An International Interlude: A Review of the Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun Retrospective in Paris

Just as Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun spent a productive period away from her native France after the Revolution, so our painting of the Countess Golovine – an aristocrat that Vigée-Lebrun met during her time in the Russian Empire – is taking an interlude from the Barber Institute to assume its rightful place among some of the artist’s best works in a landmark retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris. This exhibition includes a phenomenal collection of work from across Vigée-Lebrun’s long career, revealing unexpected aspects of her production and confirming her primary place as one of the most accomplished and exemplary portrait painters of the late eighteenth-century.

The painting Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787) as seen across multiple panes of glass and a bust of the artist by Augustin Pajou (1783)

It was emphasised from the outset that this is only the second exhibition devoted to Vigée-Lebrun’s work and the first to be held in France. With an expanded range of work compared to its predecessor, the 1982 retrospective held at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, this veritable homecoming exhibition offered the opportunity to express Vigée-Lebrun’s relatively underreported history in a nuanced and expanded manner. Alongside a loosely chronological structure, the display of the exhibition also featured sections of her paintings organised around her social circles, travel destinations, main themes and subjects and favoured materials. This effort to largely chronicle and contextualise the artist’s life was paralleled by staggered emphasis on its most important moments, relationships and works of art, creating a satisfying narrative balance aided by the display. The first room in the exhibition includes, for instance, a bust of the artist set in front of a glass pane that allowed the viewer to see across multiple display spaces directly to the back of the gallery, where one of Vigée-Lebrun’s best known paintings of Queen Marie Antoinette was hung. Seeing this painting from the outset of the exhibition and across a depiction of the artist allowed the curators to simultaneously highlight what is perhaps the most important painting of Vigée-Lebrun’s career while also emphasising her role, and the importance of art in general, in forming the image and reputation of both the Queen and the artist herself.

Peace Bringing Abundance (1780)

While examples of Vigée-Lebrun’s mastery of portrait painting abound, one of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition was the diversity of her production. Alongside her incredible pastel works, which rivalled her oil paintings and undoubtedly contributed to her virtuosity with colour, her rare historical and allegorical paintings were also given pride of place. This includes her painting Peace Bringing Abundance (1780), which Vigée-Lebrun submitted for acceptance to the prestigious Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture after the Queen’s intercession on her behalf due to her exclusion for her husband’s work as an art dealer.

Vigée-Lebrun’s aptitude for the allegorical also sheds light on the particular depth of reference she brought to her portraits, an example of which is her famous self-portrait with her daughter, Portrait of the Artist with her Daughter called ‘La Tendresse Maternelle’ (1786). The new theories on education and childhood propagated by Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau created a rush to define the modern iconography of maternal love, with Vigée-Lebrun’s examples at the forefront for her creative interpretations of Renaissance portrayals of the Madonna and Child like Raphael’s intimate Madonna of the Chair (1513-14). The informal and personal quality of Vigée-Lebrun’s painting in fact represents one of the most radical and attractive aspects of her work, and is present in almost all of her most remarkable and successful paintings, including her famous Marie Antoinette in a Muslin Dress (1783) and her portraits of Lady Emma Hamilton painted in Italy in 1792.

The landing leading up to the second floor of the exhibition

With a life set against extreme social and political turmoil, the two floors of the exhibition were justly separated into pre- and post-Revolution production. Forced to flee her homeland because of her proximity to the Royal family, her large personality and the ubiquity of her images, Vigée-Lebrun spent twelve years travelling the cultural centres of Europe while her family attempted to have her struck from the list of counter-revolutionary emigrés. Her renown and the quality of her work ensured a celebrated reception in each city she visited, and she was particularly popular in Russia, where she commanded huge prices for her portraits and circulated in high society. Her portraits also became consistently more daring during her time abroad, with her figures more naturalistic and their poses more dynamic than ever before; and the Barber’s portrait of the Countess Golovine (1797-1800), called ‘the most original’ painting of Vigée-Lebrun’s Russian period by the exhibition’s curators, is a perfect example of this. (Baillio & Salmon, p. 288) The relatively unadorned background and the octagonal shape of the canvas draws the viewer’s attention to the subject, who faces the viewer with an unwavering gaze while her hands dramatically gathers her neoclassical garb. The painting of the Countess Golovine was set among numerous other works of a similar size and composition in the exhibition, and Russia today holds one of the largest collections of Vigée-Lebrun’s work, showing her large and exceptional output during her time there.

A Portrait of the Countess Golovine (1797-1800)

IMG_9668Four of Vigée-Lebrun’s plein air pastels (1820-1830)

Vigée-Lebrun was finally able to travel to France in 1802, but while her return was much sought after and anticipated it did not stop her from continuing her travels around Europe. With the Treaty of Amiens she was able to live and paint in Great Britain for three years, and during her travels she even began to participate in the vogue for plein air drawing with her pastel studies of the Swiss Alps – a rare collection of which are also present in the exhibition. This final burst of creativity shows Vigée-Lebrun’s ability to adapt to her time and master her medium.

This groundbreaking retrospective of Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s work will be at the Grand Palais until 11 January 2016, when it will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (9 February – 15 May 2016) and the National Gallery of Canada (10 June – 12 September 2016). The portrait of the Countess Golovine will travel with it, returning to the Barber in autumn 2016.

Baillio, J. & Salmon, X., Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (Grand Palais, Galeries nationales: Paris, 2015).

For more information:

Sara Tarter

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