Figure 1: Le Brun 1782. Self-portrait in a Straw Hat. Oil.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), was beautiful, charming, intelligent and a superbly talented and prolific French artist. During her career, she painted a staggering 660 portraits and 200 landscapes.
Le Brun's portrayal of women were often intimate in the sense that she would depict her subjects participating in hobbies such as reading, her female subjects were not presented as merely beautiful, they were also cultured and intelligent. Some of her portraits drew on mythologies, depicting her subjects as Goddesses. In all probability, Le Brun was perhaps a veiled feminist, the contextual decisions, allegories she made in her art are strongly suggestive, coupling with the fact that Élisabeth Vigée became a painter at a time when men dominated the craft. Encouraged by her father who was a renown pastel portrait artist, Le Brun would draw and paint with ferocity, more so after her father's death when she was 12. The talented painter would later go on to forge a lasting friendship with the young French Queen, they were both the same age, and it was Antoinette's influence that secured Le Brun's entry into the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. Le Brun's acceptance was not without controversy; the Academy was growing weary of women entering the institution and had limited its acceptance rate to two women, though under pressure from the Louis XVI, perhaps influenced by Antoinette, the academy had extended this number. Making matters more complicated, Le Brun's husband was Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun was an art dealer; it was a conflict of interest in the Academy's eyes. Nevertheless, the Queen persuaded her husband to secure Le Brun's position.
Figure 2: Marie Antoinette in Muslin Dress. oil.1783. Le Brun Figure 3: Antoinette with a rose. oil. 1783. Le Brun
It was at Salon de Paris in 1783 where the infamous portrait by Le Brun of Antoinette in a muslin dress caused a scandal. At the time, France's fashion did not view such a dress as appropriate for any woman of good moral character much less its Queen. It's worth mentioning, at the time the portrait was painted, England and France had signed the Treaty of Paris (1783), and the type of muslin dress Antoinette wore, was a current fashion trend in British society. It is quite possible that Antoinette in a politically savvy move was extending a further olive branch by paying homage to England by wearing an English dress. It certainly would have been the type of move her mother would approve. Maria Theresa was notoriously strategic in political affairs. When Marie left for Versailles, Maria Theresa corresponded regularly with Antoinette, giving motherly advice, most of it, sensible, notably to be less extravagant, after Marie confirmed rumours of outlandish hairdos and attending the theatre in Paris, seen as boarding on indecency by the French.
But getting back to the muslin dress, in assessing whether Le Brun and Marie anticipated the uproar of the portrait when it was unveiled, it's not entirely incorrect to suggest they either underestimated the reaction, were completely in a bubble or were acutely aware of pushing boundaries. Whatever the reason, both the artist and the sitter, were comfortable enough to unveil the portrait with confidence. After the uproar, Le Brun created a different version, Antoinette with Rose, but the original remained Marie Antoinette's favourite.
The painting is a reminder that like the photograph, its meaning is never fixed, its nature forever shifting depending on the culture and context of its viewer. Today, no one would view the portrait as indecent or unbecoming of a queen. Élisabeth Vigée's legacy serves as documentations of people, art and history, and a cultural reminder that some things change and some remain the same. The ability to cause controversy through art or photography continues to redefine how we view the image and ourselves.
BAETJER, KATHARINE. 2016. "Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art". The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History [online]. Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/vgee/hd_vgee.htm [accessed 1 March 2017].
SMITH, ROBERTA. 2016. "She Painted Marie Antoinette (and Escaped the Guillotine)". Nytimes.com [online]. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/12/arts/design/review-vigee-le-brun-metropolitan-museum.html?_r=0 [accessed 1 March 2017].
Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France. 2017. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, i.e. The Met Museum [online]. Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2016/vigee-le-brun [accessed 7 June 2017].
Figure 1. LOUISE ÉLISABETH VIGÉE LE BRUN [PUBLIC DOMAIN], VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS. n.d. Self-portrait in a Straw Hat [image]. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASelf-portrait_in_a_Straw_Hat_by_Elisabeth-Louise_Vig%C3%A9e-Lebrun.jpg [accessed 7 June 2017].
Figure 2. ÉLISABETH LOUISE VIGÉE LE BRUN, ÉLISABETH LOUISE VIGÉE. 1783. Marie Antoinette in a Muslin dress [image]. Available at: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/00/MA-Lebrun.jpg [accessed 7 June 2017].
Figure 3. ÉLISABETH LOUISE VIGÉE LE BRUN, ÉLISABETH LOUISE VIGÉE. 1783. Antoinette with a rose [image]. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Louise_Elisabeth_Vigée-Lebrun_-_Marie-Antoinette_dit_«_à_la_Rose_»_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg?uselang=en-gb [accessed 7 June 2017].