The Marginalization of Vigée-Lebrun
If you’ve ever taken an art history survey course in college, you probably learned the names of three female artists: Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Mary Cassatt, and Frida Kahlo. You also probably learned little more than their names. Today, we will take a closer look at the career of Madame Vigée-Lebrun, whose work is often marginalized and dismissed. Don’t believe me? Check out the quote below:
“At the emotional extreme [Naturalness] found Madame Vigée-Lebrun, who gave it chic, and confused simplicity in dress with goodness of heart. Ravished by the charm of her own appearance, and hardly able to paint a male-sitter, Vigée-Lebrun continues the century’s cult of women. By removing any suggestions of intelligence (naturally) as if it has been rouge, she created the limpid, fashionably artless portrait…”
-Levey, Rococo to Revolution
This kind of discussion is common when referring to the works of Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. And yes, this is a direct quote from the textbook my art history class used all semester. Like this passage, much of the scholarship surrounding Vigée-Lebrun’s work focuses on her biography, discussing her career as a painter only in how it allowed her entrance into high society and funded her many excursions. As the portrait painter to the Queen Marie Antoinette and acquaintance with Catherine the Great, her life proves full of interesting gossip, especially since she authored an extensive memoir. When her work is discussed, it is often written off as “charming” or “feminine”. In many cases, scholars spend more time debating her appearance as a pretty young woman than they do the philosophical context of her works. Why is it the male artist’s philosophical intent is assumed, while her intent is little considered beyond her love of fancy dress?
Who Was Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun?
Born in 1755 in Paris, Vigée-Lebrun was the daughter of a portrait painter, Louis Vigée, and it was her father who first taught her to paint. By the time she was a teenager, she was painting portraits professionally and sought by nobility. She soon married fellow artist and art dealer, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Lebrun, who was nephew to the great Charles Lebrun, the first director of the French academy. Through her familial connections, Vigée-Lebrun had access to some of the most prominent figures in France whose portraits she painted. In 1779, she was invited to Versailles to paint Queen Marie Antoinette. She soon became a favorite of the queen, and over the next few years, Vigée-Lebrun painted over thirty works of the queen and her family. This was, of course, a time of great unrest in France, and when the royal family was arrested during the revolution, Vigée-Lebrun fled France with her daughter, traveling and working alone for the remaining years of her life all over Europe. She died in 1842.
I don’t focus on her biography here as this is often where the consideration of Vigée-Lebrun’s work comes to a halt. Many consider her to be a minor portraitist who was lucky enough to paint a queen. Critics often dismiss Vigée-Le Brun’s concern for the prevailing philosophy of her day, giving little thought to this interpretation of her work. She’s seen as someone who passively reproduced the dominant ideology. Yet, could it be her sex alone that causes scholars to dismiss any deeper consideration of her work? After all, she, as an artist, actively and intellectually engaged in the contemporary philosophy through her work as she was an avid follower of Rousseau, which we know from her memoirs and the content of her work.
We all know the French Revolution as the age of equality, liberty and fraternity, but how did this new philosophy affect the women of the time? Women’s roles did transform in this wave of fraternity, but not for the better. While Rousseau triumphed the power of the self for men, he encouraged women towards a path of servitude entirely out of the public eye. With their most important function now as the mother of new citizens, women were increasingly placed back into the entirely domestic sphere from which many had begun to free themselves in the 18th century. The Rousseau woman could not be a Romantic figure and remain within Rousseau’s defined boundaries of womanhood. This was a time when a woman would be penalized for stepping outside the boundaries of the domestic and maternal, meanwhile artists were redefining themselves to the very anti-domestic Romantic ideal. These two identities so conflicted, it is no wonder Vigée-Lebrun found it impossible to push herself into Romanticism, a criticism often thrown at her. Though some of her works may have Romantic qualities, they could never be considered part of the Romantic art movement. As Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock write in Old Mistresses, “A woman artist was acceptable in the eighteenth century but by very different criteria than those applied to men. She was accepted only in so far as her person, her public persona conformed to the current notion of Woman, not artist”. Her public persona was on display, not only in her self-portraits, but also in her portrait of others– all seen as a reflection of the artist’s and sitter’s character. This left her with little choice in whatand how she painted.
