Home » Woman as painter: the 1700s and Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun

Woman as painter: the 1700s and Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun

Vigee-Le Brun, self-portrait, 1790

With the 1700s we begin to see some really significant women artists coming to the fore. In her book The Obstacle Race, Germaine Greer uses an image on the cover by the artist Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun, one time sensation of the European world. Here she is happily working away wearing a big red sash in front of a large canvas, brushes in hand!

Vigee-Le Brun was a French artist forced to flee France during the revolution and is said to have painted some 30 portraits of Marie Antoinette. Greer details the challenges in her life including various sexual scandals and says ‘she was forced to exploit her personal charm to get her art education’. In discussing the many hurdles a woman faced in gaining recognition as as artist, Greer goes on to say that ‘for the most part she contrived to silence the gossips by her adroit manipulation of royal patronage and her strict attention to the appearances of propriety’. Quite possibly a sensible strategy in a world where professional or intellectual women were almost unheard of and certainly derided by society as a whole.

Anyway, in 1782 she painted a self-portrait in the manner of a famous piece titled Le Chapeau de Paille (The straw hat) by the very famous Peter Paul Rubens. By the eighteenth century Le Chapeau de Paille had become a kind of template for female self-portraits where the half-figure stands in an open landscape. There is usually a very low horizon line so that the large stretch of sky can be used as the main backdrop. The shoulders of the figure are partially turned and in Ruben’s piece the eyes are looking down and away slightly so as not to engage the viewer too directly. That would be far too brazen!

Vigee-Le Brun’s rendition of this work is sensational. The two works are shown below. Le Brun’s composition is more classical, the drafting of the figure more natural and she paints herself comfortably at ease despite wearing a large hat and acres of silk taffeta! She holds her palette and is gently gesturing to us, almost beckoning us to view her. Her eyes engage us without challenge and I love the way the sunlight cuts across her face and neck. She is said to have commented of the Rubens work when she saw it in 1782 about the impact of the two light sources in the work – sunlight and daylight – and deliberately set about to achieve the same effect. It’s a very cool piece of work!

Rubens. Le Chapeau de Paille, 1622-25

Vigee-Le Brun. Self-portrait, 1782




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