Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Let Them Eat Cake... and Paint Portraits: Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun Exhibition

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) may not be a name that trips off the tongue; in fact,Vigée is pronounced Vee-zhay, and her artistic life is equally difficult to pronounce with authority. A mix of Rococo and neo-classicism, Le Brun forged a fascinating pictorial style. Born under Louis XV's reign, she was destined to become a royal portrait painter. Her father was a professional portraitist who gave her drawing lessons. She was not permitted to study at the predominately male Academy of Arts. After marrying one of the premier art dealers at 21, she was further removed from admission to the Academy as any connection to the art world was strictly prohibited. However, her work was shown at the Salons. From there, she was summoned to Versailles to paint the Hapsburg queen, Marie Antoinette. Now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 15, 2016 you can discover her much-deserved and belated retrospective. 
Marie Antoinette in Court Dress, 1778, oil on canvas
Courtesy of WikiArt

Le Brun captures Marie Antoinette in a thoughtful pose, wistfully gazing somewhere off the canvas whilst holding a single pink flower. The flower is barely visible amidst her birthday cake skirt, layered with tiers of tapestried satin and frivolous tassels. A tiny little shoe emerges from the bottom of the dress, a detail that no woman would omit. Clearly Marie Antoinette's footwear made the final version of this painting, adding another feminine detail of glitz and glamour. Le Brun was a sympathetic artist, revealing aspects of womanhood that confirm images in the popular imagination. Marie Antoinette was known for having a very narrow face with a heavy lower lip and jaw, attributed to her Hapsburg roots. However, Le Brun softened the jaw and added a rosy glow to the cheeks, creating a balance of harmony between the upper and lower halves of the face. Marie Antoinette appears as though she is bathed in light coming through an open window, creating an aural glow of divinity, power, and sensuality; all, no doubt, very appealing to the Queen herself. 

Le Brun's teacher was an artist named Joseph Vernet. He encouraged her to "paint as much as you can from nature." 

Portrait of Joseph Vernet, 1778, oil on canvas, Louvre Museum
Courtesy of WikiArt

Le Brun captures her mentor as a grand old man of the arts. His powdered wig and deep-set facial lines reveal a distinguished quality. As he holds his paintbrushes and easel, there is a glimmer in his eyes; the creative burst is about to ensue. Moments after he finishes his pose as the model, he will reverse the role and become the artist. The sincerity and purity of the expression reveals Le Brun's hearty admiration for her mentor. 

The trollop, mistress, harlot, courtesan, etc. has always been an art historical trope from Titian's Venus of Urbino to Manet's Olympia. However, where the male artists would paint the fallen woman in a lustful, lascivious way Le Brun depicted the deposed mistress of Louis XV in a clever way revealing the wiles of a woman. 

Madame du Barry in a Straw Hat, 1781, oil on canvas
Courtesy of WikiArt

Le Brun did Madame du Barry's portrait when her head was still connected to her body. The guillotine was an excellent way of jealous wives dealing with home-wreckers. Le Brun magnificently captures the spirit of the 'other woman.' She was described as having "the gaze of a coquette, her elongated eyes never opening completely." Instead of what could easily be misconstrued as 'bedroom eyes,' heavily lidded and glassy, she is rather smug and satisfied. She is proud of her sexual conquests and has her head back in slight amusement. The straw hat gives her the appearance of an ennobled peasant, proud as a peacock with her feathers jutting erectly. 

Le Brun captures her own youthful sensuality and suppleness in a self-portrait painted in 1782, when she was 27 years old, and a mother of a 2-year-old. 

Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbons, 1782, oil on canvas
Courtesy of WikiArt

Le Brun depicts herself as a young nymph with rosy cheeks and unpowdered hair in delightful ringlets. Her pert expression and rosebud lips immediately bring her sexuality to mind. Her skin is so pure and translucent that one can see the blue-green veins underneath, revealing youthful vitality. The cerise colored bow on her décolleté draws attention to her bosom, kept under wraps by a diaphanous blouse.  Her earrings are fashionable and the pendulums dangle by her swan-like neck. As with Rembrandt's portraits, there is a strong connection between the sitter and the viewer, a tangible link from the past to the present brought by the gaze. 

Le Brun delighted in fashion, which she shared with Marie Antoinette. Le Brun took her fashion cues from Antoinette, who introduced the chemise a la reine in the 1780s. The gown was layers of thin muslins, with a belted sash around the waist. It was light, airy, and considered quite scandalous. The pastoral costume, perfect for an afternoon summer day in the countryside, was asked to be removed from the Salon exhibition. The billowy, piratesque sleeves and feathers in the cap hardly look that provocative. The flowers Antoinette is holding to make a bouquet add a girlish feminine charm and a touch of innocence. 

Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress, 1783, oil on canvas
Courtesy of WikiArt
This version was considered so provocative that Le Brun was asked to paint another version that was a bit more dignified. Much like Goya with his Naked Maja was asked to paint a clad version, Le Brun presented another version of the picture. 

Marie Antoinette with a Rose, 1783, oil on canvas
Courtesy of Google Art Project

The irony here, as with Goya's Maja, is that the clad version is just as sexy as the original naked version, if not more so. Marie Antoinette's décolleté is prominently on display, more so than in the original. Her cheeks are even rosier, revealing delightful sensual pleasure. 

Le Brun was a master portraitist and had countless commissions besides Marie Antoinette. She spent a number of years in Russia before returning back to France capturing the images of remarkable Slavic beauties that reveal an exoticism in her oeuvre. 

Portrait of Varvara Ivanovna Iadomirskaya, 1800, oil on canvas

One need not be a psychologist to feel the longing in Varvara's eyes. She was the illegitimate child of Ivan Rimsky-Korsakov ann Countess Stroganova, who left her husband in St. Petersburg to be with her lover. Le Brun depicts Varvara in a classic Greek costume and an indistinguishable landscape, rendering her ultimately timeless and disassociated from reality. This painting reads as a Tolstoy novel, a beautiful woman with a checkered past, yearning for a better future. 

The final image that I think warrants attention is of a sensation so intensely feminine that I have never seen captured before in oil on canvas, but rather through hundreds and hundreds of pages upon pages in literature. 

Portrait of Comtesse de la Chatre, 1789, oil on canvas, 
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Comtesse de la Chatre was born into an incredibly wealthy family. She married unhappily and divorced, only to live her life with a companion. What otherwise could quickly be construed as a society portrait based upon the fine furniture and luxurious costuming, upon closer inspection, one finds the emotional abyss that lurks behind this woman's eyes. In a race between immense boredom and intense dissatisfaction, this woman looks positively trapped. The murky grey background is unpromising and offers little hope. She turns away from the book, which clearly could not keep her interest, to give a gaze of sheer desperation. I felt rather guilty walking by her canvas in the gallery and not trying to save her, extract her from the ennui and senselessness that plagues her. 

That is part of the beauty of Le Brun's work; besides the sumptuous pastel colors and intensely feminine tableaus, there is a humanism, a psychological leash that binds the viewer to the portrait subject. Le Brun takes us into a world that is filled with more than fine frocks, feathers, frivolity, and fancy... the women sitters are complex, engaging, and riveting. Le Brun looks at Rubems for formal structure of color facture, whilst incorporating the realism of Rembrandt, and providing an undeniable 'woman's touch.' 

No comments:

Post a Comment