Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun at Le Grand Palais, Paris

While over in Paris we went to see the first major retrospective of the works of Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun to be held in France, which is very odd but shows that her status as a painter is increasing.

She was a painter to the court of Louis and Marie-Antoinette before the revolution, travelled round Europe during the revolution and Napoleon's empire and returned to France to take up her place as a painter again once stability had returned. She must have had an eventful life, leaving Paris because of her close association with the royalists to travel round Europe with her daughter, visiting the major cities and centres of art, making her living as a painter and spreading the word about her great skills with her brushes. This exhibition is almost entirely made up of portraits and some wonderful works they are too.

The exhibition is chronological, starting with her early world as she established herself as a portraitist with the aristocracy and the wealthy, refining her skills and creating her own contemporary legend as the go-to portraitist for the not-so-pretty because she could work wonders. The poster-girl for the exhibition is clearly pretty, with a slight blush on her cheek, covered in laces and bows but it was the tiny flowers on her hat that entranced me, such delicate little flowers adding to the beauty of the whole. The majority of her paintings are of women but she did paint some men, such as this lovely portrait of a long-forgotten actor in his silken garb. I suspect he was a little bit more portly than portrayed in this picture (his chubby face and neck doesn't quite match his waistline) but it works very well.

She knew the potential power of painting as propaganda and used it to great effect in her portraits of Marie-Antoinette, such as this one with her three children. Marie sits ramrod straight, every inch a regal queen with her feet resting on a thick cushion, but the whole effect is humanised by the poses of the children, leaning into her, playing around her and clearly loving her. Here we have queen and mother, mother to France and, through her children, to the future of France. The painting is very well constructed leaving the viewer in no doubt as to what you see, with the lush reds and velvet textures, the richness of the clothes but the almost down-to-earthness of children pulling at their mother, cuddling her  and wanting attention. They are clearly loved and indulged. That message obviously didn't work in some quarters.

The portraits became far more interesting to me once Elisabeth had left France after the revolution and went on her travels for a decade or so. The painting become richer and more intense, a wider colour palette and variety of subjects. The portraits are still mainly of women (or at least they are in this exhibition) but what an assortment of women - ladies and countesses, princes and mistresses, what characters they display. There are two portraits of Lady Hamilton (Nelson's lover) at the start of this section of the exhibition (upstairs from the first half) and these re richly drenched with colours that steer away from the light pastels of many of the earlier portraits. She is a woman, not a girl, of great beauty and energy, the lover of a warrior. Here she is, painted as a Bacchante dancing before a smoking Vesuvius, hair flying with her movements.

The portraits from her stay in St Petersburg are what really attracted me, with their bold colours and naturalistic poses capturing movement and passion. What glorious paintings these are and why has it taken so long for Vigee Le Brun to be recognised as a great portraitist? They are of individual people that were recognisable at the time and full of character for us looking on 200 years later. I was taken by this painting of a woman looking straight into your eyes, almost saying 'don't play your games with me Elisabeth, I know your tricks' and so Elisabeth did exactly what she does so well and painted the young lady with a direct gaze. Varvara Ivanovna Ladomirskaya was clearly a strong young woman who knew what she wanted and wouldn't put up with anyone trying to change her.

My favourite portrait was from about the same time, a strong young woman with a scarf in her hair and scarlet shawl wrapped close, looking straight out at the viewer, almost saying 'pay attention, I'm here and I have something to say'. I took the opportunity of a rare bench in front of this pinging to sit down and gaze at this painting and she drew me in, the plain background and bright red clothing. Her name was    but who was she really? That's one of the beauties of portraiture - these are real people with their own points of view and loves and challenges. They might have been nice or might have been nasty. I think the Countess Varvara Nicolayevna Golovina was nice and I'd have loved to have a chat with her. Her face says she's lived and she has a brain so she will have views to debate.

Elisabeth was also a great self-portraitist and the notes for the exhibition state that she used these to publicise herself. She was clearly a marketing genius ahead of her time. One of my favourite self-portraits was this one, painted with her daughter Julie, a loving mother and daughter, and the mother just happens to have been one of the greatest portraitists of the time.

This was a bit of an eye-opener of an exhibition. Before this I'd seen one of her paintings and now, having seen room after room of her work, I can really appreciate her skills. I'd like to know more about her - there were a few biographies in the shop at the end but they were all in French. The exhibition continues in Paris until January and then transfers to the USA and Canada so, if you get the chance, go and see it and wonder at this brave and incredibly talented woman. 

No comments: