Metropolitan Museum of Art
February 15–May 15, 2016
National Gallery of Canada
10 Jun 2016 - 11 Sep 2016
5th Avenue, New York City’s grande allée, is festooned with glorious street banners reminding us why we’re here. It is the cultural heartland, the causeway connecting Central Park, the Guggenheim Museum, the Neue Galerie and the National Academy. The banners lead us inexorably to the doorstep of the grandest institution of them all, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The triumphal procession guides us towards the unveiling of a major undertaking, an exhibition that esteemed art critic Roberta Smith declared in the New York Times: “a ravishing, overdue survey of the art of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842)”. It has been organized at the Metropolitan by Katharine Baetjer, curator, department of European paintings, Joseph Baillio, a Vigée Le Brun scholar, and Paul Lang, deputy director and chief curator of the National Gallery of Canada.
Organizers emphasize that this is the first retrospective and only the second solo exhibition devoted to Vigée Le Brun in modern times (the previous was 1982 at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas). They contend that she is among the most important women artists of art history. Without question this is a momentous occasion. There is no doubt the exhibition is a pinnacle moment, an absolute beauty. Nothing was spared; they brought together the finest of the finest for our pleasure and inspection. Over 90 works borrowed from over 12 countries.
Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gift of the Bay Foundation in memory of Josephine Bay Paul and Ambassador Charles Ulrick Bay. (1964.11.1)
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun "The Marquise de Pezay and the Marquise de Rougé with Her Two Sons", 1787
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun "The Marquise de Pezay and the Marquise de Rougé with Her Two Sons", 1787 oil on canvas, 123.4 × 155.9 cm.
The installation of the paintings is sensitive and handsome. Personally I had the pleasure of a guided tour with the three animated, knowledgeable exhibition curators and passionate Vigée Le Brun advocates. Their dedication to the cause of the artist is commendable; their breadth of knowledge about the subject in all its offshoots is astounding. I was overwhelmed by their encyclopaedic command of the extended historic topic. They exemplify connoisseurship at its very finest; their devotion was inspiring. The good news for all of you is that their engaging dialogue and musings are entertainingly captured in the gorgeous catalogue. It is absolutely superb: scholarly, thorough, helpful and an absolute pleasure to read. It is filled with socio-political histories as backgrounders to the appreciation of each of the works, written in plain language accessible to all readers. The entire exhibition production is faultless.
When the exhibition opens at Ottawa, Canadians will be extra proud of the National Gallery for its relation to this exhibition. An additional dozen or so works will be lent to Canada from the Pushkin Museum, Russia (apparently Russia and the USA have diplomatic tensions?). So the Vigée Le Brun presentation at Ottawa will be even more grand and complete. The NGC Associate Director and Chief Curator, Paul Lang, also announced on site at the Metropolitan the donation to the national collection of an exquisite example of Vigée Le Brun’s work: “Countess Anna Ivanovna Tolstaya” 1796. I believe you will agree when you see it, It is one of the most lovely, memorable touching works from her career. What an astounding achievement for the National Gallery of Canada.
Courtesy National Gallery of Canada. Gift of an anonymous Canadian collector, 2015
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun "Countess Tolstoya", 1796
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun "Countess Tolstoya", 1796 oil on canvas, 137.7 × 104 cm
There is ample reason to want to love the art of Vigée Le Brun. She was an astonishingly gifted craftsman. Her portraits are created by seductive layers of oil painted glazes. The exhibition makes this possible to experience since uncharacteristically, the paintings are shown without an interceding layer of glass. We get to see the painting surface and fully appreciate her technique and delicacy of execution. What a treat.
Vigée Le Brun is introduced to us as a self-taught artist, the daughter of a successful society pastel painter. Unquestionably, she and other aspiring women artists had to overcome enormous barriers and prejudice; propriety would not allow a woman to study at the Academy in the presence of nude male models. Yet the headstrong motivated and talented artist did seek ‘instruction’ from fine noted artists, among them, no less than Joseph Vernet (a portrait of Vernet by Vigée Le Brun is included in the exhibit).
