Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun and the Art of Seduction

/ by Diane Joy Charney

Self Portrait in a Straw Hat by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun
The gifted, charming, and beautiful painter Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun had a very good head on her shoulders, and she managed to keep it there, which is more than can be said for her aristocratic patrons and friends who did not survive the French Revolution. As the history of France has shown, to have contacts who enjoyed status, influence and power can have both advantages and disadvantages. Good timing is all, and Vigée-Le Brun managed to negotiate this minefield with success and panache. Although financially exploited by her stepfather and husband, far from remaining a victim, Vigée-Le Brun proved artful in managing her career, at a time when the deck was definitely stacked against women artists. Ingenious in the way she promoted herself, Vigée-Le Brun, while appearing naive and unassuming, seems to have had an uncanny understanding of how, when, and whom to please.

The delightful exhibit of 80 of her works recently on view in New York at the Metropolitan Museum, and which now may be seen at the National Gallery of Canada (June 10-September 11, 2016), holds many surprises. I particularly enjoyed reading between the lines of the quotes about her that are cited in the fascinating commentary that accompanies her paintings. Although this exhibit, which came from an acclaimed run at the Paris Grand Palais, has half the number of works displayed in France, it still offers a generous view of Vigée-Le Brun's talent. As the very first retrospective of her work, the Met's exhibit offered a rare opportunity to learn more about an artist who would be a great subject for a novel and film.

During the course of the research I did in preparation for writing this review, I kept thinking I had gained a sense of the inner life of this artist. But the more I read, the more unexpected details emerged. I'm not even convinced that to read her own three-volume journal, Souvenirs, would reveal her story. But this sort of mystery only adds to her charisma. For example, she notices, behind the seductive charm of the Duchesse de Barry, a "falseness." Is this comment a measure of Vigée-Le Brun’s powers of observation? Or a projection onto the Duchesse of a quality of the artist, herself?

Vigée-Le Brun admits to being fascinated by the wily power of many of her subjects to entrance the men of influence who will facilitate their own rise in society. She even comments on the empty-headed, uneducated Russian beauty whose fashionable but idle life she seems to criticize.

Poet of the Week
Valentina Neri

Vanishing one evening

without a trace.

Without  forgotten clues

on the threshold of my room

and no arrow

to show me the way.

Wherever I could have gone

Would be of no relevance:

Laid at the bottom of the sea

Buried in the darkness of the woods

In China devoid of memory

Looking for a pitiful story

Or in the desert with a shroud of sand.

Everything is fine

As long as nobody ever knows.

Sublime fantasy

Vanishing without a certificate of death

So that one day they will understand

What is baffling me now.

In addition to the pleasure offered by the art itself, the show offers an insider's glimpse into French cultural history of the period. I was intrigued by the large number of Vigée-Le Brun's subjects with connections to the theater world, and this at a time when actors were often refused burial in hallowed ground.

This exhibit has been well-reviewed elsewhere, notably in the New York Times. Comments about the artist that appear consistently throughout the ages mention her “exquisite delicacy of touch,” refined elegance and grace, her “exceeding facility” that may have been a mixed blessing, and the ongoing accessibility of her portraits “that will always be beautiful, because of the universal truth they express.” A good overview of the criticism of Vigée-Le Brun is available at arthistoryarchive.com. An inexpensive but generously illustrated and compact book on sale at the exhibit (part of the Gallimard “Découvertes” series) is Genevieve Haroche-Bouzinac’s “Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun.”

Thanks to the Met's excellent website, without leaving home, anyone with a computer or smart phone can view the entire exhibit, including the enlightening commentary. But to be able to look right in the eye Vigée-Le Brun's subjects, especially herself as shown in the five self-portraits that are a highlight of the show, is a special treat. Her black chalk and charcoal drawing, Self-Portrait in a Hat with Plume, is especially winning.

As much as the artist is celebrated for her flattering paintings of women, however, among my favorite works are her portraits of men. Check out her rendering of “her most important private patron,” the Comte de Vaudreuil; her portrait of the comptroller of the king’s finances, Comte Charles Alexandre de Calonne; and her regal yet intimate-seeming painting of Stanislaw August Poniatowski, formerly King of Poland. When it came to capturing allure on canvas, Vigée-Le Brun could make the men just as seductive as the women she immortalized. Or more so? You be the judge.

Diane Joy Charney

teaches French Literature and Creative Writing at Yale University, where she is Writing-Tutor-in-Residence. She divides her time between Umbria and New Haven.