Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun self portrait 1790
“In Europe, two and a half centuries ago, women were treated as second-class citizens. Not so surprising.”
In Europe, two and a half centuries ago, women were treated as second-class citizens. Not so surprising. But here’s an unexpected footnote to that era’s art history: a wildly talented 18th century female painter, after overcoming enormous hurdles, was highly successful. In fact, she was more accepted in her own times than in ours. This year, when she was given a vastly overdue one-woman show at the Met Museum , I got a glimpse into how pervasive and ingrained gender inequality is, right here, right now.
This story of discrimination begins long ago and far away … in Paris 1755 when Elisabeth Louise Vigee (later, Le Brun) was born to a pastel portraitist and his wife. At a very young age, Vigee showed artistic promise which her father helped shape. But not for long. Unfortunately (note this word’s frequent appearance in her story), he died when she was only twelve years old. In France at that time, no female could study art in a formal setting. Luckily, Vigee was a prodigy. Her talent could not be contained, and by the time she was fifteen, she had her own studio where she produced high-quality commissioned portraits. Unfortunately, her mother had remarried and her Disney-worthy evil stepfather garnished her wages.
How did a young woman in 1776 escape the tyranny of a bad home? By marrying, which she did at age 21. Unfortunately, she married Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, a philanderer and a spendthrift. At least his appetite for wine-women-and-song meant he encouraged her to work. And what work she got! At age 23, she was called to Versailles by no less a personage than Marie Antoinette.
Getting the royal seal of approval meant lots of commissions for lots of money. And not just portraits of noble women—although Vigee Le Brun did many wonderful ones—but also of important noble men. Unfortunately, there were some naysayers who claimed that the artist couldn’t possibly have painted the works herself, that lurking in the shadows a man must have been helping. And, if you look at her works, it is hard to accept that such stellar painting came from a self-taught brush. But a century and a half later, no one accused Picasso of having help, even though he was largely untrained.
“Vastly overdue, of course, but better-late-than-never progress. “
Naysayers notwithstanding, Vigee Le Brun’s popularity grew—she and three other women were the first ever admitted to the Academie Royale—but at the height of her acclaim, unfortunately, she had to flee France or risk the guillotine. In 1789 it wasn’t a good idea to be a favorite of the royals. Twelve long years were spent in exile in Italy, Germany, and Russia. She made good use of her time, though, and painted many outstanding portraits along the way. Her work was highly regarded for her skill, and she was highly regarded for her intelligence, wit, and beauty.
Here’s a quick recap of this tale: in the late 1700s through the mid-1800s (Vigee Le Brun lived a long, productive life!) a woman was one of the most highly sought-after artists in Europe. The rich and powerful hired her and paid her well. She was granted ground-breaking admission to the Royal Academy. She was respected for her outstanding work product and celebrated for her sparkling personality. Everything she achieved, she did on her own.
Now fly through the years to winter 2016. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City had its first ever exhibit devoted to Vigee Le Brun’s work. (The exhibit originated in the fall of 2015 at the Grand Palais in Paris and is now at the National Gallery of Canada through September 2016.) At a lecture on the exhibit, curator Katharine Baetjer said that in her forty years in the Met’s European paintings department, this was the first one-woman show.
Vastly overdue, of course, but better-late-than-never progress. Cause for celebration not just for Vigee Le Brun, but for all womankind. Still, it would have been better if the show hadn’t been entitled, “Woman Artist in Revolutionary France.” Historian Simon Schama pointed out in the Financial Times that the title was erroneous: Vigee Le Brun hadn’t painted during the revolution. She had wisely hightailed it out of there. My objection was more to the title’s “Woman Artist.” Her name, Elisabeth Louise, clearly identifies her as female, so why does she have to be given a separate category? Couldn’t the title have been “Portraitist Par Excellence”?
Even an annoying title, though, couldn’t dim my enthusiasm for the exhibit. I’ll admit that a few of the images were too treacly for me (the pink cheeks, rosebud mouths, doe eyes), but most showed extraordinary color sense (check out her use of red-black-white), clever posing, and confident brushwork. Vigee Le Brun may not have been Rembrandt in her ability to capture souls, but neither is any other portraitist. Should we reject all writers who aren’t Shakespeare?
So, after seeing the exhibit a few times, my enthusiasm is overflowing and I want to share it. Luckily, I’m in a position to do so. I’ve been teaching art history in elementary school classrooms for over twenty years. And for a few years, I’ve also been giving lectures on Manhattan art exhibits at a suburban library. Past subjects have included Andy Warhol, Matisse (the cut-outs), and Jackson Pollock. I figured that I’d finally get to talk to children of all ages about an artist who was not only rightfully revered, but who broke major gender barriers in her day and had broken them again now. Inspiring, right?
Except that the wonderful woman who heads the program tells me I can’t lecture on Vigee Le Brun. Her argument is sensible: Vigee Le Brun has no name recognition. If I lecture on her, we won’t get people through the door. What’s the good in giving a lecture that no one hears?
And yet, this rational thinking creates a vicious cycle. How can Vigee Le Brun–who after 175 years of obscurity is finally getting deserved attention–ever get name recognition if we don’t talk about her? She was treated more as an equal in the 1700s than she is in the 21st century. If we perpetuate our focus on male achievement, how will female achievement ever be known?
The cycle has to stop. And the steps to make it stop aren’t hard. Here’s what you can do: teach yourself and your children (male and female!) about female achievement. Recognize that it has been obscured in our historical knowledge and look for ways to include females in your celebrations of genius. We can’t change how women were treated in the past, but we can—we must—change how they are treated in the present and future.
WONDERFUL ARTISTS WHO YOU MAY NOT KNOW (AND SOME YOU SURELY DO):
Barbara Longhi ( 1552-1638)
Clara Peeters (1594-1630)
Rachel Ruysch (1663-1750)
Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807)
Adelaide Labille-Guiard (1749-1803)
Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899)
Berthe Morisot (1841-1895)
Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)
Camille Claudel (1864-1943)
Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986)
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010)
Cindy Sherman (1945-present)
Kara Walker (1969-present)