A Passion for Painting
Billowing ruched fabric, pointy toes of dainty shoes visible from beneath flounced skirts hemmed in gold fringes and ornate trims. A bejeweled crown on a pillow festooned with gold fleurs-de-lis; and a red velvet tablecloth flowing downward, its gold trim cascading onto a floral rug. Sumptuousness at every turn. Painting in its most magnificent forms.
I am walking through the exhibition Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art just before it closes last May. Porcelain skin and the richest colors infused with powdery light mesmerize. The Comtesse du Barry’s expression is jaded, the grey of her eyes matching the feathers arching above her straw hat and the lace ruffles fluttering around her collar bone. She is already the deposed mistress of Louis XV when this is painted, and Vigée Le Brun has rendered her in the style she became enamored with when she traveled to Antwerp with her husband. She studied the wood panels the Dutch masters slathered with oils while there and fell under the spell of Peter Paul Rubens, particularly enamored with his portrait of Susanna Lunden, below.
She would paint portraits in this style of many of the “happy few,” as the courtiers were known before the tipping point that took out the French monarchy, because she was fond of how the shadow the hats cast across the face added depth to the sitter’s features. One of the influential aristocrats she would treat to this flattering technique was the Comtesse de la Châtre, who would be instrumental in her non-official appointment as the first painter to Queen Marie-Antoinette.
A Life Devoted to Art and Culture
Vigée Le Brun began painting seriously at the age of 14 and produced over 660 portraits during her lifetime. She was an early adopter if there ever was one, a point made in the documentary The Fabulous Life of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (a snippet of which is embedded below): “She’s a business woman; a strategist who understood marketing ahead of her time.” Woman after my own heart, I must say! Her fees for portraiture were among the highest of her day and she changed the way women dressed by wearing more casual clothes than was the style and by painting the gentility of the era in less formal ensembles. She also had a kick-ass salon in her antechamber, one I would give anything to have attended!
Musicians, artists and the crème-de-la-crème of society attended her soirées. She put as much creativity into entertaining as she did her painting, and is credited with beginning a movement that ushered in “the return to antiques,” not in terms of furnishings but antique-style dinners. One such evening was inspired by Anacharsis, whose book her brother was reading aloud to her. The philosopher was recounting a Greek dinner in detail, which compelled them to summon the cook to have her add spices to the sauces that were reminiscent of the flavors he presented. They brought fabric drapes from her studio to wrap the women in Grecian costumes, then placed laurel wreaths upon the heads of some attendees. “I do not believe I have spent a more delightful evening,” Vigée Le Brun wrote in her memoirs.
She begins her reminiscences by stating clearly how much her talent as an artist meant to her: “I will begin by speaking of my childhood, which is the symbol, so to say, of my whole life, since my love for painting declared itself in my earliest youth. I was sent to a boarding-school at the age of six, and remained there until I was eleven.” She remembers drawing on everything she could find—her copy-books and those of her schoolmates; on the walls of the dormitory, where she drew faces and landscapes with colored chalks.
Some classmates, she says she depicted full-on, while others she captured in profile. How prophetic these exercises were given the powerful visages staring back at me during my tour of the exhibition—some gazes turned heavenward, a signature of hers, while others’ eyes searched stage right or stage left in profile!
“So it may easily be imagined how often I was condemned to bread and water,” she goes on to say of her time at the convent. “I made use of my leisure moments outdoors in tracing any figures on the ground that happened to come into my head. At seven or eight, I remember, I made a picture by lamplight of a man with a beard, which I have kept until this very day. When my father saw it he went into transports of joy, exclaiming, ‘You will be a painter, child, if ever there was one!’” A successful pastelist, he fostered her success, treating her to her first drawing lesson at the age of ten and giving her access to his studio and all the media therein.
“I mention these facts to show what an inborn passion for art I possessed,” Vigée Le Brun continued, admitting her fever was still going strong in her waning years; “it seems to me that it has even gone on growing with time, for to-day I feel under the spell of it as much as ever, and shall, I hope, until the hour of death.” She is writing this at age 79, just seven years before she dies.
