Vigée Le Brun at The Met Transcends Her Reputation

Vigee Le Brun self portrait
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self-Portrait, 1790

There has been a meme circulating on social media this Women’s History Month that challenges people to name #5WomenArtists. The point of this is perfectly clear—gender inequality across the art world, today, is real, persistent and disgraceful—although asking for only five women visual artists is, or should be, a laughably modest proposition. If you can’t name five women artists, you either don’t pay any attention to art or you need to take serious stock of what you’re doing with your life.

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Asking people to name five women artists who were active before, roughly, the middle of the 19th century is a different matter entirely. Between the beginning of the renaissance, when artists’ names reliably became part of the historical record and are thus generally still known today, and the rise of self-consciously avant-garde modernists of the Impressionist period, naming 5 women artists is something of a challenge for the general public and art historians, alike. Through the sheer force of heroic will of feminist scholars, the names Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1652/3), Angelica Kauffman (1740–1807) and Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) do pop up in the European canon, but the presumably myriad other women artists of that period (and before) languish in even greater, if not total, obscurity.

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Whether or not you were familiar with Gentileschi, Kauffman or Vigée Le Brun, you happen to be in luck if you want to learn more about Vigée Le Brun and see her work. She is the subject of frankly revelatory exhibition currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through May 15). The show was organized jointly by the Grand Palais in Paris, The Met in New York and National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Katharine Baetjer, who curated the show for the department of European paintings at The Met, told Roberta Smith at The New York Times that this was “the first monographic exhibition devoted to a woman during her 40 years in the department.” #5WomenArtists, indeed.

Marie Antoinette and Her Children
Marie Antoinette and Her Children, 1787
(Click to enlarge.)

Before the current show, the painter’s artistic reputation had been focused, as far as I’ve ever seen Vigée Le Brun’s career even acknowledged, on portraits of Marie Antoinette, or, really, one in particular: Marie Antoinette and Her Children, 1787. It’s a perfectly good painting, though not burdened by being overly interesting. It is certainly smart in some ways…but cloying in more. (There is a charming awkwardness to the way the children are arranged in the painting that helps, somewhat, redeem the image. Vigée Le Brun, as I learned in the exhibition, had a veritable gift for depicting the creepiest of creepy children, such as here and here and absolutely here.) The portrait was intended to humanize the queen for the unfond French public, just two years away from the revolution; Marie Antoinette’s fate suggests this public relations strategy was a failure.

Therefore, it is no surprise that art historians, under the reasonable, but mistaken, impression that this canvas was Vigée Le Brun’s pinnacle, have felt no great need to look more deeply into her œuvre. If not for the supreme celebrity star power of the sitter, Vigée Le Brun might not even join Gentileschi and Kauffman in living memory.

Vigee Le Brun - Iris
The Princess von und zu Liechtenstein as Iris, 1793

That would have been tragic. Looking at her proliferation of other paintings, Vigée Le Brun is, simply put, a scintillating artist. Her portraits of aristocrats and royalty (mostly, but definitely not exclusively female), as well as of courtesans of the highest echelons, reveal themselves as gorgeous, nuanced, diverse, technically expert, brilliantly colored, whimsical and on and on. These fantastic, these important paintings, they are not what one would expect based on the constraints that make up Vigée Le Brun’s staid, courtly reputation.

So, art historians did a woefully incomplete job with Vigée Le Brun—and I’m grateful to the curators of the current show for showing us the light. This is important because it affects the ways we all think about and discover other historical women artists. More to the point, allowing one of her least dynamic painting of a mother (however royal) and her children to eclipse the actual greatness of Vigée Le Brun’s portrait career has unsettling implications. There is a pernicious tokenism in the failure to consider Vigée Le Brun as a complete artist from the start.

Almost by accident, the token woman artist turned out to be a serious and shimmering talent, but the process that got us there needs to change. How many other brilliant and dazzling 18th-century women artists are entering their third century of purgatorial obscurity? Even worse, how many scholars might have begun to find inspiration in that dazzle, but demurred because they didn’t know better and thought the most prominent example available was just a middling courtier-painter?

The world is a big and complicated place, and we need artists of all genders to teach us how to understand it. They can only teach us if we meet them half way and devote open-minded, curious attention to full range of what they can do. The Met’s Vigée Le Brun exhibition is a major step in the right direction. The painter has a new, enthusiastic fan.