Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun: The Odyssey of an Artist in an Age of Revolutionby Gita May, Louise-elisabeth Vigee-lebrun, Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun
The foremost woman artist of her age, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (17551842) exerted her considerable charm to become the friend, and then official portraitist, of Marie Antoinette. Though profitable, this role made Vigée Le Brun a public and controversial figure, and in 1789 it precipitated her exile. In a Europe torn by strife and revolution, she
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The foremost woman artist of her age, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (17551842) exerted her considerable charm to become the friend, and then official portraitist, of Marie Antoinette. Though profitable, this role made Vigée Le Brun a public and controversial figure, and in 1789 it precipitated her exile. In a Europe torn by strife and revolution, she nevertheless managed to thrive as an independent, self-supporting artist, doggedly setting up studios in Rome, Naples, Venice, Milan, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and London. Long overlooked or dismissed, Vigée Le Brun’s portraits now hang in the Louvre, in a room of their own, as well as in all leading art museums of the world.
This gripping biography tells the story of a singularly gifted and high-spirited woman during the revolutionary era and explores the development and significance of her art. The book also recounts the public and private lives of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, connecting her with such personalities of her age as Catherine the Great, Napoleon, and Benjamin Franklin, and setting her experiences in the context of contemporary European politics and culture. A generous selection of illustrations, including sixteen of Vigée Le Brun’s portraits presented in full color, completes this exceptional volume.
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Elisabeth Vigée Le BrunThe Odyssey of an Artist in an Age of Revolution
By GITA MAY
Yale University PressCopyright © 2005 Gita May
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEarly Years
On April 16, 1755, during the reign of Louis XV, a baby girl was born to Louis Vigée, a minor but well-connected Parisian portraitist, and Jeanne Maissin, a handsome and pious hairdresser, daughter of a marchand-laboureur, or merchant farmer, who hailed from Rossart, in the province of Luxembourg. The couple, who had married in 1750, lived on the bustling right bank rue Coquilière, still in existence today, and the infant was baptized in the nearby imposing Church of Saint Eustache, in the Halles Quarter, which provided the capital with all its essential foodstuff and which Emile Zola would call the belly of Paris. (In 1969 the neighborhood lost much of its animated street scenes and a variety of colors and smells when the great market was moved to the Parisian southern suburb of Rungis.)
The infant was named Elisabeth-Louise. She was the couple's firstborn, and three years later, on December 2, 1758, another child followed, a boy named Louis-Jean-Baptiste-Etienne. Etienne was a beautiful, bright child and the object of his mother's affections. He would eventually become a fairlysuccessful poet and playwright. Perhaps the most notable feature about him is that he managed to further his career through all the political upheavals of his time and prospered under the Old Regime, the Revolution, and the Empire. A delightfully lively portrait of him as a schoolboy, probably painted by his sister as early as 1773, is now part of the collection of the Saint Louis Art Museum (plate 1).
Elisabeth did not have her younger brother's winning personality. A rather awkward, skinny, and ungainly child who tended to stoop because she had grown too fast, and with pale, drawn facial features, she was painfully aware of her mother's preference for her brother, whose youthful wrongdoings were easily forgiven, while she benefited from no such indulgence. Vigée Le Brun readily acknowledges in her autobiography that, at this time of her life, "I was ugly" (I, 29), an admission she could make without too much rancor, since she was to grow into an exceptionally lovely woman whose good looks would play a not insignificant part in furthering her brilliant career as a court painter. But as a little girl she could not help but observe helplessly that "all my imperfections distressed my mother" (I, 29).
Fortunately for her self-esteem, young Elisabeth had a special hold on her father, who consistently showed her great tenderness and, perhaps even more importantly, strong support for her budding artistic talent. Primarily a portraitist and pastellist, Louis Vigée (1715-1767) did not achieve the kind of fame associated with such leading painters as François Boucher, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, and Jean-Siméon Chardin, but he gained sufficient recognition to become a member and professor at the Academy of Saint Luc, a respectable if considerably less prestigious, conservative, and selective institution than the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture.
Louis Vigée was not only a skillful and competent painter; he doubtless also had ambition and possessed a winning personality, for he succeeded in gaining the goodwill and even friendship of some of the most influential artists of his day, notably Greuze. In her Souvenirs Vigée Le Brun even boasts about the fact that her father hosted and attended dinners comprising not only distinguished artists, but notable men of letters as well (I, 26). She would indeed owe a great deal to her father's connections in the world of artists, especially in the early crucial stages of her career.
Although Louis Vigée, as primarily a portraitist and pastellist, practiced what was then considered a relatively secondary genre in the official, academic hierarchy-which placed history painting at the top of the ladder and downgraded landscape, still life, and portraiture, because in the official view these required neither imagination nor erudition-he was able to obtain some official commissions. Thus he was invited on behalf of King Louis XV to contribute two paintings on "a gallant" theme for the 1764 exhibit of the Academy of Saint Luc. In such paintings, now unfortunately no longer extant, Louis Vigée must have endeavored to emulate the delightfully seductive and slyly erotic compositions and pastorals popularized by Boucher and Fragonard, masters of the fashionable rococo style, which epitomized a libertine and pleasure-loving ideal of art as escape into a world of perpetual youth and sexual gratification without guilt.
