Sunday, April 17, 2016

Elisabeth Louise Vigee-LeBrun - a Female Academician

Vigée Le Brun, Self-Portrait, 1790
(Gallerie degli Uffizi)
Art history is full of great male artists while we hear very little of the successful women who managed the almost impossible feat of carving out careers where no opportunities existed. Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was one such artist who was not only the favorite portraitist of Marie Antoinette, the queen of France, but also to many notable aristocrats, artists, musicians and poets throughout 18th - 19th century Europe.  There is currently an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France, which displays 80 works from around the world of the artist who had a successful career in one of the most turbulent periods of European history.

Self_Portrait in Traveling Costume, 1789-90
(Private Collection)
This exhibition should be visited on site or online not only to view beautiful works of art from the Rococo period but also as an inspirational tale of one woman's journey of survival and success under some of the most unfavorable circumstances. The Met has a great exhibition page (link) that has all the works on display as well as the audioguide that is available in the museum. Of course nothing can compare to experiencing these works in person, but if you can not make it to the museum, this is a really great alternative. Instead of giving an overview of the exhibit, I want to take this opportunity to focus on the obstacles Vigee Le Brun had to overcome in order to become the celebrated artist of her time.

Vigee-LeBrunn, Peace Bringing Back Abundance,  1780,  exhibited at Salon of 1783
(Musee du Louvre)
This was the reception piece Vigee-LeBrun submitted into the Academie to be admitted as a member.  The French Royal Academy did not accept female artists as members on the premises of their supposed inferiority to the male artists but between its foundation in the 17th century and the revolution, a few women were allowed within its hallowed halls.  Out of the total of 450 members  there were between 12 to 15 who were female, and those would only would be accepted four at a time.  Elisabeth Louise Vigee-LeBrun along with Adelaide Labille-Guiard were accepted into the Academie in 1783 only after the deaths of two female artists.

Etienne Vigée, 1773, painted at 18 prior to joining the Academie de Saint-Luc
(Saint Louis Art Museum)
Prior to their acceptance into the academy both Elisabeth Louise Vigee-LeBrun along with Adelaide Labille-Guiardthey were members of the Academie de Saint-Luc which was the ancient artist's guild.  One of the original reasons for establishing the Academie de peinture et de sculpture was to distinguish real artists from the artisans and provide them with the necessary teachings besides drawing and painting to allow them to become the artistic geniuses they were.  Also the Academie was state sponsored and artist got paid by the government so they could create without being beholden to trade. Members of the Academy of Saint-Luc were frowned upon because of their involvement with the trade. The Allegory of Poetry was one of the works from Vigée Le Brun's first exhibition at the Academie de Saint-Luc.

Allegory of Poetry, 1774
(Henry and Catherine Robet)

Although Vigee-LeBrun aspired to be a history painter, the most prestigious of the genres, she could only be accepted as genre painter, two steps lower than male academicians.  Since women could not work from live models and were not educated in anatomy, they could not become history painters which would preclude them from having all the privileges the male artists gained like studio space and an allowance.  Although it was impossible for her to be a history painter, Vigee-LeBrun still produced a work of art that could actually very well have been accepted as such.

Study for Abundance, 1780
(Private Collection)
In Peace Bringing Back Abundance, Vigee-LeBrun represents two allegorical figures using traditional symbols, Peace on the right garbed in darker colors is wearing a crown of laurels on her dark hair, and carrying an olive branch, while Abundance is blond wearing white and gold and bearing a cornucopia full of fruits, flowers in her hair and holding ears of wheat, her fertility is pronounced with her exposed breast.  France had been a supporter of the American War of Revolution and this painting underscores that involvement.

Vigee-LeBrun showed incredible artistry in this piece but she was admitted into the Academie with reluctance plus pressure from the crown, because of her husband's profession of being an art dealer.   It seems the Academie did all they can to try to dissuade female artists from joining their ranks but one or two exceptional artists still managed to get by.

- This is an edited version, with additional content, of a prior post that was written in October 2011.

1 comment:

  1. It seems the Academie did all they can to try to dissuade female artists from joining their ranks but one or two exceptional artists still managed to get by. And thank goodness they did. Stunning, stunning work of art. Thank you for the history.
    xo isa


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