J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Visiting Vigée Le Brun in New York

In addition to that little exhibit on Mathias Buchinger, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is also hosting a rare major retrospective of the portraits of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), one of pre-Revolutionary France’s leading artists.

The New York Times review by Roberta Smith explained how she launched her career:
Vigée (pronounced Vee-ZHAY) Le Brun was born with a surfeit of natural talent and ambition as well as beauty, charm, a head for business and making connections, and a gift for conversation that kept her sitters entertained. Her father, a successful artist of pastel portraits, recognized his daughter’s gifts and taught her to paint but he died when she was 12.

To distract her from her grief and from a step-father she loathed, her mother, a hairdresser of some reputation, chaperoned her daughter on visits to private and public collections around Paris. Vigée briefly attended a small drawing academy run by a fan painter, and received informal instruction from the landscape painter Joseph Vernet. The best of her early portraits depicts her mother as a woman of refinement with a gentle but appraising gaze; a 1778 portrait of Vernet holding brush and palette in beautifully painted hands is similarly sensitive.

Mostly, Vigée taught herself by looking and copying and starting to work. Even in her late teens she was helping to support her family — so productively that in 1774, when she was 19, the authorities sealed her studio until she joined a guild. (She was operating without a license.)

To escape home life, she made a marriage of convenience in 1776 with Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun (1748-1813), a painter and prominent art dealer, who wooed Vigée by lending her paintings to copy. He took her to Holland and Flanders to see those of Rubens and the Dutch masters, promoted her work and partly lived off her money. Soon Madame Le Brun, as she was known, became one of the most sought-after portraitists of her moment. Her position was solidified by Marie Antoinette, whose favor included helping the painter gain entry into the Royal Academy, which excluded artists married to art dealers, in 1783.
When the Revolution came, Vigée Le Brun was so closely associated with Marie-Antoinette and her court that she went into exile for her safety. She traveled to other European courts, working particularly in Russia, before returning to France under Napoleon. Vigée Le Brun remained in demand as a portraitist into her fifties. She published her memoirs in the 1830s.

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