The French political and cultural climate was undergoing momentous changes in the early 1750s. A profound transformation in political and social ideas was taking place, and public opinion began to play a crucial role in politics and society. Manifestations of the growing malaise became more marked, and subjects long regarded as untouchable became matters for critical inquiry and comment. In 1749 Denis Diderot's controversial and provocative Letter on the Blind, which posited a cosmology of the universe based on matter and chance, earned him a three-month imprisonment in the medieval fortress of Vincennes on the eastern outskirts of Paris. In 1750 Jean-Jacques Rousseau published his explosive Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, and his even more radical Discourse on the Origin of Inequality appeared in 1755. In both works Rousseau posited that the development of the arts, the progressive refinement in manners, mores, and standards of beauty and taste, and the impressive advances and achievements in architecture, theater, opera, literature, and painting had not been matched by social and ethical progress and only testified to an ever-widening rift between nature and culture as well as to the increasing degeneration of social and moral values. In 1754 Pierre-Louis de Maupertuis, the noted mathematician and astronomer, published his Essay on the Formation of Organized Bodies, in which, for the first time, the idea of evolution of the species is stated in philosophical terms. The publication of Voltaire's Essay on the Manners and Spirit of Nations in 1756 confirmed his reputation as creator of a new genre, the philosophy of history.
In 1755, the year of Vigée Le Brun's birth, Louis XV, who had mounted the throne in 1723, was still a handsome and popular monarch, although his general indifference to affairs of state was beginning to affect both foreign affairs and domestic policy. Perhaps some beneficial influence that filled the political vacuum at this time was filled by Madame de Pompadour, the king's mistress and confidante until her death in 1764. Of middle-class origin, she was a woman of intelligence and culture who patronized such controversial writers as Voltaire and encouraged such artists as Boucher and Fragonard.
As was then the custom with infants of the bourgeoisie, which in this and many other respects aped the mores of the aristocracy, shortly after her birth Elisabeth was entrusted to the care of a wet nurse who was a peasant woman in the village of Epernon, near Chartres. Elisabeth spent the first five years of her life in the farmhouse of her wet nurse. Such treatment of a young child may seem callous by today's standards, but it was common practice under the Old Regime. The practice of sending infants to some farm in the country, leaving it to a peasant woman to act as wet nurse and surrogate mother, continued even long after the publication of Rousseau's Emile in 1762, which was to revolutionize the concept of early childhood by underscoring its vital importance in the physical, psychological, and moral development of the individual. That the custom of wet nursing survived well into the nineteenth century, despite Rousseau's admonitions against it, is attested to by the fact that in Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, published in 1857, Emma Bovary's infant girl is placed for wet nursing with the wife of a local carpenter.
At the age of six Elisabeth was enrolled as a pensionnaire at the Convent of the Trinité, on the rue de Charonne, in the Faubourg Saint Antoine, where she remained until her eleventh birthday. This was by no means an unusual educational arrangement under the Old Regime. Young girls of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie were placed in convents where they would be expected to learn such rudimentary skills as reading, writing, counting, sewing, embroidering, as well as the proper rules of social behavior.
What Vigée Le Brun has to say about the years spent at the convent focuses on her precocious and irrepressible talent. She tells us that she drew and sketched tirelessly and on every available space. The margins of her schoolbooks and even those of her classmates were covered with drawings of heads, either full face or in profile. She even went so far as to cover the walls of the convent dormitory with charcoal figures and landscapes, a transgression for which she was duly punished (I, 24). Even during recess time she would trace on the sand whatever came through her head: "I remember that at the age of seven or eight, I drew by the lamp the head of a bearded man, which I have always kept. I showed it to my father who cried out with joy: 'You will be a painter, my child!'" (I, 24).
Vigée Le Brun's account of her early years reveals a powerful attachment for her father and a difficult, strained relationship with her mother. The tribute she pays her father's rather modest talent is indeed a touching one: "My father painted very well in pastel; there are even portraits by him that would be worthy of the famous La Tour" (I, 25), a reference to Maurice-Quentin de La Tour (1704-1788), probably the best French portraitist of the eighteenth century. Whatever Louis Vigée may have lacked in talent as a painter of the first magnitude he made up for with a sunny disposition, immense gregariousness, and great charm and wit. His personality seems to have been so irresistible that people would select him as their portraitist "in order to enjoy his delightful conversation" (I, 25).
