Vigée Le Brun at the Met


So, as I mentioned in a previous post, there is an exhibit going on right now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City highlighting the work of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. She was one of the most sought-after and talented portrait painters of her time, and as this previous post explains, one of her paintings played a part in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. Vigée Le Brun painted Queen Marie-Antoinette multiple times, and her paintings were prominent in the public mind: in addition to the portrait of the

la reine en gaulle

Marie Antoinette en Chemise [or “en gaulle”], 1783 by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Queen “en chemise” that caused a minor scandal in 1783, there was the painting of the queen with her children which didn’t entirely succeed in softening the queen’s reputation.


But Vigée Le Brun painted many more people than just Marie-Antoinette. She began painting as a young woman, was sought after among the elite of French society, escaped the French Revolution just before it exploded, moved from capital to capital painting prominent people, and continued to paint late into her life (she died at 86).

The exhibit at The Met includes 80 paintings, some of them of familiar figures to those of us familiar with late-18th-century France: Madame du Barry, the Duchesse de Polginac, Calonne, and Mesdames Adelaide and Victoire. There are also less familiar figures, some of them important men’s mistresses, some of them princes and princesses from across Europe, some of them noted intellectuals. What they all have in common, at least in Vigée Le Brun’s portraits, is a vibrancy and movement that you don’t see in many portraits. There are expressions on their faces, and they all look like they’re about to do or say something. They portraits are engaging. The commentary I listened to during my walk-through of the exhibit (I spent


Portrait of Marie Antoinette, 1783 by Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

two hours there) suggested that this was because Vigée Le Brun herself was engaging and personable, and she drew out her subjects’ personality. It’s hard to say–one suspects that a large part of it was simply her skill as an artist.

The paintings are also visually stunning. I’ve seen images of the paintings, via the Internet, but they simply don’t do justice to the originals. There is an exquisite delicacy to the way  Vigée Le Brun handled fabrics, especially sheer fabrics like muslin fichus or wraps in ladies’ hair. The white dress worn by the Comtesse de La Châtre in her portrait, for instance, has delicate matte-white dots spread across the white satin fabric below. It’s a subtle but beautiful detail.

In fact, I’d say that “beauty” more or less characterizes all of Vigée Le Brun’s work. Everything she painted has a heightened elegance to it–it’s very much like arranged flowers. This wasn’t an artist interested in capturing people “warts and all”; she was interested in aesthetically beautiful paintings.

And that is more than alright by me. I’m not fond of modern art because it feels so self-indulgent; instead of creating something pleasurable, art is supposed to make us “think” (usually about humanity’s failings). I admit to just wanting a pretty picture. And boy does Vigée Le Brun deliver those!

I should also make a note of the colors: Vigée Le Brun used the most remarkable colors. They’re bright and bold and perfectly chosen. There are blues paired with golds, dramatic reds with black and white, a punch of pastel-colored flowers amid more somber grays and blues, and forest greens paired with royals blue and vibrant whites.


Comtesse de la Châtre. 1789. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Did I mention that I adored this exhibition?

It was definitely worth the five-hour drive in the pouring rain, worth braving the streets of New York City, worth the $35 for parking and the $40 in tolls (yeah . . . the I-95 corridor is expensive!). And it was definitely worth the two hours that I spent there, drooling over the beauty of it all.

I was definitely intensely pleased when I got to see Marie Antoinette en Chemise and Marie Antoinette avec une Rose side-by-side. As the audio guide explained, it’s the first time the two have been exhibited side-by-side.

Why was I so excited? Well, again, I refer you to this post, but to give a quick overview of the story behind these paintings: Vigée Le Brun painted the portrait of Marie-Antoinette “en chemise” and presented it in public at a salon in 1783. “En chemise” means that Marie was in a white muslin or “chemise” dress. Now, a chemise was an undergarment that went beneath everything else, stays (“corset”) included. It was scandalous to show the queen in a portrait in what looked like her underclothing. It was too informal, too suggestive. So Vigée Le Brun took down that painting and quickly dashed off another one, with the queen in the same pose but wearing a more appropriate/regal blue satin gown.

