February 15–May 15, 2016
Exhibition Location: Special Exhibition Gallery, first floor, Gallery 199
Press Preview: Monday, February 8, 10:00 a.m.-noon
Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) is one of the finest 18th-century French painters and among the most important of all women artists. An autodidact with exceptional skills as a portraitist, she achieved success in France and abroad during one of the most eventful, turbulent periods in European history. Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France is the first retrospective and only the second exhibition devoted to this artist in modern times. The 80 works on view at the Metropolitan Museum will be paintings and a few pastels from European and American public and private collections.
The exhibition is made possible by the Sherman Fairchild Foundation, the Gail and Parker Gilbert Fund, the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, and the Diane W. and James E. Burke Fund.
Corporate support is provided by Bank of America.
Additional support is provided by gifts made in memory of Parker Gilbert.
The exhibition is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Réunion des Musées Nationaux – Grand Palais, and the National Gallery of Canada, with the exceptional participation of the Château de Versailles.
Vigée Le Brun’s Paris Years
Born in Paris during the reign of Louis XV, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was the daughter of a professional pastel portraitist who died when she was 12 years old. Precocious and largely self-taught, in her teens Mademoiselle Vigée, chaperoned by her mother, was already working independently as a portraitist and contributing to the support of her family. It became necessary for her to join the artisanal guild in 1774, and she exhibited publicly for the first time when she was 19 at the Salon of the Académie de Saint-Luc.
In 1776 she married the principal art dealer and expert in 18th-century Paris, Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, with whom she had a daughter, Julie. Theirs was largely a marriage of convenience, beneficial to both, although his profession at first kept her from being accepted into the prestigious Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. At 23, Vigée Le Brun was summoned to Versailles to paint Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), who was a few months younger than she. The earliest of three full-length life-size portraits of the queen in the exhibition will be Marie Antoinette in Court Dress (1778, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), which was delivered to her mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, in 1779. The most important painting of the queen, commissioned as a propaganda piece for the monarchy and shown at the Salon of 1787, is Marie Antoinette and Her Children (Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon), in which she is presented as a regal mother with the dauphin and his two siblings.
The art of painting was fostered in France by the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, established in Paris in 1648 under the leadership of Charles Le Brun (1619–1690). Women were barred from the school of the Académie because the students learned anatomy and the principles of drawing by studying and sketching from the nude male model. The Académie royale also controlled access to the Académie de France in Rome, where young male artists were afforded the opportunity to study the sculpture and monuments of antiquity. Women were afforded only the most limited access to the Salons of the Académie, where members brought their work before connoisseurs, critics, and potential patrons. (Of the 550 members of that organization during its 150-year history, only 14 were women.) Denied entry to this august organization because her husband was a dealer and association with the trade was prohibited, Vigée Le Brun was able to gain access only when Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI intervened.
Vigée Le Brun submitted Peace Bringing Back Abundance (1780, Musée du Louvre, Paris) as her reception piece, becoming one of the Académie’s last four female members, and she exhibited the picture at the Salon of 1783. She flourished, showing close to 40 works in the four Salons to which she had access (1783, 1785, 1787, 1789). Balancing innovation with tradition, she created intimate as well as public portraits, including, for example, the Duchesse de Polignac (1782, Versailles) and Emmanuel de Crussol-Florensac (1787, The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Simply dressed in white with loose, unpowdered hair, several of her female sitters exemplify the move from formality to the newly fashionable mode of sensibility. Vigée Le Brun was remarkable not only for her technical gifts, but for her understanding of and sympathy with her sitters.
Years in Exile
In 1789, Vigée Le Brun was forced to flee France because of her association with the queen. She traveled with her daughter to Italy where, in 1790, she was elected to membership in the Accademia di San Luca, Rome. Independently, she worked in Florence, Naples, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and Berlin. She amassed a fortune painting, among many others, the queen of Naples and her children (a 1790 portrait of her daughter, Maria Louisa, will be on view), Louis XVI’s aunts (Madame Victoire, 1791, Phoenix Art Museum, and Madame Adélaïde, 1791, Musée Jeanne d’Aboville, La Fère), and Napoleon’s sister Caroline, who became queen of Naples (1807, Versailles). She spent three successful years in Vienna (Princess von und zu Liechtenstein, 1793, private collection, New York) and more than six years in Russia, where she took sittings from members of the family of Catherine the Great and from the former king of Poland (1797, Versailles). Her work was also exhibited in the Paris Salons while she was in exile. Vigée Le Brun finally returned to France in 1805 for good and later published her memoirs (1835 and 1837), giving voice to details about her art and life in late 18th-century Europe. She died in Paris in 1842 at age 86.
Acknowledgments and Credits
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is greatly indebted to the Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the Musée du Louvre, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for their generous loans. Other works have been lent by 22 private collectors, several of whom are descendants of the sitters. The Metropolitan Museum is privileged to show seven panel paintings from European and American collections, some of the finest the artist created under the influence of Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) in the years 1782 to 1787. Portraits from all of the Salons at which Vigée Le Brun exhibited in the 1780s will also be presented in the exhibition.
Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France is organized at the Metropolitan Museum by Katharine Baetjer, Curator in the Museum’s Department of European Paintings. A larger version of the exhibition is currently on view at the Grand Palais in Paris through January 11, 2016. After its presentation at the Metropolitan Museum, the exhibition will be on view at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa from June 10 to September 11, 2016.
Publication and Related Programs
The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue written by Joseph Baillio, Katharine Baetjer, and Paul Lang with contributions by Ekaterina Deryabina, Gwenola Firmin, Stéphane Guégan, Anabelle Kienle Poňka, Xavier Salmon, and Anna Sulimova. The catalogue will be published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and will be available in the Museum’s book shop.
The catalogue is made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
A Sunday at the Met program will take place on April 10, 2016. There will also be a series of exhibition tours, including one on February 26 in American Sign Language, and a Picture This! program for visitors who are blind or partially sighted on March 24. A concert on April 8, In the Salon of Vigée Le Brun, will feature fortepianist Jory Vinikour, soprano Jolle Greenleaf, and violinist Robert Mealy presenting works by Haydn, Beethoven, Grétry, and Gluck.
Education programs are made possible by The Georges Lurcy Charitable and Educational Trust.
An audio tour, part of the Museum’s Audio Guide program, will be available for rental ($7, $6 for Members, $5 for children under 12).
The Audio Guide is sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Additional information about Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France and its accompanying programs is available on the page of the Museum’s website devoted to the exhibition (including a short video), as well as on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter using #VigeeLeBrun.
January 13, 2016
All portraits by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (French, Paris 1755-1842).
Image 1: Self-portrait, 1790. Oil on canvas. Galleria degli Uffizi, Corridoio Vasariano, Florence (1905)
Image 2: Marie Antoinette with a Rose, 1783. Oil on canvas. Lynda and Stuart Resnick
Image 3: Baronne de Crussol Florensac, 1785. Oil on wood. Musée des Augustins, Toulouse
Image 4: Charles Alexandre de Calonne, 1784. Oil on canvas. Royal Collection Trust / H. M. Queen Elizabeth II