Vigée Le Brun by Katharine Baetjer, Joseph Baillio and Paul Lang

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

I had not heard of this artist until I attended an art history class at the University of the Third Age in Brisbane a couple of years ago. While weeks of studying the old masters had sharpened my analytic skills and broadened my knowledge of those things that make an artist worthy of remembering, Vigée Le Brun’s artwork hit me with particular force. In the field of portrait painting, she has been described as the greatest female artist of all time.

Labels are no more than an indication of one’s place in a particular pecking order. In my view, an artist’s staying power or the ability to be remembered centuries after his or her time has passed, is revelatory of worth. We pay enormous sums for a work by Rubens, Turner, Velazquez, Goya or Rembrandt for many reasons, one of which must be the faithfulness with which they represented human beings or humanity itself. Vigée Le Brun fits very comfortably in any coterie of ‘the greats’.  What makes her remarkable as an artist is her presence there at all in an age when women were denied the right of exhibition. Yet here is Vigée Le Brun, denying the societal sanctions, painting people at the highest levels, and charging enormous sums to do so. Furthermore, over two hundred years later, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is paying her the ultimate compliment by arranging a showing of her work in the USA and Canada, and distributing the substance of the catalogue of her works through Yale University Press.

Thereby lies a challenge! This artist is loved world-wide because of the high quality of her art but also because of her gutsiness in staying ahead of the marauding revolutionaries in her own country who would have preferred that she lose her life on the guillotine. Thus the current display and the catalogue produced must reflect the quality of the artist herself. A lesser publication would be unacceptable.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has risen to the challenge. The front cover is one of the best known of Vigée Le Brun’s work. It is a self-portrait painted in 1790 and is supported by a glimpse of a partly-finished portrait of Marie Antoinette. The portrait of the artist shows her at her most beautiful, blooming with health and vigour, her flesh tones indescribably lovely. The cynic in me is tempted to argue that the Metropolitan Museum compilers of the publication choreographed this presentation to deliver maximum impact on the senses of the reader. However, when the portraits throughout the book are viewed, it becomes very difficult to distinguish any whose quality is not at the same level as the one featured on the cover.

High quality paper graces the book and forms a perfect surface on which to display the portraits of the nobility of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries who, because of Vigée Le Brun’s enforced absence from France, are drawn from Italy, Austria, the Russian Empire, Germany, England, and Switzerland. Her subjects are mostly those with deep pockets since the artist, for whatever reason, charged outlandishly excessive prices.

The first thirty pages of the text is at the very heartbeat of the book. After the mandatory introductory material that holds the printing and editorial details and a table of contents, the first chapter takes us through the childhood of the artist and follows her through to adulthood. Details of her family and the influence of her father on her painting style, especially his encouragement to work in pastels, her preferred medium, and the willingness shown by her mother to expose the young artist to the fruits of some of the finest French painters in France, all combine to affirm the young woman’s career choice. Her marriage to a rich art dealer ensured a continuation of a life of privilege, a life capped by an invitation to paint the young Queen Marie Antoinette.

This first chapter is written by Joseph Baillio and is called ‘The Artistic and Social Odyssey of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’. I could not imagine a more appropriate name. The writer’s stated aim “is to project the image of a supremely gifted Frenchwoman fully engaged in her time” (3). The fact that Vigée Le Brun has never been honoured in France with a monographic exhibition astonishes Baillio and, in turn, leaves me appalled.

The second chapter, written by Katharine Baetjer, is called ‘The Women of the French Royal Academy’. Confusion exists as a result of a line in the first paragraph that suggests the chapter might be about the formation of the Royal Academy and its method of functioning rather than its women members. However, any confusion disappears as the chapter progresses. The discussion that follows makes the very important point that other women artists had been accepted into the Royal Academy before Vigée L Brun managed to circumvent the requirement that no potential member have any association with an art dealer. Chapter Three by Paul Lang uncovers details of the artist’s journeys through Europe during her twelve years of voluntary exile.

Beginning with page 57, the book provides an exhaustive catalogue of the artist’s individual works (complete with commentary). This is a massive section covering one hundred and eighty six pages and forms an extremely informative introduction to the work of this wonderful artist. The book concludes with a map of the artist’s travels, a chronology of her life, and the usual notes to accompany the essays, a bibliography and an index.

While Vigée Le Brun’s paintings reveal a woman of exceptional artistic skill, paintings that feed our belief in the wonder of creativeness, her story contains some less savoury features that cannot be ignored. A life that never knew want while people starved, her restriction through pricing of her art to those of high social rank, and the appearance she gives of a life ruled by financial gain, might well be frowned upon today. That she appears never to have devoted any of her income to charitable works can probably be explained by the society within which she circulated who were rarely charity providers.

All that aside, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in association with Yale University Press, has provided a fitting testimony to one of the most creative artists of all time.

A very highly recommended publication.

Vigée Le Brun


Katharine Baetjer, Joseph Baillio and Paul Lang

Metropolitan Museum of Art New York

Yale University Press

ISBN: 978-1-58839-581-8

$87.99; 256pp


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