In order to mark one of those Significant Birthdays, I was offered a jaunt, and, throwing my usual caution (Ely?, or perhaps Bury St Edmunds?) to the winds, said ‘Let’s go to Paris for the day, to see the Vigée Le Brun exhibition.’ So, a few days ago, we did.
Things started badly, as both the electronic alarm clock and the humanoid (‘I always wake up between 5.30 and 6 anyway’) version failed to function, and we missed the planned train to London. However, by barging boldly and illegitimately into the ‘Business Premier’ queue at St Pancras, we collapsed panting into our Eurostar seats a few minutes before the train glided smoothly off in the general direction of Europe, and my anxiety level (stratospheric after I noticed that, on top of lateness, there was a typo in my name on my ticket – an offence which gets you thrown off any aeroplane these days) began to subside.
We had an excellent breakfast (close friends will be aghast to learn that I actually refused an extra pain au chocolat) as we traversed northern France, observing en passant a phenomenon locally called ‘le soleil’, and arrived at the Gare du Nord at midday (their time). Then we caught a bus (bravo!), alighting on the Champs Elysées right next to the Grand Palais (formidable!).
As we were well in advance of our timed tickets, and as the late breakfast had disinclined us to lunch, we took a bit of a stroll up and down the ‘Village festive des Champs Elysées’, a staggering array of white-painted chalets offering everything from soap to Glühwein and fur hats to (festive) socket sets. I got a couple of souvenirs:
We decided to go into the exhibition early, and it was just as well we did, as the two hours planned in our timetable wouldn’t have been enough. It is a staggering show: the first retrospective exhibition in France of a painter remarkable not only for her artistic achievements but for having lived (and survived) during one of the most turbulent periods of French history.
Born in Paris in 1755 to a moderately accomplished portrait painter and his hairdresser wife, Louise Elisabeth Vigée showed a great talent for drawing and painting. Her own account of her long life, during which she lived largely on her own earnings as an artist, was published France in 1835–7, and its first English version (of which the translator is unknown) in 1879.
Having risen to the status of court painter to Marie Antoinette, and having (not without much opposition) become a member of the Royal Academy of Painting in 1783, Vigée Le Brun fled France in October 1789 with her only child, Julie (and her governess) but not her husband (from whom she was compulsorily divorced, because of her emigrée status, in 1794). Exiled until 1802, she spent 1803–5 in England, but then returned to Paris, living mostly at Louveciennes and continuing to paint almost until her death in 1842.
I had always enjoyed Vigée Le Brun’s paintings not only because of her superlative skill and colour sense but also for their apparent naturalism and spirit of gaiety, which (for me, though not for others) stops on this side of sentimentality, unlike the work of some of her older contemporaries such as Greuze. Two things took me by surprise: one was that towards the end of her life she began creating small but enchanting pastel landscape sketches, about the size of postcards – very few, alas, have survived. The other is that although she was the most prominent female painter in France at her time, she was by no means the only one.
In the exhibition there were self-portraits of four of her contemporaries:
Labille-Guillard was considered by some to be a better (= more realistic) painter than Vigée Le Brun, who was thought to flatter her subjects – none more so, perhaps, than Marie Antoinette herself. Seeing the formal portrait of the queen from 1778, where the court dress is apparently held together with bell ropes and tassels, but shows a great deal of shoulder and bosom, alongside the outrageously ‘indecent’ painting of 1783 where she is shrouded almost up to the neck in layers of muslin, made me realise that the ‘indecency’ of the latter refers to the inappropriateness of such informal, unwigged and unbejewelled attire for royalty.
Of the dozens of other wonderful portraits in the exhibition, I’m restricting myself here to a few which struck chords other than painterly. Here, for example, is the prince de Nassau in 1787, pointing to a map showing Tahiti, which he had visited as a member of Bougainville‘s 1766–9 expedition.
Here is Lady Hamilton, whom Vigée Le Brun encountered in Naples in 1792, depicted as a Bacchante:
In the same year, Vigée Le Brun arrived in Venice, where she met an old Paris acquaintance, Dominique Vivant Denon. A diplomat under the Ancien Régime, he later joined Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt and wrote about his archaeological discoveries, but at this point, as the caption to her gorgeous portrait says, he was busy conquering the heart of a rich Venetian woman:
And, finally, one of the portraits Vigée Le Brun created during her stay in England: this is Arabella Diana Cope (1769–1825), duchess of Dorset, looking for all the world in her Regency costume (as, again, the caption says) like ‘une des héroïnes de Jane Austen‘:
This barely scratches the surface of this most wonderful exhibition, which finishes on 11 January. The insights it gives into aristocratic European life between 1770 and 1840 are fascinating, and whatever you may think of Vigée Le Brun’s status as an artist, or her political world-view, I defy you not to be aghast at the sheer technical ability and industry of a women who produced over 600 fully finished portraits, as well as landscapes and dozens of pastel drawings, in the course of her long and often difficult career.