We knew it all along: eventually we'd be hearing from Madame Vigée Lebrun. There were years, of course, when no one spoke of her, when no one thought to pull her paintings out of the storage racks, to brush off the dust that had settled thickly over her reputation. But who could be fooled into thinking she was gone? Given the current state of scholarship and the vogue for reviving forgotten reputations—particularly those of women, and of academic painters—it was only Inevitable that Madame Vigée Lebrun, who qualifies abundantly in both categories, would be back.
And now she is. In the seven years since the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth organized a retrospective of her work—the first ever—Lebrun has been enjoying a new wave of popularity. She’s even made it to Broadway: the protagonist of Wendy Wasserstein’s latest play is a feminist art historian intent on rescuing Vigée Lebrun from obscurity. It seems appropriate that Lebrun would eventually surface on the stage, for the scholarship surrounding her career has tended to skimp on discussions of her work and treat her instead the way a playwright would—which is to say, as a dramatic character. Vigée Lebrun has been revived as a fantastic personality, and such is the interest in her life that the artist’s Memoirs, a cream puff of a book first issued in Paris in the 1830s, has just been republished in this country.
Who was Elisabeth Louise Vigée Lebrun? If you had lived in the eighteenth century, you’d already know.
Who was Elisabeth Louise Vigée Lebrun? If you had lived in the eighteenth century, you’d already know. Her life was nearly unbelievable. The oldest child of a minor portrait painter, she was born in Paris in 1755, and was already producing Salon-quality portraits by the time she was in her teens. She was summoned to Versailles by Marie Antoinette before she was thirty, and her portraits of the Queen assured her success among the fashionable people of Paris. Virtually overnight, she became the favored painter of the beau monde, and her work was showered with accolades. As a critic observed in 1783, “When someone announces he has just come from the Salon, the first thing he is asked is . . . : What do you think of Madame le Brun? And immediately the answer suggested is: Madame le Brun, is she not astonishing?”
With the outbreak of the French Revolution, the artist’s fortunes only improved. Unlike Fragonard, who sat out the Reign of Terror in his native Grasse and then returned to Paris a destitute, forgotten man (he ended up working as a government clerk), Lebrun fled France the moment the mobs invaded Versailles and managed to sustain the trajectory of her career without the least difficulty. As Paris burned and her aristocrat-friends languished in prison, she hopped about the capitals of Europe attending grand balls, befriending monarchs, and enhancing her reputation as one of the leading portraitists of her age.
It is not unusual in the history of art to hear of a painter whose work, at first, was cordially received, or perhaps even highly acclaimed, but then, as the years went by and new styles proliferated, the reputation faded. Such was the case with Vigée Lebrun, and the reason is hardly a mystery. Simply put, she was not a great artist. She specialized in a kind of portraiture that perfectly suited the taste of her patrons, and it never seemed to occur to her that an artist doesn’t have to pander to the values of his milieu. While some of her portraits are genuinely appealing—her best work has a sumptuous facility that hints at her admiration for Rubens—the success she enjoyed during her lifetime pushed her in unfortunate directions. Very often we find in her pictures, particularly the later ones, a level of sentiment (simpering children, kittenish girls with tremendous eyes) that invokes the tradition of academic painting in its most vapid and kitschy forms.
Eventually, Lebrun became known as a mindless flatterer—and nothing written about her career confirmed this stereotype more than the artist’s own Souvenirs. In 1834, eight years before her death, Lebrun sat down to tell her life story, and as one who had lived through the Revolution, when her pictures were removed from the walls of Versailles and her name was slandered in the liberal press, her mood was defensive. The book she wrote was essentially a valentine to herself and her aristocrat-friends, and it clinched her reputation as a woman of outrageous self-regard who had no insight into the people or events of her time.
How ironic, then, that the very same memoirs that contributed to the collapse of the artist’s reputation are now being offered as a key instrument in its rehabilitation. (The book, by the way, was initially issued in three volumes, in 1835 and 1837, and the latest edition is a reprint of an abridged version published by Doubleday in 1903 and translated by Lionel Strachey, no relation to the Bloomsbury clan. Yet another edition, this one unabridged, will be published in November by Indiana University Press.)
Memoirs, intrinsically, are the most onesided of literary endeavors, but their one-sidedness can take two forms.
Memoirs, intrinsically, are the most onesided of literary endeavors, but their one-sidedness can take two forms. There are memoirs that seek to correct history (in either a large or a small way); and memoirs that seek to distort it. The memoirs of Vigée Lebrun belong, unquestionably, in the latter category. To read her book is to be presented with an international cast of aristocrats and monarchs who somehow all deserve the highest praise for their elegance, affability, and pointed wit, their civility to servants, their “goodness of heart,” “incomparable charm,” “angelic sweetness,” “extreme graciousness,” “divine appearance”—the book is a parade of adoring phrases.
