At about the halfway point in the 80-work Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum (to May 15), I ran into the museum’s new president, Daniel Weiss, who asked me the dreaded question: “What do you think?”
My usual strategy for deflecting attempts to preview my review is simply to tell the truth: “I’m still looking and thinking.” But this time, although I had much yet to see, I blurted out: “I don’t understand why the Met thinks this show is a sleeper!”
Mounting this exhibition was described by the Met’s director, Tom Campbell (speaking at the press preview), as “a leap of faith,” because Vigée Le Brun’s name “is not widely recognized.” Not to worry: This dazzling array of sumptuous portraits has already charmed some critics and should do the same for visitors. In last week’s jump-the-gun reviews (the show opened Monday), the NY Times and Wall Street Journal, respectively, called the paintings “ravishing” and “exquisite.”
This languorous vision in whites (feathery hat, filmy chemise, lacy collar, silvery coif, creamy skin), whose simple muslin dress “would soon become the height of fashion” (according to the Met’s label), was one of my favorites (as she also was for Louis XV, whose low-born mistress she had been):
The title of the Met’s show—“Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France”—is catchy but a bit misleading. She was technically “in” revolutionary France but certainly not of it. She and her premier patron, who was her exact contemporary and frequent sitter—Queen Marie Antoinette—found themselves on the wrong side of history. In the latter’s case, that meant being on the wrong side of the guillotine—a fate that also befell the above-pictured Comtesse Du Barry. For Vigée Le Brun, being a royalist sympathizer meant having to flee the country in 1789, not to return permanently until 1805. She died in 1842 at 86.
To me, the most appealing (although less showy) paintings in this show are the self-taught striver’s depictions of herself, in which she sensuously parts her lips, which glisten like her dress’ red bow in the example below. She “us[es] her femininity to promote her art” and “emphasizes her youth and poise,” as noted in the Met’s label for this professional calling-card:
Like Du Barry, she wears a muslin chemise. But when she tried that on Marie Antoinette the next year, the painting incurred immediate backlash against the queen’s being publicly shown in lingerie-like indoor attire. She was compelled to withdraw the controversial painting (at left, below) from the first Salon in which she participated after having been admitted to the Académie Royale. Just a month later, she came up with a more dignified substitute (at right), using the same pose-with-a-rose:
While Vigée Le Brun’s portrayals are almost always “sympathetic” (as the labels repeatedly remind us), the ones at the Met rarely exhibit emotional or intellectual depth. A source of livelihood not only for the artist but also for her family (and later, her husband), these commissioned likenesses were meant to flatter the subjects’ vanity, not probe their character.
Reasonable critics disagree with me on this, including independent scholar Joseph Baillio, who had organized the Kimbell Art Museum’s 1982 Vigée Le Brun exhibition and was principal curator of the current traveling show (according to its catalogue), although he was not credited as such in the press release for the Met’s trimmed-down version, organized here by Katharine Baetjer, curator of European paintings. The Grand Palais’ earlier version of the current show, which Baillio co-curated with Xavier Salmon, director of the Graphic Arts Department at the Louvre, was about twice as big as the Met’s and included more works by other artists.
In the show’s sumptuous, highly informative catalogue, Baillio asserts that “whenever possible [emphasis added], Vigée Le Brun placed emphasis on her sitters’ temperaments and expressive features.” I didn’t see that in the impassive miens of the aristocrats who dominated the display. But perhaps “whenever possible” was a key qualifier: The formality of the court squelched expressiveness in their portraits.
I was particularly drawn to the relatively few paintings that seemed less constrained by clients’ sensibilities–particularly the self-portraits and the depictions of the artist’s daughter, Julie (from whom she eventually became estranged). The latter brought to my mind contemporary photographer Sally Mann‘s controversially sensuous portraits of her own children:
As it happened, I was once again captured unawares by a NY Times photographer, this time admiring another of Vigée Le Brun’s “Julie” pictures (in which her left breast seems on the verge of a wardrobe malfunction).
This is a detail from the image published to accompany Roberta Smith‘s review:
I did sense a falling-off at the back end of the show, which I hadn’t yet seen when I gushed to Weiss. Once I came to the galleries chronicling Vigée Le Brun’s efforts in exile, I sensed an artist on auto-pilot, prettifying her pictures with fussier backgrounds. Worried that my flagging interest was partly a function of my own portrait-fatigue, I asked Baetjer which period she favored. For the curator, as for me, the earlier French pictures were clear winners.
One of Vigée Le Brun’s stops during her quest for foreign clients was Russia, where she stayed for more than six years. That posed a problem for the Met: It was unable to borrow nine paintings created in and remaining in Russia, which will be on view at the show’s next stop—the National Gallery of Canada (June 10-Sept. 11).
Russia has refused to lend works to the U.S. since 2011—the result of an unresolved ownership claim by the Aguydas Chasidei Chabad of the U.S. (an Orthodox Jewish group), involving books, manuscripts and archival materials held by two Russian public libraries. This is the second recent show at the Met where political obstacles have thwarted loans. (Where’s cultural diplomacy when we really need some?)
Some of the Russian paintings, now owned elsewhere, did make it to the Met, including this of an unidentified sitter:
Here’s an image of the catalogue page for the no-show that I most wished I could have seen. She painted it soon after she was made an honorary member of Russia’s Imperial Academy of Arts:
Glowing with touches of gold, the artist regarded this painting, in which she is composing a (faintly visible) picture of Maria Fyodorovna (wife of Paul I), as her best self-portrait.
For more biographical details about this resourceful, barrier-breaking artist, join me at the press preview to hear the Met’s Katharine Baetjer explain the secrets of Vigée Le Brun’s success:
Baetjer also said she was pleased that, after 40 years at the Met, she had finally gotten a chance to work on a woman artist. How about making this the start of an old master trilogy: Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Angelica Kauffman, Artemisia Gentileschi?