In both portraits, you’ll notice, the queen is holding the same thing in her left hand: a rose. Not long after this painting was displayed, in 1785, a young adventuress named Jeanne de La Motte-Valois convinced a credulous Cardinal that she was friends with the Queen (she did it to steal a very expensive necklace). To win him over, she hired a prostitute (Nicole d’Oliva) to play the part of the queen (oh dear!), dressed her  in a white muslin dress and gave her a rose to hand to the Cardinal. Sound familiar? It seems pretty likely that Jeanne got the idea from the portrait of the Queen en chemise. In fact, one of Jeanne’s friends, Jacques Claude Beugnot, remembered that Jeanne had a candy box with a copy of Marie Antoinette en chemise painted on the inside of its lid!

And of course, the reason I started this blog way back when was to tell more of this story. I’d written an entire novel about it, but I wasn’t nearly done. Yes, this blog has shifted focus, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have an abiding interest in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace and everything related to it. I was even willing to make a harrowing trip into New York City to see this exhibition, just to get a glimpse of the originals of these two paintings. I was rewarded by more beauty than I’d even imagined. I went for the pair of paintings of Marie-Antoinette, but I stayed for the 78 other exquisite pieces of art.

(I would be lying if I said I didn’t sneak a few pictures while inside the exhibit, but I don’t want to share them on principle, and they aren’t very good anyway!)


The Morning Walk

I spent some time studying in London a few years ago, and it was my pleasure, among other things, to have an art history class that included weekly visits to the many, wonderfuAn_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby,_1768l galleries in London. Among numerous different great works of art from many eras, a few stood out to me. They were almost invariably from the 18th century, the time of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace (‘m drawn to the aesthetic of the era).  Some of my favorites include An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (right, by Reynolds) and A Rake’s Progress (Hogarth). I didn’t see any in London, but I also love practically everything by Vigée-Le Brun. The paintings of the time are endlessly elegant, engaging, and (often)  humorous.

I was struck by the beauty and solemnity of The Morning Walk, or Mr. and Mrs.William Hallett, by Gainsborough in the National Gallery. Amongst the many aesthetically pleasing paintings, this one stood out to me. It’s beauty comes from the ethereal treatment of the setting, the dress, and the dog. The lady’s light, ephemeral dress and wrap dissolve into the background and into each other. The tones are muted, the background washed into tans, olive greens, and stormy blues. And, most intriguing to me, the brush strokes are fairly loose, leaving the impression of a world that is only three-quarters formed. It is reminiscent of the Impressionists, and that’s a good thing because I love Impressionists. It’s a departure from much of the artwork of the period, which was often painstakingly realistic.

I wanted some version of this painting for my wall but balked at the idea of getting an expensive print. Being rather more artistically talented than average (not to toot my horn too much–I’m no master), I decided to try my hand at reproducing the painting. I’m not particularly good with paints, and besides I don’t currently have a very good space to paint in. However, given the mistiness of the original work, and given the always-airy effect of chalk pastel, I settled on chalk pastels.

It wasn’t, perhaps, the best choice. Chalk pastel is incredibly, incredibly smudgy. I’m very careful about where I put my hands and fingers when I work, but even so it was impossible to keep things tidy. And the effects I was going for really do lend themselves much better to paint than pastels. I had a hell of a time getting the pastels to cooperate. At least once, I had to get out an exacto knife and scrape away the pastel and a layer of the board I was working on. I needed to add more white, but I wasn’t able to color over or erase what was already there. That board was black; I attempted to start with a green board, thinking it would be the best color to start with. I quickly found that there was far too much black in the background for me to begin with any other color.