The Unusual Feminism of Vigée-Lebrun
In this post-Revolution Rousseauian society, Vigée-Lebrun’s position as a female painter put her in moral danger of being considered an immodest woman of spectacle. By promoting herself as an artist, she inadvertently labeled herself as an independent woman who defied this notion of the domestic woman. Her position as a woman working in a traditionally male-dominated field put her under scrutiny. Her sitters too risked this ill-fate, as spectacle and vanity of this nature were discouraged by Rousseau who believed a woman should only succumb to the gaze of one man, her husband. To compensate for the immodest act of being a female painter and sitter, Vigée-Lebrun’s women exude the very ideals of Rousseau. Vigée-Lebrun’s female portraits radiate the warmth and comfort women were supposed to provide, and in that way, her work reflects the teachings of the Rousseau camp. By painting these kinds of portraits, she and the sitter display themselves with the humility and grace considered becoming of their sex. Her kind of feminism, rooted in the domestic vision Rousseau preached, makes her decidedly unfashionable in contemporary scholarship. Yet in representing her sitters according to her own moral philosophy on the role of women, she acted not unlike the male artists of her day who also engaged with Rousseau.
Why didn’t she paint men?
Well, she did, actually.
Saying that she “could hardly paint a male sitter”, ignores her successful portraits of men, and also the fact that, as a woman, she was barred from life-drawings of men at the academy and received no formal training in draftsmanship. Any male sitter she painted, gave rise to new claims of infidelity and scandal where they did not belong.
Did she really only paint pretty women?
Many discuss Vigée-Lebrun’s beauty and the beauty of her self-portraits as the reasons behind her success, and in the context of the 18th century, this must be considered, as a woman was nothing without possessing personal charms. In her study on Vigée-Lebrun’s self-portraiture, Paula Radisich discusses how 18th-century viewers linked beauty of the art produced with the artist’s perceived virtue. As a female painter whose morality is already so easily questioned, Vigée-Lebrun had little choice other than to portray beauty. It is often the beauty of her subjects and the accessibility of her works that critics seem to find problematic. However, these critics ignore what it meant to be a female artist in the 18th century. There was no question of visionary pursuits in the manner of Jacques-Louis David; it would have been seen as a gross display of traditionally masculine traits in a woman. Simply putting her works on display showed a lack of modesty and invited gossip.
While Vigée-Lebrun’s own beauty may have helped her enter society and find patrons, it did not paint her work for her. She appears exquisite in her self-portraits because she created an exquisite work of art. In her patron portraits, it proved equally important that she make her sitter appear beautiful, such is the case with the Countess Bucquoi (above) and her smooth idealized features. Some critics cite this as a failing that makes her portraits simply flattering pictures of high society, yet if this is the case, she was not alone. As Vigée-Lebrun’s biographer, Joseph Baillio, points out, “She cannot be faulted for this. These were the rules of the game; she understood them as well as any of her rivals, and better than most. Her success as a portraitist in a sophisticated world depended largely on her ability to idealize objective reality.” In short, this was a common device for male painters as well, though they are rarely so criticized for it.
For Vigée-Lebrune, this idealization proved more than a tactic to help gain commissions; it also reflected Rousseauian ideals of women. Rousseau states, “The education of women should always be relative to that of men. To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, to take care of us when grown up, to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable; these are the duties of women at all times, and what they should be taught in their infancy.” This notion, obviously distasteful to women born in the time of modern feminist theory, was all too real in the world of Vigée-Lebrun. She makes her female sitter, like the Countess of Bucquoi, seem the very embodiment of these virtues. What could be more pleasing than the relaxed and natural image of a beautiful woman? The Countess certainly appears “easy and agreeable”. By eschewing any jewels or outlandish display, the focus seems to be on the sitter’s moral state, which appears beyond reproach with no accoutrement or vanities to accompany her other than her natural beauty, lacking contrived artifice. Though it may seem like artifice to 21st-century eyes, in her time, the very dressing-down of the figure and placing her in nature was enough to suggest an artless quality, despite the obvious posing and the unlikely scene of a woman dressed as such in a wild environment.
The claim (like the critique at the beginning of this article) that she removes all signs of intelligence from her sitters, I find unfounded. The Countess Bucquoi has no vapid upward gaze given to so many women of her era, but a direct gaze and archaic smile that speak of warmth and genuine feeling, not stupidity. The expression is not unlike Prud’hon’s Giovanni Battista Sommariva, a male sitter, and critics do not claim that he lacks intelligence of appearance. To state that her work is “fashionably artless” is perhaps the truest, for those were often Vigée-Lebrun’s concerns when working. She painted, after all, a fashionable crowd who wanted to be depicted in that manner. To call her work artless in the age of Rousseau is, of course, the very determination of her sex in the 18th century– no greater compliment could be paid to the Rousseau woman.
A Conflict of Philosophy and Self
In following Rousseau and leading an independent career as an artist, she lived a life of contradiction. One cannot help but wonder which passages appealed to her in Rousseau: Was she wooed by his insistence on self-sufficiency, equality, and freedom though this text was only intended for men? Or was she contented with the domesticated view of women Rousseau presented as ideal? It is certain that her life imitated the former and her work the latter, but her work is a public performance, and as such, an opportunity to present herself as engaging with the appropriate values of her time. It’s time we value her work as more than a pretty face painting pretty faces.