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The Court Painter Was A Woman

Self-portrait in a Straw Hat. Painting by Louise Élisabeth Vigée le Brun (c. 1782). PD-100+. National Gallery. Wikimedia Commons
Self-portrait in a Straw Hat. Painting by Louise Élisabeth Vigée le Brun (c. 1782). PD-100+. National Gallery. Wikimedia Commons

I wish I had the money and time to hop on over to Europe every time I see an exhibit, event, or happening that grabs my attention. One such event that I would fly across the Pond to attend is the current art exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris. This special exhibition is dedicated to one of France’s foremost artists, the self-taught portrait painter Louise Élisabeth Vigée le Brun (1755–1842).

The Grand Palais

Vigée le Brun or Madame le Brun as she was known, was a prolific artist painting more than 600 portraits and 200 landscapes. Madame le Brun commanded very high commissions—so naturally she was disliked by many of the male artists of the time (jealousy spilled over into some calling her “feeble and vulgar”). She also happened to be, at the age of 23, the official court painter for Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette.

The Grand Palais visitor site

The Exhibition

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. 1755 – 1842

From 23 September 2015 to 11 January 2016, the Grand Palais is presenting the first retrospective in France devoted to the artist Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun.

Known for having been the official painter of Queen Marie-Antoinette, this outstanding portraitist, on a par with Quentin de La Tour and Jean-Baptiste Greuze, is the focus of an exhibition comprising 130 of her works.

Marie Antoinette and her children. Painting by Louise Élisabeth Vigée le Brun (1787). Palace of Versailles. PD-Art. Wikimedia Commons.
Marie Antoinette and her children. Painting by Louise Élisabeth Vigée le Brun (1787). Palace of Versailles. PD-Art. Wikimedia Commons.

Paintings, drawings and pastels reveal the talent of this artist, who accurately captured the features of her models whilst subtlety embellishing and idealizing them. Her paintings show great refinement, sensuality and exquisite pleasure.

The exhibition also features landscapes, drawn or painted in watercolours.  Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun also excelled in these two disciplines.

For those of you who read my first book, Where Did They Put the Guillotine?–Volume One, you know that I spent an entire walk based on the events unfolding at Versailles Palace on 5–6 October 1789. This was the march from Paris to Versailles by more than 20,000 women for the purpose of obtaining flour from the king’s reserves. It ended with the king and his family being taken back to Paris—they would never see Versailles again.

Vigée le Brun was a smart lady. She saw what was coming, especially due to her close relations with the king and queen. So on 6 October 1789, she dressed up as a maid and left France. In other words, she joined the initial ranks of the émigrés (one of the king’s younger brothers left the country on the same day).

Watch this but don’t worry, it has English subtitles

Between leaving France and returning during the reign of Napoléon, Vigée le Brun traveled extensively throughout Europe painting portraits of nobles, their families, and royalty. Upon her return, she was not much in demand due to her known sympathies for the monarchy so she left again but this time for England where she was very popular and painted people like Lord Byron.

In an age of artistic male dominance (and most everything else), Madame le Brun was awarded membership in such prestigious organizations such as the Académie de Saint Luc, Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, Accademia di San Luca, and the Société pour l’Avancement des Beaux-Arts. It’s nice she was recognized for her talents during her lifetime.

Marie-Antoinette en grand habit de cour. Painting by Louise Élisabeth Vigée le Brun (1778). Grand Palais à Paris. PD-Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. Wikimedia Commons.
Marie-Antoinette en grand habit de cour. Painting by Louise Élisabeth Vigée le Brun (1778). Grand Palais à Paris. PD-Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. Wikimedia Commons.

She wasn’t just a great artist because of her gender. As Joseph Baillo says, “Vigée le Brun is not to be celebrated because she was a woman. She is to be celebrated because she was a great painter.” We get all caught up with the French Impressionists of the late 19th-century and tend to forget about the other important artists who preceded them. Unfortunately, the French art world turned its back on Vigée le Brun since the early 19th-century but someone has finally decided to reverse this slight (the curator of the exhibition, Joseph Baillo, is an American—just thought I’d throw that in).

After writing this I think I’ll check the airline schedules for that flight to Paris. A better idea would be for you to buy those airline tickets for yourself and your daughter who aspires to be an artist. She couldn’t have a better mentor or benchmark than Vigée le Brun.

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What’s New With Sandy and Stew?

As I mentioned in the last blog post, we’ve been able to convert our first two books to ePub versions compatible with Kindle Fire and iBooks. Like most of you, we try and work on multiple tasks in addition to writing the newest book.

Next blog I’ll give you an update on my progress with the new book Where Did They Put the Gestapo Headquarters?—A Walking Tour of Nazi Occupied Paris (1940–1944).

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