Lebrun’s Memoirs were written by an artist, but they could have been written by anyone, really—anyone, that is, who had a chance to report on the famous people of the ancien régime and became swept up by it. It’s easy for the reader to forget that, between the grand fetes and endless suppers, Vigée Lebrun managed to produce roughly eight hundred portraits. How did she feel about her work? Did she see herself as belonging to any tradition? Did Neo-classicism move her one way or another? She was obviously a dedicated painter, but one would never know it from her memoirs, in which nothing seems to excite her more than an invitation from Princess Dolgoruki, or Count Cobentzel, or Lady Hamilton, or whomever. Take away the courtly titles and we're left with a book that bears an unmistakable likeness to the self-promoting celebrity memoirs nowadays crowding the shelves of our bookstores.
For all her admiration for high society, Vigée Lebrun harbored little warmth for the people who were closest to her. She hated her husband, Pierre Lebrun, a widely respected Parisian art dealer and connoisseur who, as depicted by his wife, was nothing but a vulgar profligate. (His “furious passion for gambling was at the bottom of the ruin of his fortune and my own, of which he had the entire disposal . . . .”) If her husband squandered her substantial savings, his transgressions were slight beside those of the couple’s one child, Julie Lebrun. When it came time for her to marry, her mother hoped she would snare an aristocrat—or, at the very least, the artist Guerin, who had no title but whose “successes in painting” made him a most attractive suitor. But instead she ended up with one Gaetan Nigris, a secretary at the Imperial Theaters of St. Petersburg, “a man without talents, without fortune, without a name.” Vigée Lebrun was devastated. She tried to stop the marriage, but to no avail. And though she eventually forgave her daughter, “the cruel child showed not the least gratitude at what I had done for her in immolating all my wishes [and] hopes.”
There is, I think, an element of comedy in the artist’s bitterness toward her daughter—particularly since her best-known painting is a saccharine tribute to maternal love. The Artist and Her Daughter (1789), which is in the Louvre, shows Lebrun and her daughter tenderly embracing one another. While the girl is wearing a plain blue frock, her mother is dressed fashionably in a toga—so much the better for revealing the soft contours of her shoulders and the graceful sweep of her right arm, a gleaming white curve that links the two figures together. Lebrun, who stares directly at the viewer with the sweetest expression, has depicted herself as a goddess of motherhood (complete with Greek costume)—and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at this painting again without recalling the artist’s anger at her daughter for failing to marry a prince.
But perhaps it’s not fair to fault Vigée Lebrun for her lapses as a mother. She was a narcissist, a hypocrite, the most selfish of women—which of course she had to be to achieve what she did. Who else but an egotist could care so passionately about fashionable people? And Vigée Lebrun did care about her subjects; her fascination with high society was sincere. In her portraits, as in her Memoirs, she was more than beside herself with adoration. She consistently played up the charm of her sitters—she was famous for exaggerating the roundness of their eyes— while ignoring any details that might have provided some intimations of character. There is no irony in her work, there are no moments, as there are in, say, Goya, when the particularities of personality (beady eyes, a sinister smile) threaten to disrupt the veneer of elegance and reveal a person as he really is.
But perhaps it’s not fair to fault Vigée Lebrun for her lapses as a mother.
It is often said of Vigée Lebrun that she represents the last expression of eighteenth-century painting in France. Yet her work has virtually nothing in common with the soaring lightheartedness we tend to associate with the art of that age. She strove for a look of restrained elegance (the way they did in England), and in the course of her long career she never deviated from this approach. The problem with Lebrun’s work isn’t that it’s lightweight. The problem is that it isn’t lightweight enough. Her smooth, satiny surfaces, which are supposed to make the eye want to linger, instead send our gaze skidding across them; her surfaces are as characterless as her figures. Fragonard could paint a piece of drapery and make it seem like a living thing; Vigée Lebrun paints people as if they're as dull as drapes. Clearly she was drawn to the world of appearances, yet in glossing over details she all but erased them and left us with little to see.
Among the many ironies surrounding Lebrun is that her Memoirs should find their way back into print amid the celebration of the bicentennial of the French Revolution. As one can imagine, the maze of privileges enjoyed by the nobility didn’t cause her to lose much sleep, and Robespierre had no place in her pantheon of heroes. To Vigée Lebrun, the Revolution was a lamentable accident that changed the world for the worse. “It is very difficult,” she confides ruefully, “to convey an idea to-day of the urbanity, the graceful ease, in a word the affability of manner which made the charm of Parisian society forty years ago. The women reigned then; the Revolution dethroned them.” Exactly what else the Revolution achieved (or destroyed) she does not say; as much as her paintings, her thinking seems untouched by the social and political upheavals she lived through.
It is exciting to be asked to discover an artist whom history seems to have overlooked. We all harbor a vague suspicion that history is not to be trusted, that masterpieces by forgotten artists are wasting away in dark, moldering attics. Yet, in the case of Madame Vigée Lebrun, the revival of her reputation seems so forced—so preposterous, really—it’s almost enough to make one believe that history knows better than we do. Lebrun doesn’t deserve to be brought back, not as a serious artist, anyway. Her portraits satisfied the demands of her society, but that society no longer exists. Her work has nothing to say to younger artists who are looking for direction and, judging from her memoirs, neither does she.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 7 Number 10, on page 74
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