Vigée Le Brun evolved to be the most celebrated portrait painter of her time and commanded the highest fees of all her contemporaries. She was the favoured portraitist of French Queen, Marie Antoinette and the extended royal court. Her beauty, demeanor and upbringing prepared her to charm her potential patrons, She was a genuine celebrity, and as recounted, a ravishing beauty. We all know this brings about its own collateral costs; she was numerously defamed and slandered, accused of using her ‘physical charms’ to secure commissions. Perhaps some things about human nature never change?
What about the character of the works themselves? Many are full length, or 3/4 length rather than simply portrait heads. About 70% of them are portraits of women. Roberta Smith applauded the male portraits as being equally successful. I would observe they are simply night and day; they are different animals. True, both give demonstration of her masterful virtuosity, technique and consummate skills of depiction. However, I suggest that viewers might be excused for not even noticing that there were any male subjects presented in the exhibition at all. Vigée Le Brun saved her bombastic flair to lavish the portraits of women. She conspired to create voluptuous enervated compositions, sumptuous textural contrasts in vibrant radiant colours mesmerizing feats of translucency and transparency. She left absolutely nothing out of the mix, no tools left in the bag. She dressed her female sitters in exotic studio props, scarves, and draperies. They are tours de force of trompe l’oeil. The paintings are bedecked in iridescent fabrics, shimmering taffeta, chiffon, velvets, silks, lace, organza, ermine, gold, glittering jewelry, brocade, embroidery, pearls, petals, furs, feathers and finery, flamboyant hats and exotic orientalist headpieces Or as General Idea might explain it: “nothing exceeds like excess”.
In some instances perhaps this could simply be an accurate representation of the persons as they appeared and comported themselves daily. I think not. Vigée Le Brun often uses her skill at sleight of hand, like a magician, to lead our eyes away from the specifics of a face to instead revel in the mountains of material splendour provided for our pleasure. So, irrespective of the physiognomics of the specific sitter, in the capable hands of Vigée Le Brun they are transformed into glamour girls: Vigée Le Brun is the 18th century Annie Leibovitz. The womens’ portraits pulse with visual energy, flowing movement, fulminating backdrops. In some instances her visual extravagances seem to be the outcome of the marriage of a pastry chef with the confectioner’s art: to each his own.
Given my proletarian predilections I am more inclined towards her self- portraits. When depicting herself Vigée Le Brun tended to opt for understatement and quiet demure repose choosing to present herself sans cosmetics, powdered wigs, elaborate fashionable surrounds or pyrotechnics. I suppose modesty and brimming self-confidence can also be an audacious affectation?
The works are self-evidently formal commissioned portraits. As such, they are stage managed: the facial expressions, stance and backgrounds are a contrivance. These are works from yesteryear and so we need be gentle in assessing imperious, haughty, dispassionate or falsely reverential gazes. Some will observe and respond to these as expressions of true sentiment; others will detect saccharin.
In an era prior to photography the portraitist might have to work upon the likeness of the face from life solely upon a handful of sittings. The balance of the painting might have to be completed absent the sitter. In some instances it strikes me that there is a slight disjuncture, as if the face has been Photoshopped into the picture; wrong-sized face on the wrong body. Some have rather disquieting, awkward elongated necks. This is a minor quibble (this didn’t seem to hold back admiration for the work of Amedeo Modigliani?).
These are ‘grand machines’ in the era of 18th century academic tropes. Vigée Le Brun conspired to please. As result, she was so successful in her lifetime that she owned phenomenal properties, and personal wealth. However, she was not without a spirit of daring. She depicted Queen Marie Antoinette in a straw hat and her white chemise.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, "Marie Antoinette in a Muslin dress" 1783
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, "Marie Antoinette in a Muslin dress" 1783 oil on canvas
Embarrassingly, until it was pointed out, I never even realised I was looking at the French Queen partially disrobed. Then again to be fair, I don’t have all that much experience viewing women dressed in straw hat and undergarments. When it was shown at the French Academy, the painting caused an immediate scandal and had to be removed. The fact that the ‘petticoat’ was of identifiably English design was no doubt an added impropriety. The current exhibition reunites this work with the rushed replacement completed within just one month, a second portrait of the queen in suitably regal outward attire (as we are informed, of proper French manufacture). Amusingly, the latter version reveals considerably more buxom flesh (perhaps a tongue in cheek payback for the insult of having to cede to an imposed censure?). However, now that I know the backstory, the queen posed holding a rose freshly plucked from the garden conveys a message a little steamier than at first glance.
