One of the Most Successful Women in the History of Art Finally Receives Retrospective

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette with a Rose, 1783, oil on canvas, 116.8 x 88.9 cm. Lynda and Stuart Resnick.

The Indomitable Spirit of Vigée Le Brun

Portrait painting exhibitions rarely draw in the big crowds, but this retrospective of Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, at the Metropolitan Museum, is quite the exception. Not least because of the artist's compelling life story: an autodidact, she was one of the most successful artists of the Late Baroque period, court painter and official portraitist of Marie Antoinette, escapee of the French Revolution, and an artist in exile, traveling from France to Italy, Germany, and Russia before finally returning to France after more than 12 years, as one of the most sought-after portraitists throughout Europe. All this accomplished despite her gender and the considerable hurdles set before her in the male-dominated sphere of painting.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Madame Grand, 1783, oil on canvas, oval, 92.1 x 72.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Edward S. Harkness, 1940.

Her inspiring biography--and the chance to see the portraits of Marie Antoinette--may be the initial attraction of the exhibition, but Vigée Le Brun's exceptional talent and the refreshing immediacy of her portraits give cause to linger. She had a remarkable ability to put her sitters at ease, engaging in conversation as she worked, and she was adept at capturing vivid and sensitive expressions. A portrait of Madame Grande (1783) shows the sitter gazing dreamily skyward, a sheet of music in her hand. Defying convention, Vigée Le Brun often depicted women with their lips slightly parted--a piquant gesture, frowned upon at the time, but which invests in her portraits a lifelike and refreshing sensibility today. Perhaps the most captivating of her canvases were those devoted to self-portraiture; she depicts herself with an air of confidence and indomitable spirit, as an artist with palette in hand, or as a doting mother, tenderly embracing her daughter Julie.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbons, ca. 1782, oil on canvas, 64.8 x 54 cm. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.

That indomitable spirit certainly proved useful as she navigated the obstacles and setbacks in her chosen career inevitably elicited by her gender. She exhibited publicly for the first time at the young age of 19 at the Salon of the Académie de Saint-Luc, but was barred entry into the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture because of her marriage to Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, an art dealer. Only upon the insistence of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI was Vigée Le Brun finally granted entry. The appearance of a privileged position at court prompted her critics to continually dismiss or disparage her work, jealously attributing her success to feminine wiles, fraud, or worse. Fleeing France at the start of the Revolution, she raised her young daughter on her own, later divorcing her husband. She finally returned to France in 1802, after hundreds of fellow painters petitioned to end her exile. She continued to paint--portraits, of course, but also landscapes--until her death, in Paris, at the age of 86.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Countess Varvara Nikolayevna Golovina, ca. 1797-1800, oil on canvas, 83.5 x 66.7 cm. The Henry Barber Trust, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham.

First exhibited last year at the Grand Palais in Paris, "Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France" is the first retrospective exhibition devoted to the artist, and only the second exhibition of her work in modern times. Long viewed as too feminine, aristocratic, and counter-revolutionary, her work is finally emerging from an extended period of neglect. And for this exceptionally talented and spirited painter, it's not a moment too soon.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self-portrait, 1790, oil on canvas, 100 x 81 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Corridoio Vasariano, Florence (1905).

"Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France" is on view through May 15 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

--Natalie Hegert