Though the subjects she would paint would be many, she would gain the most fame from her portraits of Marie-Antoinette, who first invited Vigée Le Brun to Versailles to paint a full-length portrait of her in court dress that would be given to the queen’s mother, Maria Theresa of Austria. Upon receiving the painting, the empress was pleased to see the regal bearing of her daughter that Vigée Le Brun had captured.
But the dazzlingly formal portraits were only one piece of the story written by the friendship between these two women. The white muslin chemise that Marie-Antoinette is wearing in the painting above is an example of Vigée Le Brun’s desire to bring comfort to fashion during her era. Once the queen was seen wearing such simple attire, many in her coterie, including the Duchesse de Polignac below, often ditched the corsets and panniers of full court costumes when they were not attending formal functions. The painter’s bold move of presenting the above portrait of the queen en chemise at the 1783 Salon was a volatile one. It had to be withdrawn because visitors saw the informal costume on a member of the monarchy as blasphemous.
Within a few weeks Vigée Le Brun painted a replacement, a court portrait of Marie-Antoinette in lace-trimmed satin and a plumed headdress (shown in the image below), the position of the queen the same but the clothing more appropriate to her rank.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Grand Tour
Her relationship with the queen ended with the French Revolution in 1789, even before Marie-Antoinette was deposed and beheaded, as Vigée Le Brun decided to leave the country for fear she would be treated to the same fate the royal family was facing as they were imprisoned. When she left Paris, she was on her own without financial resources but that didn’t stop her from creating an equally successful career as she painted the posed aristocracy of a handful of countries in Rome, Naples, Vienna and St. Petersburg. She traveled the most extensively in Italy, visiting Venice, Tuscany, Milan, Parma and Bologna along the way. “Before the revolution, women ruled,” Vigée Le Brun wrote of the situation she found herself in; “the revolution dethroned them.” But even before the cards had turned for the aristocracy, female painters were prisoners of their gender, which proves what a brilliant and talented woman she was to have achieved such renown.
In order to maintain decorum as she traveled with only her daughter as her companion, she made it a point to tell everyone she had embarked upon a Grand Tour, which she believed would last only a few years. In the end, she was in exile for 13. She would set up studios in a number of major cities around Europe, including Naples, Italy, where she would paint portraits of the infamous Emma Hamilton—depicting her as mythological characters. The portrait below is of Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante and the one closing this post is her as Ariadne. Vigée Le Brun also painted her as a Persian Sibyl, a canvas she hung in her studios each time she moved to attract other women clientele who wanted to be painted as historical characters, which was highly fashionable at the time.
Fond Memories of Marie Antoinette
As Vigée Le Brun’s memoirs prove, no matter how many famous women and men she would immortalize abroad, she never lost her fondness for Marie Antoinette and never felt quite as much joy as she had experienced painting the queen. She shares an anecdote that took place in Bologna, Italy, where she had traveled to see Vicente Masip’s painting The Martyrdom of St Agnes (below). As she was studying the gruesome scene, one of the queen’s favorite musical pieces began to play and she burst into tears. She takes great pains in describing the monarch’s physical attributes in her memoirs, an invaluable source for biographers and historical novelists like Sena Jeter Naslund whose book Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette drew from them.
“Marie-Antoinette was tall and admirably built, being somewhat stout, but not excessively so,” Vigée Le Brun notes. “Her arms were superb, her hands small and perfectly formed, and her feet charming. She had the best walk of any woman in France, carrying her head erect with a dignity that stamped her queen in the midst of her whole court, her majestic mien, however, not in the least diminishing the sweetness and amiability of her face.”
It was the queen’s complexion that made the greatest impact on the painter: “…the most remarkable thing about her face was the splendor of her complexion. I never have seen one so brilliant, and brilliant is the word, for her skin was so transparent that it bore no umber in the painting. Neither could I render the real effect of it as I wished. I had no colors to paint such freshness, such delicate tints, which were hers alone, and which I had never seen in any other woman.”
Vigée Le Brun admits she was frightened of the queen when she initially painted her (the resulting portrait shown in the image above with the woman standing in front of it), “At the first sitting the imposing air of the Queen at first frightened me greatly, but Her Majesty spoke to me so graciously that my fear was soon dissipated.”