Courtesy the collection of Lynda and Stewart Resnick.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, "Marie-Antoinette with a Rose", 1783
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, "Marie-Antoinette with a Rose", 1783, oil on canvas, 116.8 × 88.9 cm.
Vigée Le Brun was commissioned to create a portrait of Marie Antoinette and her children. It was an attempt to foster a maternal, regal image to soften reaction to an increasingly unpopular Queen.
Courtesy Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, France (MV 4520). © RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY. Photo: Gérard Blot
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, "Marie Antoinette and Her Children", 1787
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, "Marie Antoinette and Her Children", 1787 oil on canvas, 275 × 216.5 cm
Ultimately the gambit did not pay off for either artist or sitter. Vigée Le Brun had to flee France. She escaped the guillotine; many of her sitters didn’t. She went on to serve other royal courts in Italy, Prussia, England and St. Petersburg (soon thereafter the Russian tsar was assassinated and eventually the crown deposed). In Italy she rediscovered the pleasure of painting sitters with a landscape as background. (Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is the most popularly- known example of the ubiquitous painting-type).There is little attempt in these works by Vigée Le Brun to harmonize the lighting situation of the backdrop with the studio lighting of the foreground and sitter. Regardless, they are charming and engaging.
Courtesy The Henry Barber Trust, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, UK (80.1)
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun "Countess Varvara Nikolayevna Golovina", c. 1797–1800
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun "Countess Varvara Nikolayevna Golovina", c. 1797–1800 oil on canvas, 83.5 × 66.7 cm
Yet, despite these accomplishments, I’m conflicted; I’m not convinced. What about this grand procession towards Vigée Le Brun? The organizers declare that she is the equal or superior to other artists of her day. I’ll accept and warrant her unmistakable talent. Yet, I’m not sure I saw one exemplary image that stayed with me or that I will file away in my memory bank of cherished works. My pantheon remains intact. Maybe realignment happens later, over the passage of time? Maybe certain of these Vigée Le Brun works will come to imprint upon our collective imagination.
So, I suggest that it’s up to all of you now. The artist has made her work. The museums have delivered their case. They have assembled a near perfect comprehensive overview of the artist’s career production. Little if anything is arguably missing. Thereby, what stands out for you? Does something resonate? Are you attending her coronation?
Is modern America ready to embrace this artist; here in New York within the august chambers of art’s capitol: The Metropolitan? I will recount that the new republic of France was the first and most important international agency to support the nascent American revolution. …and oh yes, the people of France were the funders of that little lady in the harbour: the Statue of Liberty. I feel compelled to observe that despite her filmic genius you should never forget that Leni Riefenstahl played for the wrong team. Roloff Beny catered his art in service of the Shah of Iran. These are indelicate, inconvenient indiscretions. They tend to significantly temper our enthusiasm and impinge upon our ease to embrace otherwise splendid aesthetic excellence. If I cheer on Vigée Le Brun am I too backing the wrong team?
Vigée Le Brun was identified as one who glorified the persons that the people of France reviled. The people overthrew the monarchy and their likes in a bloody revolution. Delacroix painted Victory Leading the People. Can Vigée Le Brun still be beloved even as a known, acknowledged principal monarchist apologist? She was the unshakable propagandist for the entitled monarchy and its circle. She is the creator of a terrible beauty, paintings that are seductive and effective depictions that do not reveal even a single tinge of remorse or the tiniest regret about their flattering depictions of persons of colossal privilege and excess.
Yet, can one blame a portrait painter for accepting patronage? That is the nature of the beast. She stayed true to her own values. She adored the life at court and abhorred Napoleonic militarism —no portraits of generals or dashing war heroes for her: ‘let them eat cake.’ So, I’m saying, go have a look, think this one over; it is a very deserving topic. There is not much honour or distinction being the only prude at a love-in; I better get with the program.
Back outside, on the steps of the Metropolitan looking along 5th Avenue Vigée Le Brun banners now guide us away towards the city’s lights, Park Plaza, Times Square, Broadway, Vogue magazine and the glitz of New York’s fashionistas. Perhaps I’ve been wrong, Vigée Le Brun may finally be truly in her home element.
Partial travel assistance provided by National Gallery of Canada.