarchy. All of this objection was focused on the Queen's rustic attire. The public, on the other hand, was outraged because the country dress resembled a chemise, and they thought the Queen was painted in her underwear. It cemented her undeserved reputation as an evil sex-crazed deviant. The popular dress style even got the pejorative nickname "the Queen's underpants" (chemise de la reine). To add insult to injury the dress was made from imported British cotton, and as the fashion caught on it hurt the French silk industry. Today the painting endures not as a scandal but as the most appealing portrait of the Queen and a glimpse into her personal world.

Vigée Le Brun's artistic world opened further when she was able to travel to the Netherlands in 1781 to see the works of the great Dutch and Flemish masters like Rembrandt, Vermeer, Leyster, Rubens and Frans Hals. Their brilliant treatment of light and color, their intimate and casual atmosphere, and their more nuanced approach to chiaroscuro deeply influenced Le Brun's work.

Portrait of Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi (1792) by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (via Wikimedia Commons). This pastel portrait exhibits a bright clear palette and almost impressionistic treatment of light, reminiscent of Vermeer especially.

Portrait of Baronne de Crussol (1785) by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. There is so much Dutch influence here: rich cheerful colors, the watery light and background, the tilted head with a throwaway gaze tossed back toward the viewer. Even the dress, though spectacularly fashionable for its time, recalls the bold trim and shape of the Dutch Golden Age (mid-1600s).
Portrait of Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron, 1783. The atmosphere, palette and light recall the work of Rembrandt. She's also wearing the rustic Robe de la Creole like Marie Antoinette's portrait from the same year. With perfect manners, an innocent demeanor and a spicy lust for gossip, Gabrielle was an overt favorite of the Queen and thus hated by the rest of the court. Poisonous gossip swirled around her, namely that she and Marie Antoinette were lesbian lovers (there's no basis for this), specifically that they loved to scissor! Anyway I think the outfit in this portrait is a reference to her status as the Queen's favorite who was invited to her inner circle at the Petit Trianon (Marie Antoinette's private make-believe farm palace), and that Vigée Le Brun captured her studied innocence perfectly.
After the French Revolution Vigée Le Brun fled France, traveling Europe and staying with high society associates in Italy, Austria and Russia. She worked as a traveling portraitist to foreign nobility, witnessing Napoleon's rise from the faraway safety of the Russian court.

With the fall of the French monarchy the Rococo style also fell out of favor. Napoleon's favorite Jacques Louis David embodied the new style of neoclassicism: sober, intellectual, simpler in composition, with perfectly shaded forms whose edges were as clear and sharp as a razor. Of course, with as many references to ancient Greece and Rome as possible. The influence of the Baroque Italian masters also loomed large. 
Vigée Le Brun never completely adopted this style, particularly the crispness, but she adapted and seems to have been a true fan. She adopted an earth-toned palette which recalled Rome and antiquity. Her compositions became more simple and statuesque. As portraiture became more serious and classically influenced, her work was more easily able to cross over into history painting.

Portrait of Helena Radziwiłł née Przeździecka (c. 1802-5) by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (via Wikimedia Commons). This woman was a Polish Princess but she looks like a wise and practical woman of the world. Just compare her frugal clothing and level facial expression with the ostentatious whimsy of Versailles just twenty years prior.

Portrait of Natalia Kurakina (1797) by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (image via Wikimedia Commons). With its earthy color palette and subdued pose, Le Brun has clearly moved into her Neoclassical phase. But she marries the clear-headed simplicity with the friendly nuanced movement which was her calling card and created an extremely appealing portrait.

Lady Hamilton as the Persian Sybil (1792) by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (via Wikimedia Commons). This piece doesn't do anything special for me but Vigée Le Brun considered this the best work she ever did. It does perfectly embody the static composition, smoothly shaded forms, earthen color scheme and Classical reference which dominated the Neoclassical style. Though some softness and vibrancy of the Rococo style remains, it represents a welcomed end to frivolousness. 

This is my own portrait of Vigée Le Brun, drawn in pen. I used one of her self portraits as a reference, which she completed as an homage to the Dutch masters. Her colors are clear and atmospheric, and even her straw hat is a reference to a particular Dutch work. I couldn't reference the colors obviously but I tried to keep the linework light and bright. The pen's detail point was perfectly suited to mimic the softness of her blending and brushwork. I also heavily cropped Le Brun's portrait so that I could concentrate on the contours and detail, and so that I could place her figure moving out of frame while glancing back, to capitalize on Le Brun's heavy use of implied movement and visual narrative.


No comments: