“Only in painting have I found happiness” … Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. This is the first French retrospective for this portraitist. One hundred fifty-nine works are on view until January 11, 2016 at the Grand Palais, Paris. You will be mesmerized by the moist, glinting eyes that look at you. One of the best times to visit avoiding lines and crowds is Friday around 5:30 pm.
In her portraits, I see an artist who painted her impressions, fashion, motherly tenderness and narrative art. Although not the first to paint teeth showing or expressive eyes, Madame Le Brun did have an expressive talent for naturalness. In one painting she could be predicting a fashion style of 1910 (Gabrielle de Cussol, née de Bougainvilliers (1785). In others, she could have fit in with the Impressionists, including Mary Cassatt or Berthe Morisot. Her portraits of Lady Hamilton dressed in antiquity styles remind me of the photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. For her education, she learned from her father, a painter, until he died.
Her paintings centered on the home life, the mothers and the children, the clothing and the fashions, stories from antiquity, self-portraits, her daughter, aristocracy and eventually the royal family of Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI. It was not until her exile that she dabbled in landscapes, which I found to be more simple and less up close and personal than details found in her portraits.
Financial Earnings Now Hers
Her financial earnings were not her own. First the step-father and then the husband made sure of that. Her earnings would not become her own until the doors of France were closed to her. As a portraitist of the royal family, she was compromised and was forced to flee the French Revolution with the help of a benefactor, her daughter, the nanny, some pocket money and one painting. All else was left behind. In order to save his own life, her husband, divorced her. Fleeing to Italy, she began the Grand Tour painting portraits of aristocrats and royalty for the next twelve to thirteen years. Financially, the doors opened for her thanks to her reputation and a calling card, Madame de Crussol’s portrait. This is the painting she escaped France with. She wrote of her adventures and memories in “Memoirs” (Souvenirs) and lived and painted until the age of eighty-seven in 1842.
A Touching Story
One of the portraits of Marie Antoinette (1785) has a touching story behind it told in “Memoirs“. Marie-Antoinette is wearing a lace bonnet with lace collar an a rust-color velvet dressing gown. The book she holds rests on a green velvet pillow. She is instructing one of her children in the intimacy of her private chambers (where a male painter could never enter). Far along in her second pregnancy, Madame Le Brun, accidentally knocks over her paints and brushes. Ignoring protocol, Marie-Antoinette bends over and begins picking them up. At that point she notices the official portraitist’s pregnancy. They see each other mother to mother and their complicity is sealed. Madame Le Brun will paint thirty portraits of the queen in six years.
Before You Go or Visit Virtually
Download the app – Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun App is available for iPhone or iPad.
On the App Store, search for “Reunion des Musées Natioinaux” – NOT Grand Palais. The subcategory is “Travel”. The app costs 2,99 euros or $2.99. Choose your language for the download (French, English or Spanish).
Read highlights in the exhibit magazine and the exhibition booklet
Grand Palais has a magazine page of past and present exhibits (available in English) with either videos or articles.
To download the booklet for the Vigée Le Brun exhibition, click on the exhibition photo and choose “Langue/English” at the top of the page.
Two YouTube videos available (subtitles in English): the trailer for the Vigée Le Brun exhibition
and Xavier Salmon, Xavier Salmon, Director of the Graphic Arts Department at the Louvre Museum presenting “Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun : l’exposition!“
Books Available in English
At the end of the exhibition you will find some books available in English. The exhibition moves next to Metropolitan Museum of Art (February 9-May 16, 2016).
For those interested in reading “Souvenirs” in French, two styles are available. I recommend the edition of “Souvenirs” with paintings accompanying her adventures. “Souvenirs” is also available on line (paintings inside).
On line, the Digital Library has the 1903 edition of “Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun” by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842). Translated by Lionel Strachey. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1903. This book has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the Celebration of Women Writers through the work of: Lisa Bartle and Mary Mark Ockerbloom.
Another on line source for “Memoirs” is Internet Archive.
3, avenue du Général Eisenhower 75008 Paris (Clemenceau entrance)
Closed on Tuesdays
Sunday, Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm
Wednesdays from 10:00 am to 10:00 pm
Closing at 6:00 pm Thursdays 24 and 31 December
Closed on 25 December
Metro: lines 1, 9, 13 / Stations: Franklin-D.-Roosevelt, Champs-Elysées-Clemenceau
RER: line C / Stations: Invalides
Buses: 28, 42, 52, 63, 72, 73, 80, 83, 93