A Most Successful Woman

Vigée Le Brun

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, February 15–May 15, 2016; and at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, June 10–Sepember 11, 2016.
Catalog of the exhibition by Joseph Baillio, Katharine Baetjer, and Paul Lang.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 278 pp., $50.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun: Self-Portrait, 1790
Galleria degli Uffizi, Corridoio Vasariano, Florence
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun: Self-Portrait, 1790

It comes as something of a surprise that we have had to wait until 2015 for a comprehensive exhibition in France of the work of Madame Vigée Le Brun—perhaps the most gifted French portraitist of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, an artist who gave posterity the most enduring image of Queen Marie Antoinette. The only comparable show of her work prior to this one was mounted more than thirty years ago at the Kimbell Art Museum, in Fort Worth, through the instigation of the art historian Joseph Baillio. The Paris show, somewhat scaled down, is now on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum. What is the reason for this lack of interest in the artist’s homeland?

The quality of her work has never been called into question, though there can be no denying a certain tradition of mistrust toward female painters. The unbreakable bond with Marie Antoinette certainly did nothing to help her reputation in Republican France. Vigée Le Brun is known first and foremost as the queen’s portraitist and she remained attached to the values of the ancien régime. Her work celebrates the most engaging qualities of the Enlightenment: a natural elegance and a new attitude, strongly influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, toward motherly love. What’s more, over the course of a very long career—she died in 1842 at the age of eighty-six, having executed more than 660 portraits—she never really evolved much. As Richard Dorment pointed out in these pages twenty-five years ago:

Her only miscalculation, had she cared for her posthumous reputation, was her own consistency: she continued to paint beautifully wrought portraits of all the most prominent people with flair and conviction long after the Revolution and its aftermath had rendered such confidence obsolete. Her paintings suggest a robust optimism when it was the doubt and self-questioning of romantic portraiture that would appeal to the twentieth-century imagination.1

Paradoxically, she’s never been forgotten. The memoirs that she wrote at the end of her life have been unfailingly republished.2 Numerous biographies have appeared both in French and in English. The earliest dates from 1890, just fifty years after her death; the latest from 2011. The author of the most recent study, Geneviève Haroche-Bouzinac, has done a painstakingly thorough job, but Joseph Baillio’s 1982 monograph remains irreplaceable because of its author’s long-standing familiarity with his subject.3 The essays by Joseph Baillio, Katharine Baetjer, and Paul Lang published in the exhibition catalog are indispensable for anyone seeking to understand the complexity of the painter’s life and work.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée was born on April 16, 1755. Her father was a painter who worked in pastels; her mother was a hairstylist, a profession that, in an era of quasi-architectural coiffures, demanded uncommon taste and skill. Their young…

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