When I get frustrated, I get lazy, so this picture sat for months as I gave it distrustful, sidelong glances and wondered why it didn’t just finish itself. Once I set to, though, it really wasn’t all that bad. I finally finished it a few weeks ago. The most frustrating part of the whole process, perhaps, is that my attempts to fix the chalk pastel in place with spray fixative failed. Something about the board I used, I think, made it so the pastel won’t stick. So all that hard work isn’t even fixed in place. One wrong finger, and it’ll be smudged all to hell. I’ve put it behind glass in a frame in hopes of protecting it. I suspect a lot of the pastel will come off onto the glass, but at least it won’t get ruined by accident.

On the upside, I still have my pencil-and-paper outline. I’m better at pencil than at pastels, so I can still (some day) make a lovely black-and-white pencil rendition of The Morning Walk. Heck, I could even transfer the outline to canvas and give the paint thing a go . . .

Anyway, here are a few images of the original painting and my drawing of it in stages.

The original by Gainsborough, now hanging in the National Gallery in London.

The original by Gainsborough, now hanging in the National Gallery in London.

The pencil outline beginning of my drawing.

The pencil outline beginning of my drawing.

Filling in the background.

Filling in the background, which began black.

Completing Mr. William Hallett. Notice that the black of his suit is blacker than the black around it; I had to erase the accumulated dust that had muddied the black of his suit.

Completing Mr. William Hallett. Notice that the black of his suit is blacker than the black around it; I had to erase the accumulated dust that had muddied the black of his suit.

And the finished product. Not too shabby. Not great, but good enough to hang on my wall with pride.

And the finished product. Not too shabby. Not great, but good enough to hang on my wall with pride.

Marie-Antoinette in Pop Culture

Just for a little bit of fun, here’s a tidbit of Marie-Antoinette in popular culture. Hole, Courtney Love’s band, released nobody’s daughter in April this year. The album cover (aside from a spiffy parental advisory label) shows (most of) a portrait of Marie-Antoinette.

This particular portrait (history lesson alert!) is a redone version of the painting of the queen in her white muslin dress, known as en gaulle. People were so scandalized by the portrait because it looked as though the queen had been painted in her undergarments. The painter, Elizabeth Vigee-Le Brun, reworked it with this pretty blue gown and a different hat.

With a touch of wit, the portrait is–ahem–cut off at the neck. Turn the CD over, and the back cover is of Anne Boleyn given a similar cropping. I guess being queen can be a dangerous occupation if you aren’t careful.

The Long-Lost Painting

Two years ago, I was lucky enough to see an exhibit of John Everett Millais at the Tate Britain Museum. I didn’t know any of Millais’s work except for Ophelia. I enjoyed all the paintings and wanted to buy one of the books with all the paintings in it. Of course, that was way too expensive for a poor student, so I got postcards instead, which were ideal and made a pretty collage on my wall.

One of my favorite paintings was Hearts in Trumps. I believe that the description under the painting noted that Millais had based his painting off an early painting of a group of three women–I remembered that factoid but couldn’t remember what the original painting was and who painted it. I was sure, though, that the original was painted in the 18th century and was therefore of interest to me.

I’ve been looking casually for month, trying to find the painting. Today I hit upon gold: I found the painting. It’s The Ladies Waldegrave by Joshua Reynolds.  Instead of playing cards like in the Millais portrait, the ladies in this painting are sewing (they have their “work” in front of them).

What relevance does this have to the Affair of the Dimond Necklace? Well, nothing except that it is a beautiful painting from the time period in question. It shoes the laides’ hair, makeup, and clothing, and it shows them during their leisure time. Most women of the time spent hour upon hour sewing and embroidering. Ladies made fantastic works of art. Some women liked it, some did not, but almost every woman did it. Even the most elite ladies did fine needlework to pass the time.

