Saturday, May 19, 2012

Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrunn and Jean Metzinger - A Dialog About Maternite

Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrunn, Madame Vigee LeBrunn and
Her  Daughter, Jeanne Lucie Louise,
(Musee du Louvre)
Jean Metzinger, Femme a la Fenetre (Maternite), 1911
(Private Collection, Switzerland)

 Last week was mother's day and since I was busy celebrating as a mother, sister and an aunt, I could not find the time to sit and write.  Just because I have been remiss does not mean I can pass up an opportunity to write about the most utilized theme in art history, Mother and Child.

The layers of meaning that can be discovered within a work of art have always fascinated me but when there is a dialog involved between two artists that spans more than 120 years, the conversation becomes simply irresistible. 

Jean Metzinger, one of the principle theorists of Cubism chose to recall  Madame Vigee LeBrunn and Her Daughter, Jeanne Lucie Louise a painting in the Louvre that was very well known due to its widely reproduced engravings, for his cubist work, Femme a la Fenetre from 1911. The Cubist artist has ironically chosen an 18th century neoclassical work to reference for his 20th century modernist work. 

In this interesting juxtaposition, the red ribbon in the mother's hair and the embrace help make the connection between the two paintings more clear even though the subject matter and style of representation are vastly different.  Vigee Le Brun's painting is a traditional work produced using the age old edicts of perspectival techniques  while Metzinger has employed  passage and multiple views typical of cubist works creating a dynamic, durational pictorial space.   The pictorial surface is divided into planes, baring both the frontal and profile view of the two figures concentrated mostly in the middle of the canvas in front of a flattened schematic  space in Metzinger's painting.  According to Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighten "Metzinger has purposefully based his work on the 'familiar' in order to provide viewers with a point of access."1  

Elisabeth Vigee LeBrunn, favorite and portraitist to Marie Antoinette, courtier, member of the Academie de peinture et de sculpture and a royalist  portrays herself as a mother in a warm embrace with her daughter.  I have already written a previous post about another painting with the mother and child subject matter from the same artist, Self Portrait with Daughter Julie from 1786.  This image may be another representation in light of the enlightenment philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau about the caring of children.  

Having said all of that, if we are to take into consideration the date of the painting, 1789,  and the costume Madame LeBrunn is wearing we can draw some very interesting conclusion that diverges from the above argument.  Metzinger has chosen to represent his figure in contemporary dress even though  Vigee LeBrunn is seen in neoclassical attire in her self-portrait, which had become the fashion in 18th century France.  The diaphanous white gowns  were worn by French women ever since they had donned them on September of 1789 when they donated their ornaments to the state in order to distance themselves from aristocratic ostentation.  It is nteresting to contemplate the reasons for an artist so closely related to the crown, associating herself with such revolutionary ideals.  Taking into account Vigee LeBrunn's monarchist politics,  we can assume Metzinger may have perversely chosen to use the red, white and blue of the revolution in his painting. 

In French society, the role of culture in political discourse was often disguised beautifully beneath conventional imagery as can be seen in the two paintings above.  Metzinger's Matenite also corresponds to the Cubist conceptions of mixing tradition with contemporary signs which is related to the Bergsonian ideas of duration.  In regards to using traditional imagery, Metzinger and Gleizes, in Du Cubisme published in 1912,  stated:
"...It is impossible to write without using cliches, and to paint while disregarding familiar signs completely... For this reason, it is up to each one to decide whether he should disseminate them thorougout his work."
Madame Vigee LeBrunn and Her  Daughter, Jeanne Lucie Louise and  Femme a la Fenetre (Maternite) may have many layers of meaning regarding the social and political contemporary events of their respective times but for our purpose now, we can delight in them just as the visual manifestation of the most primal bond between two human beings, a mother and her child in a warm embrace.


1 Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighten, Cubism and Culture, Thames and Hudson, New York


  1. I love this, Sedef -- lots to think about! I can see why the Vigee-LeBrun was so popular -- the mother and daughter both look happy, and it captures one of the best moments of motherhood, I think. It's fascinating to see the Cubist take on the Vigee-LeBrun, and the political overtones that you mention really do make it multi-layered (what we love about art history, right?). Wow -- great post!

  2. Karen,

    Thank you for the comment and the twitter mention :) When I saw the Metzinger in my Cubism book, I knew I just had to write about this.

    Vigee LeBrunn was the master of capturing this kind of romantic image but I must admit I prefer Adélaïde Labille-Guiard's work who was admitted into the academy at the same time as Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrunn. (I wrote a post about the competition between the two)

    The conversations that take place between artists is becoming an area of fascination for me lately. It is so much fun to try to contemplate their intentions.

    Again thank you for visiting my blog.


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