Skip to content Skip to navigation

Portraits by Madame Vigee Le Brun at the Metropolitan Museum

Sat Feb 27th, 2016

The Duchesse de Polignac by Madame Vigee Le Brun

In today’s art world, adjectives such as lovely or beautiful have fallen out of fashion eclipsed by the likes of compelling, innovative, or cutting edge.Happily the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition, “Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France” proves that lovely can indeed apply to art. Madame Le Brun’s paintings, like so many lovely things, also give pleasure which these days is nothing to sneeze at. 

Born in 1755 during the reign of Louis XV, Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun – to give her her full name – was innately gifted.Her artistic talent became apparent while still a child, and both parents fostered her efforts. 

By the time she was 15 she was in demand as a portraitist, both for her talent as well as her charm and appealing looks. Chaperoned by her mother to sittings, she was already earning enough money to help support her family. She was only 23 when she was first summoned to Versailles to paint Marie Antoinette. The earliest of Madame Le Brun’s three full-length life-size portraits of the queen is in the exhibition along with several smaller portraits.

Despite her success Madame Le Brun was not accepted at Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, established in Paris in 1648.Women were barred from the school of the Académie where students learned anatomy and drawing by studying and sketching nude male models. Of the 550 members of that organization during its 150-year history, only 14 were women. Only after Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI interceded on her behalf, was Madame Le Brun admitted to the Académie. 

In 1789 on the eve of the French  revolution Madame Le Brun, disguised as a commoner, escaped with her daughter and a governess across the border into Switzerland. Had she remained in France, her close relationship with the royal family would have guaranteed her execution. For the next 13 years she visited Florence, Naples, Berlin, Vienna, where she spent three years, and Russia where she spent six. Her travels were something of a “triumphal progress.” Wherever she went she received a warm welcome as well as commissions from all the most important people. 

The 80 works on view at the Metropolitan Museum from public and private collections both here and abroad are a testament to Madame Le Brun’s technical skills as well as her “understanding of and sympathy with her subjects.” Her people seem to live and breathe so that one feels as if one knows them as friends. Moreover she exemplified the moment when tastes changed from classical formality to an emphasis on the natural. 

In the exhibition Madame Le Brun has depicted the Duchess de Polignac wearing a simple white muslin dress with a ruffle around the neck tied with a bow.Her brown hair is left unpowdered. On her head she wears a jaunty straw hat embellished with a feather and small bouquet of wildflowers. Like many of the women the Madame Le Brun painted, the duchess is seen with her lips parted as if she were about to speak.Perhaps she is - to the Madame Le Brun’s who was her friend was the case with so many of the artist’s subjects.

Although she was best known for her sympathetic portraits of beautiful women of high rank, Madame Le Brun’s portraits of men show that she was equally skillful at capturing subjects of the opposite sex. She has painted the Duchesse’s lover, the handsome Comte de Vaudreuil who was one of her most important patrons, dressed informally with unpowdered hair. 

In both these portraits as in almost all of her paintings Madame LeBrun has included a touch of red be it just the small flower in the Duchesse de Polignac’s hat, or Stanislaw Poniatowski’s velvet cloak, or the sash she herself wears in her self-portrait.

Sadly by the time she returned to France in 1802, many of Madame Le Brun’s subjects, including of course the king and queen, had met their fate at the guillotine.Madame Le Brun died in Paris at the age of 86.