Sharon Lorenzo reviews the Met’s exhibition of portrait artist Vigee Le Brun –a rare one-woman exhibition.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun has been in the cannons of art history along with other celebrated portrait artists but never has there been a full exhibition of her works. In this new age of international cooperation, nine curators from New York, Paris, Ottowa, St. Petersburg and Moscow have produced a triumphant show of 79 paintings that we will never see together again in our lifetime. Met curator of European paintings, Katharine Baetjer said that this is the first one woman exhibition in her forty years with the museum.[1]

vigee-le-brun--selfportrait

Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat, 1782.  Collection of Baronne de Rothschild.

Elisabeth Louise was born as the classic first child girl to Jeanne and Louis Vigée in Paris in 1755 and raised at home and in a convent school. Her father was a well- known portrait artist, and he allowed his daughter to draw with pastels in his studio as a supplement to her formal schooling.  The death of her father at the age of 12 threw her into despair, but her mother’s remarriage to a goldsmith gave her the financial resources to attend art classes with fellow students copying plaster casts in the Louvre Museum. Near the new residence of the family, she met an art dealer, Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, and they married in 1776.[2]

Through family connections in 1778 Elisabeth was invited to paint a portrait of  Queen Marie Antoinette for export to her mother. One of the fifteen children of Maria Teresa, Empress of Austria and wife of Francis I, the Holy Roman Emperor, Marie had been sent to marry the King of France in an effort to shore up the political exigencies of the Hapsburg domination of western Europe.  The portrait was a smashing success, rendering the young queen in her full blush of early pregnancy in royal fashion from head to toe.

marie-antoinette-1778

Marie Antoinette in Court Dress, 1778  Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.

In 1780 Elisabeth had her daughter, Jeanne Julie Louise, and was then admitted to the Royal Art Academy at the insistence of Marie Antoinette in 1783.  This favor landed her the most important commission of her lifetime, the official royal portrait of the Queen and her children.  Despite her attempts to make the lovely regent appear as the mother of state, political forces erupted against the monarchy. Elisabeth fled France with her daughter for the beginnings of a 12 year exile, since her name was associated with the monarchy and their lives were thus in danger during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution.

marie-antoinette-children-1787

 Marie Antoinette and Her Children, 1787. Musée National des Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon.

Ironically, mother and daughter did just fine on their own, welcomed by reputation into the highest houses of state and private wealth.  From Rome to Naples, Vigée found clients as well as opportunities to study ancient ruins, museums and churches.  She was wined and dined in Vienna, the seat of the Hapsburg aristocracy.  Ironically it was there that she received an official notice of divorce from her husband who was forced to terminate their marriage or lose all his assets since his wife’s name was on the personae-non-grata list under the replacement government following the Reign of Terror which beheaded the King, Queen, and many other members of their circle in France. Subsequent travel to Russia, England and Switzerland brought her some commissions to paint royal portraits, landed gentry,  and their children.

august-poniatowski_sm August Poniatowski, Former King of Poland, 1802. Musée du Louvre

In this exhibition we can also see one of her few landscape paintings which she did in the Alpine splendors of a Swiss summer.

festival-of-shepards-unspunnen

Festival of Shepherds at Unspunnen, 1808.  Kunstmuseum, Bern.

Vigée returned in 1809 to France and settled in a quiet Paris suburb where she died in 1847 at the ripe old age of eighty-seven.   By that time she had created a body of work unprecedented for her time as a woman artist.  Capturing the poses and accoutrement as well as the psychology and dramatic flair of her sitters, we see in this exhibition why her works were so sought after. Flattery got her everywhere, showing the best of her candidates before the age of photography.

Amidst the barrage of contemporary conceptual art in museums and galleries today which often begs complex visual endurance, this exhibition is a welcome joyful respite for our springtime enjoyment in New York City.

Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York      Feb. 15- May 15, 2016


[1] Roberta Smith, She Painted Marie Antoinette and Escaped the Guillotine. The New York Times, Feb. 11, 2016.

[2] Joseph Baillio, The Artistic and Social Odyssey of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Vigée Le Brun, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016, pp. 6