Louis Vigée's passion for his art, if one is to take at face value the testimony of his loving daughter, was all-consuming and at times reached the point of comical distraction and forgetfulness. An example of this fanatical dedication, which made a great impression on his daughter, is related in Souvenirs. One day, when all dressed up in his best finery, including a wig and a waistcoat with gold braid and sword, he had a last minute inspiration, so he partially undressed to retouch a painting he had been working on, and then walked out of the house without troubling to put on the proper outfit (I, 25).
This charming man was not without all-too-human failings. He was an unabashed hedonist, and his love of the good things in life frequently went beyond the boundaries of propriety and common sense. While he worshipped his beautiful, pious wife and was dedicated to his children, especially to his precociously talented daughter, he had an irresistible weakness for women. By Vigée Le Brun's own admission "they turned his head," and on New Year's Day he would run around the streets of Paris solely in order to kiss all those he would meet "under the pretext of wishing them a Happy New Year" (I, 26).
Even Louis Vigée's premature death, on May 9, 1767 (at the age of fifty-two), was probably caused by his excessive devotion to sensual gratifications. He swallowed a fishbone, which lodged in his throat. Incisions performed by one of the leading surgeons of the day failed to relieve the patient, not surprising in view of the limited means of contemporary medicine. The wounds became infected, and after two months of awful suffering Vigée expired, leaving his family in tears and depriving his daughter of her most supportive guide and mentor. In Souvenirs Vigée Le Brun paints an arresting picture of her father on his deathbed taking his final leave of his children. The resulting tableau not only shows her own keen visual sensitivity, hardly surprising in a painter, but also a highly developed sense of pathos and melodrama worthy of Greuze, from whom she not only learned a great deal, but who would also play a key role in her career as loyal and steadfast supporter: "When he felt that his last moments were at hand, my father expressed the desire to see my brother and me. Sobbing, we both approached the bed. His features had cruelly deteriorated. His eyes, his physiognomy, always so animated, no longer had any movement, for the pallor and coldness of death had already taken hold of them. We seized his icy hand, covered it with our kisses, and bathed it with our tears. He made an effort and raised himself to give us his benediction: 'Be happy, my children,' he said. An hour later, our dear father was no more!" (I, 32).
In this touching scene we find all the essential elements characteristic of an aesthetic of vividly expressed emotionalism typical of the latter part of the eighteenth century, whether it be in the theater, the novel, or the visual arts. This is indeed a striking family scene that Diderot, Rousseau, or Greuze would not have disavowed. Whether it is strictly truthful or embellished and dramatized by memory is of course impossible to say. The more skeptical reader will be inclined to think that the aging memoirist took her cue from the writers and artists who had shaped her own sensibilities, notably from Rousseau's Confessions, a work with which she was thoroughly familiar, in order to endow this traumatic episode of her childhood with an aura of morality and dramatic intensity deemed appropriate for such a portentous event.
Her father's premature death left young Elisabeth in such a state of prostration that it took her a long time to pick up her brushes again. One of her father's colleagues and best friends, Gabriel-François Doyen, a highly respected history painter and member of the Académie frequently praised in Diderot's Salons for his dramatic flair and coloristic virtuosity, paid her frequent visits, exhorting her that work was the best remedy against life's misfortunes and urging her to return to her drawing and painting. And indeed Vigée Le Brun would always find her greatest solace in her work. Throughout the most trying circumstances of her life, practicing her craft with passionate and single-minded dedication would remain her best and most reliable refuge against adversity.
She began painting and drawing from nature around this time, doing several portraits in succession, both in oil and in pastel, and she struck up a friendship with another young aspiring woman painter, Rosalie Bocquet. Rosalie, also the daughter of an artist, was a talented portraitist, but unlike Elisabeth she would soon renounce her ambition, marry, and opt for domesticity. Because the Bocquets had some influence at court, Marie-Antoinette appointed the recently married Rosalie concierge at the Château de La Muette, a post that came with an assured income and various privileges. Yet Rosalie, unlike Elisabeth, refused to emigrate after the outbreak of the Revolution, and she would pay the ultimate price for her connection with the queen by being sent to the guillotine.
The two young girls took drawing lessons from Gabriel Briard, a history painter and academician of some note who rounded out his income by offering advice and criticism to young ladies. Briard had been commissioned to paint the Banquet Hall of the Versailles Palace and occupied a studio and living quarters at the Louvre, then home for certain privileged artists. Of course, Elisabeth and Rosalie could not attend Briard's regular classes, which were reserved for young men only.
If the Louvre was a welcome haven for aspiring art students, its surroundings were far from safe for young women. To avoid the dirt, congestion, and dangers of the streets, Elisabeth and Rosalie brought along food in baskets. Much later Vigée Le Brun wrote with some nostalgia that she "never ate anything as good" as those picnic-style meals with her friend (I, 33).
Excerpted from Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun by GITA MAY Copyright © 2005 by Gita May. Excerpted by permission.
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Gita May is professor of French literature, Columbia University. She has taught and published extensively on late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century French literature, art, and culture.
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