La Reine en Gaulle

la reine en gaulle

Portrait of Marie Antoinette 1783 (Marie Antoinette in a Muslin Dress). Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1783, the artist Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun painted a portrait of Marie-Antoinette. La Reine en Gaulle was included in the public exhibition at the Salon du Louvre. In the painting, Marie Antoinette wore a gown in a style called gaulle. This meant a simple white muslin dress that fit relatively loosely over the body and had a sash around the waist. Marie Antoinette also wore a wide-brimmed, be-feathered straw hat and held a rose.

It may seem innocuous to us, but this portrait caused quite a stir when it was presented to the public. The simplicity of the portrait was in stark contrast to usual royal portraiture. The queen was shown in marked informality instead of in the regal, formal grand habit that a queen of France would usually wear in a portrait. Marie Antoinette was, once again, flying in the face of tradition by wearing this gown, especially since this portrait was being displayed in public. She had a history of disregarding tradition and etiquette at Versailles. It was generally a stodgy place that had been focused intensely on etiquette since the days of Louis XIV a hundred years earlier. The forms and ceremonies at Versailles formed the basis for the relationship between the monarch and his nobles and subjects. As has been mentioned many times, the nobles fell all over themselves for the honor of holding the king’s jacket when he dressed in the morning, which kept them from trying to steal real power.

Marie Antoinette set up a small fake village at the Petite Trianon, her personal palace at the end of the gardens of Versailles. There, she could meet with whomever she chose, eschew etiquette to her heart’s content, and pretend to be a simple dairy maid (albeit a dairymaid who never really got her hands dirty). She could wear the less confining clothes of the lower classes. She adopted

Portrait of Marie Antoinette, 1783 by Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun. The gown and headdress were changed because the queen’s white muslin dress in the original portrait was considered inappropriate. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

the simple muslin dress to go along with this fantasy of a simple life. But by appearing in a public portrait in this kind of dress, she was going beyond the bounds of good taste, at least in the opinions of those who saw it. Unfortunately for Marie Antoinette, the ensemble reminded viewers of a chemise, a piece of underclothing. Everyone was rather miffed that the queen had been painted in her underwear! Interestingly, the queen’s sister-in-law was painted in a similar outfit, but only Marie Antoinette received wide public rebuke for it. It was not, it seems, just about the painting. Vigée-Lebrun painted over thirty portraits of the queen, but this one is both one of the prettiest (in my opinion) and one of the most scandalous.

Following the uproar over the painting, it was repainted with Marie-Antoinette wearing a blue satin gown and a suitable headdress. Otherwise, the painting is more or less the same. The furor over La Reine en Gaulle was indicative of the criticisms that were leveled at the queen for what was essentially innocent behavior that nonetheless gave all of the wrong impressions. Without really meaning to, Marie-Antoinette alienated her subjects.

This portrait makes another appearance in the most remarkable way. The year after the portrait caused such a stir, Jeanne de La Motte-Valois was trying to convince Cardinal Rohan that she was a close friend to the queen (in order to bilk money from him). To better convince him, Jeanne set up a theatrical nighttime vignette in which a prostitute, playing the part of the queen, would appear to show him favor. The young lady, Nicole d’Oliva, wore a soft white muslin dress and carried a rose, which she handed to the Cardinal. Where, one wonders, did Jeanne get the idea to dress up Nicole that way? (Hint: from this portrait and the queen’s well-known tendency to wear this style gown.) It was enough to convince the Cardinal that he was speaking to the queen.

Just as remarkably, if not more so, a friend of Jeanne’s, Jacques-Claude Beugnot, mentions in his memoirs that there was a bonbonnière (or candy box) on Jeanne’s mantlepiece. In that box were forged notes supposedly from the queen to the Cardinal. Painted inside the lid was a copy of Vigée-Lebrun’s portrait of the queen en gaulle.

For further reading:

Jeanne de La Motte-Valois

Marie-Antoinette: The key to the enigma

The Candy Box

The Grove of Venus, and the Scenery of the Grove of Venus

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun on Wikipedia


Weber, Caroline. Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006.