The Metropolitan Museum’s latest show offers a vivid glimpse of the ancien régime’s dying days
©Musée des Augustins, Toulouse
‘Baronne de Crussol Florensac’ (1785)
When a blockbuster calls, truth in marketing is the initial victim. The Met subtitles its dazzling Vigée Le Brun show “Woman Artist in Revolutionary France”. But what ever the prolific, prodigious painter was, she surely wasn’t that, because 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 well-known and gifted glamourist of the court, particularly the circle around Marie-Antoinette. Her portraits appeared routinely and in some quantity at the biennial Salon open (for a price tag) to the public which thronged the Salon Carré of the Louvre.
The spectacular ascent of Élisabeth Vigée’s profession exemplified a lot of of the paradoxes of the last years of Louis XVI’s monarchy. When Alexis de Tocqueville utilized the term “ancien régime” for the title of his profound evaluation, he was retrospectively conferring on it a moribund inevitability which his personal thesis belied. For beneath the husk of archaic legal institutions (like the 3 social “orders”) there was a great deal of upward mobility for these who had talent and knew how to monetise it. For ladies the way up was naturally tougher 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 more than the neck and shoulders.
Her first models had been her household. 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 just before it in the final decades of the century: simplicity, transparency, unspoilt naturalness. No 1, it became speedily apparent, particularly to her husband, the art dealer Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, could compete with this young lady as an artist of artlessness. The seer of the All-natural Life, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, had died in 1778 but his Confessions had been published 4 years later and, with each other 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 tactics by which Vigée Le Brun delivered images of unspoilt human nature are all more than this show and they nevertheless have that top quality of freshness which allowed the court and les grands to delude themselves into thinking they have been certainly youngsters of nature a jaded globe reborn by discarding hair powder and playing at milkmaids.
©Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Courtly proprieties have been jettisoned (not least at the urging of one more star stylist whose operate is visible in this show, Rose Bertin, the queen’s dress designer, and the topic 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 excellent breakthrough is to remake girls, immemorially the prisoner of male ogling, into the unmistakable mistresses of their own presence. Her spectacular portrait of the Baronne de Crussol Florensac turns the sitter’s physique, dressed in kind-fitting scarlet silk edged in fur, one way as she sits holding a musical score while her head turns more than her shoulder towards us, a image of confident self-possession.
Everyone had to appear as even though they had just come in from a country stroll: hair sweetly awry wild flowers in the straw hat or grasped in the hand. In Vigée Le Brun’s hands these females, as worldly as any individual 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 starting of song. Their wide eyes sparkle with precisely rendered catchlights. They are prepared to play, and not necessarily at the keyboard, and they are frequently splashed with that brilliant red that is suggestive of the partnership amongst intellectual and sexual daring.
©The Royal Collection
‘Charles Alexandre de Calonne’ (1784)
It was all a dream the last of a planet about to collapse in fire, blood and paranoia. Vigée Le Brun was the designer of this wilfully consumed dreamlife. The information were otherwise. A single of her sweetest, brightest portraits (frequently mistaken for a self-portrait due to the fact the face-style is so related) is of the queen’s favourite, the Duchesse de Polignac, who like the artist departed in a hurry since she had turn out to be hated as a byword for vain luxury and extravagance. Close by is her lover the Comte de Vaudreuil, who had created some cash in the West Indies but by means of Polignac had turn out to be loaded with offices. In one year he was made Grand Falconer, Governor of Lille and maréchal de camp. The children of nature have been in truth insatiable feeders on an apparently bottomless spoils program.
Absolutely everyone had to appear as though they had just come in from a nation stroll, hair sweetly awry
Symptomatic of this fatal false consciousness is the subject of 1 of the most brilliantly virtuoso portraits in the show: that of the controller-basic 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. Alternatively the Assembly lit the very 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 sort of smirking self-satisfaction that would contribute to his downfall. All about him are the indicators 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.
©Musée National de Chateau, Versailles/Getty
‘Queen Marie-Antoinette and Her Children’ (1787)
Satisfying though it is, the show misses a trick or two. Bringing modern women artists into the display, like her rival, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, who was created 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 planet of girls artists throughout this brief chance for self-realisation.
And it’s a pity that it didn’t happen to a person to bring in to the show from the Met’s European galleries the great history painting which hung just beneath Vigée Le Brun’s full-length portrait of Marie-Antoinette in the Salon of 1787. The queen’s portrait was meant to replace an additional done by the Swedish artist Adolf Wertmüller, deemed too formal to do the scandal-ridden Marie-Antoinette considerably very 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 kids in front of an empty cot which would remind absolutely everyone of a lately lost infant. But for after Vigée Le Brun has made a fatal mis-step, for the loved ones scene of tender bereavement is posed in front of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
In 1787, right away under this failed workout in emotional appeal, was Jacques-Louis David’s austerely stunning 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 much more strong. 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 males 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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