Vigée Le Brun at the Met

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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

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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.

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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!)

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Vigée Le Brun at the Met

Every once in a while, there’s something to post regarding the 18th century in France. This happens to be one of those times. After all, the original intent of this blog was to write about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace and ancien-regime France.

Just yesterday, I came across an exhibit on right now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC that is so directly related to the Diamond Necklace Affair that it hurts:

http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2016/vigee-le-brun

The Met is putting on an exhibit of a very large number of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s portraits. She was one of the most prominent portraitists of her age (and her art is absolutely beautiful; her style is just my taste). This is even more remarkable, of course, given that she was a woman. She happened to be one of Queen Marie-Antoinette’s favorite painters. In 1783, she painted the queen in a filmy white muslin dress, a style that was sometimes referred to as “en gaulle” or a “chemise” dress, since it so resembled the chemise, an under-dress. And therein lay the problem: it looked like the queen had been painted in her underclothes! When people saw it hanging in the salon, they were shocked. The resultant scandal did the queen’s already-spotty reputation no favors. Vigée Le Brun quickly painted a replacement with the queen in the same pose and still holding a rose, but this time clad in a dress of blue silk and with an elaborate coiffure.

All of this, of course, was part of the milieu in which Jeanne de La Motte-Valois plotted her jewel theft. Specifically, though, the portrait seems to have been the inspiration for a little bit of play-acting in the gardens of Versailles: Jeanne hired a young prostitute (Nicole Leguay D’Oliva) to play the part of the queen. She dressed Nicole in a white muslin dress and gave her a rose to hold. Sound familiar? It’s exactly the image from the scandalous portrait. This performance was meant to trick a Cardinal into believing he was back in the queen’s favor, which was part of Jeanne’s plan to get said Cardinal to act as guarantor for a very expensive diamond necklace. The necklace went missing, and a massive scandal ensued, one that Marie-Antoinette never recovered from.

You can click OVER HERE for a blog post all about the painting.

Now, the exhibit is only at the Met until May 15, so there isn’t much time to go see it. I know I’m going to do my best to get up there while I can!

The National Gallery of Art and Vigée-Le Brun

So, I was at the National Gallery of Art the other day for a guided tour of the gallery’s statues. It was a great tour, and I really liked getting to know more about the statues that most people just walk by. But it was on my way out that I found something that totally made my day. I was on my way out of the gallery, walking past an open doorway, when what to my wondering eyes should appear, hanging on the wall above a roll-top desk, but this:

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I just about flipped out. I may have made some sounds of excitement that surprised the guard keeping watch over that set of rooms. I whipped out my camera and started snapping pictures. Glare is always a major problem when trying to take pictures, but I did my best.

Why was I so excited? Well, somewhat obviously, that is Marie-Antoinette. Perhaps less obviously, this image played an integral part in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. I wrote a post on it here. The summary is this: Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, one of the finest painters of her day, was the queen’s favorite artist, and the queen had a penchant for discarding decorum. A fashion trend she helped set off was the craze for light, white muslin dresses like the one she’s wearing in this portrait. The trouble is that this dress resembled the underclothing of the day that people were shocked when this painting by Vigée-Le Brun was put on public display. Why has she been painted in her underwear? How tacky! Marie-Antoinette’s reputation took a hit.

Oh, but that wasn’t all. This painting also inspired the “Grove of Venus” scene in which a prostitute named Nicole d’Oliva dressed up in a very similar outfit to the one in this painting and handed a rose to Cardinal Rohan. (Also, there was a candy box with a copy of this painting on the underside of its lid. See this post.) This little stunt would later blow up into one of the most sensational trials of the century, one that deeply affected the public’s view of the Queen.

In any case, having written a whole novel about the topic, I was delighted to see this portrait hanging in the National Gallery. I had no idea it was there (silly me!). From what I understand, however, this is actually a period copy, not the original. A Google search seems in to indicate the original Vigée-Le Brun painting is in a private collection. I really don’t care, though. I was so incredibly pleased to see it that I almost started jumping up and down and pointing. People would have had no idea what the heck was so exciting, so I restrained myself.

Nearby was another lovely portrait, this one of Madame du Barry, the mistress of Louis XV and a lady who was not well-liked by Marie-Antoinette:

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The National Gallery also has two other Vigée-Le Bruns on display (she’s a fantastic portraitist, and I love almost everything she painted) and one not on display. So, if you happen to be in the Washington DC area and want to see these paintings (as well as all the other fabulous art), then stop by the National Gallery. It’s more than worth your time. (By the way, it’s not a Smithsonian; it’s funded/run by the Federal government, as I found out when I tried to get a discount with my Smithsonian membership card.)

Here’s a link to the National Gallery’s listing for the painting (notice the “Anonymous”):

http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.46065.html

And here’s a link to the National Gallery’s listing for Vigée-Le Brun:

http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/artist-info.1953.html?artistId=1953&pageNumber=1

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.