Saturday, October 15, 2011

Elisabeth Louise Vigee-LeBrun - a Self Portrait within the Teachings of Rousseau

Elisabeth Louise VigeeLe-Brunn, Self Portrait with her Daughter, Julie,  1786
(Musee du Louvre)
It is facinating to see how an artist depicts one's self in portraits, when she has total control of the image she wants to present to the world.  Vigee-LeBrun's Self Portrait with her Daughter Julie is a very interesting form of self-representation especially for someone who is trying to establish her identity as a serious academician.  Instead of the usual way of representing herself at her easel with the tools of her trade, Vigee-Le-Brun portrays herself holding her daughter in a loving embrace, the mother and child, a perfect picture of contentment.

Paintings from the era before abstraction are great models to decipher the concerns and beliefs of the society for whose consumption the works were meant for.  This self-portrait can be seen as a  reflection of the enlightened ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau in 18th century France.  Rousseau's book Emile, a manual on the education of children and the nature of man, very clearly spelled out the best way to bring up a child as well as the roles befitting each gender.  He argued the best place for a woman was in the home, taking care of her children which was detrimental to the well-being of the child.   Rousseau, who was passionately against the concept of using wet-nurses, the common practice of the aristocracy, preached breastfeeding one's own child instead. According to Rousseau, the bond established between mother and child had social consequences affecting society as a whole.

Vigee-LeBrun, Marie-Antoinette and her Children,
Vigee-LeBrun must have composed this portrait with Rousseau's ideals in mind, showing to the world, that she was a nurturing mother as well as an enlightened artist.

The portrait Marie-Antoinette and her Children  is definitely recalling Rousseau's sentiments.   Marie-Antoinette who was dubbed "Madame Deficit" is no longer a queen in her regalia but a mother surrounded by her children and an empty crib, reminding her people of the child she had lost, a way to get French people's empathy.  Unfortunately, the country had been suffering for too long, people starving, with Marie-Antoinette the most easily identifiable target that even portraits such as these were not enough to save her from the Guillotine.

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