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‘Baronne de Crussol Florensac’ (1785) © Musée des Augustins, Toulouse

When a blockbuster calls, truth in advertising is the first victim. The Met subtitles its dazzling Vigée Le Brun show “Woman Artist in Revolutionary France”. But whatever the prolific, prodigious painter was, she certainly wasn’t that, since she hightailed it out of France as soon as the revolution got serious in the autumn of 1789. There was a very good reason for Vigée Le Brun’s rapid exit: she was the most famous and gifted glamourist of the court, especially the circle around Marie-Antoinette. Her portraits appeared regularly and in some number at the biennial Salon open (for a price) to the public which thronged the Salon Carré of the Louvre.

The spectacular ascent of Élisabeth Vigée’s career exemplified many of the paradoxes of the last years of Louis XVI’s monarchy. When Alexis de Tocqueville used the term “ancien régime” for the title of his profound analysis, he was retrospectively conferring on it a moribund inevitability which his own thesis belied. For beneath the husk of archaic legal institutions (like the three social “orders”) there was a good deal of upward mobility for those who had talent and knew how to monetise it. For women the way up was naturally harder than for men, but Élisabeth Vigée had what it took. Her father had been a minor portrait painter but her mother was a hairdresser in an age when coiffure went from the insanely fantastical — galleons riding on the waves of piled and powdered wigs — to the self-consciously undressed, with curls tumbling over the neck and shoulders.

Her first models were her family. A tender portrait of her brother painted before she was 20 shows she had mastered the Chardin manner of quiet dewy-eyed innocence in the genre which swept all before it in the last decades of the century: simplicity, transparency, unspoilt naturalness. No one, it became quickly apparent, especially to her husband, the art dealer Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, could compete with this young woman as an artist of artlessness. The seer of the Natural Life, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, had died in 1778 but his Confessions were published four years later and, together with his tear-stained novel La Nouvelle Héloïse, became the bible of the aristocracy and the middle classes who succumbed to the religion of the pounding heart and the brimming eye.

The techniques by which Vigée Le Brun delivered images of unspoilt human nature are all over this show and they still have that quality of freshness which allowed the court and les grands to delude themselves into thinking they were indeed children of nature; a jaded world reborn by discarding hair powder and playing at milkmaids.

‘Self-Portrait’ (1790) © Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Courtly proprieties were jettisoned (not least at the urging of another star stylist whose work is visible in this show, Rose Bertin, the queen’s dress designer, and the subject of a brilliant study by Caroline Weber). Away with the hoop petticoats and stiffened taffetas. On with cotton lawn and muslin, loosely gathered at the bosom and tied with soft ribbons. But Vigée Le Brun’s great breakthrough is to remake women, immemorially the prisoner of male ogling, into the unmistakable mistresses of their own presence. Her stunning portrait of the Baronne de Crussol Florensac turns the sitter’s body, dressed in form-fitting scarlet silk edged in fur, one way as she sits holding a musical score while her head turns over her shoulder towards us, a picture of confident self-possession.

Everyone had to look as though they had just come in from a country walk: hair sweetly awry; wild flowers in the straw hat or grasped in the hand. In Vigée Le Brun’s hands these women, as worldly as anyone in the pages of Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses, somehow remain forever girls, their cherry juice lips parted as if in merry repartee or the beginning of song. Their wide eyes sparkle with exactly rendered catchlights. They are ready to play, and not necessarily at the keyboard, and they are often splashed with that brilliant red that is suggestive of the partnership between intellectual and sexual daring.

‘Charles Alexandre de Calonne’ (1784) © The Royal Collection

It was all a dream; the last of a world about to collapse in fire, blood and paranoia. Vigée Le Brun was the designer of this wilfully consumed dreamlife. The facts were otherwise. One of her sweetest, brightest portraits (often mistaken for a self-portrait because the face-style is so similar) is of the queen’s favourite, the Duchesse de Polignac, who like the artist departed in a hurry since she had become hated as a byword for vain luxury and extravagance. Close by is her lover the Comte de Vaudreuil, who had made some money in the West Indies but through Polignac had become loaded with offices. In one year he was made Grand Falconer, Governor of Lille and maréchal de camp. The children of nature were in fact insatiable feeders on an apparently bottomless spoils system.

Symptomatic of this fatal false consciousness is the subject of one of the most brilliantly virtuoso portraits in the show: that of the controller-general Vicomte de Calonne, whose summoning of an “Assembly of Notables” was intended to rubber-stamp the tax reforms that would save the foundering sovereign debt. Instead the Assembly lit the first fuse of resistance. Calonne is holding a paper inscribed “Au Roi”, signifying his devotion to crown and country. His face is radiant with intelligence but also with the kind of smirking self-satisfaction that would contribute to his downfall. All about him are the signs of the outrageous luxury which undercut the attempt to present him as conscientious public servant: the lace cuffs à la valencienne, the Florentine taffeta jacket from Vanzut and Dosogne, the last word in high style, the inkwells from the Queen’s jeweller.

‘Queen Marie-Antoinette and Her Children’ (1787) © Musée National de Chateau, Versailles/Getty

Satisfying though it is, the show misses a trick or two. Bringing contemporary women artists into the display, including her rival, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, who was made a member of the Académie Royale along with Vigée Le Brun in 1783, or Fragonard’s pupil Marguerite Gérard, would have given a richer sense of the world of women artists during this brief opportunity for self-realisation.

And it’s a pity that it didn’t occur to someone to bring in to the show from the Met’s European galleries the great history painting which hung just below Vigée Le Brun’s full-length portrait of Marie-Antoinette in the Salon of 1787. The queen’s portrait was meant to replace another done by the Swedish artist Adolf Wertmüller, considered too formal to do the scandal-ridden Marie-Antoinette much good in the eyes of the public. She was already traduced in pornographic prints as an extravagant slut; Vigée Le Brun needed to remake her as a mother. So she is portrayed with her apple-cheeked children in front of an empty cot which would remind everyone of a recently lost infant. But for once Vigée Le Brun has made a fatal mis-step, for the family scene of tender bereavement is posed in front of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

In 1787, immediately below this failed exercise in emotional appeal, was Jacques-Louis David’s austerely beautiful and ominous “Death of Socrates”. In muted colours and in the starkest classical setting, the philosopher is about to drink the fatal hemlock while his pupils avert their gaze or weep. The contrast could not be more powerful. Against life as a bowl of cherries, death with virtue; against brightness, darkness and grieving; against the douceur, the sweetness of life which Talleyrand missed, the unrelenting force of philosophical logic. And as usual it is the men who will have the last word.

‘Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France’, Metropolitan Museum, New York, to May 15, metmuseum.org

Photographs: Musée des Augustins, Toulouse; The Royal Collection; Musée National de Chateau, Versailles/Getty; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

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