This next anecdote from Vigée Le Brun’s memoirs is one of the most fascinating to me because it describes a different temperament than the history books have bestowed upon Marie-Antoinette: “One day I happened to miss the appointment she had given me for a sitting; I had suddenly become unwell. The next day I hastened to Versailles to offer my excuses. The Queen was not expecting me; she had had her horses harnessed to go out driving, and her carriage was the first thing I saw on entering the palace yard. I nevertheless went upstairs to speak with the chamberlains on duty.”
“One of them, M. Campan,” she continued, “received me with a stiff and haughty manner, and bellowed at me in his stentorian voice, ‘It was yesterday, Madame, that Her Majesty expected you, and I am very sure she is going out driving, and I am very sure she will give you no sitting to-day!’ Upon my reply that I had simply come to take Her Majesty’s orders for another day, he went to the Queen, who at once had me conducted to her room. She was finishing her toilet, and was holding a book in her hand, hearing her daughter repeat a lesson. My heart was beating violently, for I knew that I was in the wrong. But the Queen looked up at me and said most amiably, ‘I was waiting for you all the morning yesterday; what happened to you?’”
“‘I am sorry to say, Your Majesty,’ I replied. ‘I was so ill that I was unable to comply with Your Majesty’s commands. I am here to receive more now, and then I will immediately retire.’ ‘No, no! Do not go!’ exclaimed the Queen. ‘I do not want you to have made your journey for nothing!’ She revoked the order for her carriage and gave me a sitting. I remember that, in my confusion and my eagerness to make a fitting response to her kind words, I opened my paint-box so excitedly that I spilled my brushes on the floor. I stooped down to pick them up. ‘Never mind, never mind,’ said the Queen, and, for aught I could say, she insisted on gathering them all up herself.”
The tenor of their friendship spanned a great divide—from intimate musical compositions performed in Marie-Antoinette’s private quarters to all the pomp and circumstance demanded of a monarchy. “When the Queen went for the last time to Fontainebleau, where the court, according to custom, was to appear in full gala, I repaired there to enjoy that spectacle. I saw the Queen in her grandest dress; she was covered with diamonds, and as the brilliant sunshine fell upon her she seemed to me nothing short of dazzling. Her head, erect on her beautiful Greek neck, lent her as she walked such an imposing, such a majestic air, that one seemed to see a goddess in the midst of her nymphs. During the first sitting I had with Her Majesty after this occasion I took the liberty of mentioning the impression she had made upon me, and of saying to the Queen how the carriage of her head added to the nobility of her bearing. She answered in a jesting tone, ‘If I were not Queen they would say I looked insolent, would they not?’”
In hindsight, I believe Marie-Antoinette deserved a great deal of credit for Vigée Le Brun’s success, and not just because of the trust mark bestowed upon the artist by tapping her to paint her portraits again and again. The queen intervened in life-altering ways, such as having Louis XVI assure Vigée Le Brun was granted entrance into the formal academy, which had denied her before due to her husband’s profession as an art dealer. And this was but one of the many struggles the driven artist faced during her lifetime. Before the king put his foot down and she was able to join the academy, her studio was seized because she was painting without belonging to a guild. After losing the father she adored at a young age, her stepfather took the money she made as a young portraitist, which was considerable, for his own uses. She referred to her husband as a dissipated gambler who squandered all her money, and he would prove to be egocentric by divorcing her while she was abroad, which caused her to lose her citizenship and made it more difficult for her to return to France! In spite of all this, she managed to leave a legacy that has institutions like the MET referring to her as “France’s Last Great Royal Portraitist.”
The one thing she had dreamed that was never to come true was to be recognized as a “history painter” during her lifetime. Only men were officially sanctioned to create mythological subjects and allegories like the one in the above painting, which she did create, while she was alive. The beautiful composition proves she was certainly up to the task of competing with the male painters of her generation. I think it was a smooth move that she infused her portraiture with mythological themes, such as in the paintings of Lady Hamilton, which helped fuel the fad. I say this because it feels like a thumbing of the nose at the establishment and proves what a risk-taker she was. I so admire her chops, don’t you?
The Modern Salonnière and this entry, An Inborn Passion for Painting, © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.