|Self-portrait in a straw hat 1782|
You probably know the game – the one where you make up an ideal guest list and choose famous people, living or dead, you’d like to invite round for dinner.
Well, I’ve just had to add a new person to my list.
There she was, framed in a corner of the National Gallery in
at first seemingly just A.N. Other society beauty, until closer inspection
revealed a telltale palette and paintbrushes.
It turned out that the pretty
pink-cheeked woman in a flirty hat with voluptuous feather was none other than the
portraitist Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. London
She was the second shock in the space of fifteen minutes. Back in the Impressionist section of the gallery, I’d just realised (klutz moment) that the painter Morisot, whose work I’ve long admired - even had on my student walls in postcard form - was in fact Berthe Morisot, for Bertha, not for the rather more trouser-wearing Bert Morisot, her alter ego. So much for the assumption that every single painter on display was necessarily male.
The French painter Vigée Le Brun (1755 – 1842) in fact pre-dated the Impressionists by a hundred years. How much more remarkable does it seem, then, that she was able to establish herself in the male-dominated world of
in the late eighteenth
century during the upheavals of the French
But her talent was incontestable. It had manifested young and had burst out everywhere at the boarding school she attended from the age of six to eleven. Her memoirs tell us: “I scrawled on everything at all seasons; my copy-books, and even my schoolmates', I decorated with marginal drawings of heads, some full-face, others in profile; on the walls of the dormitory I drew faces and landscapes with coloured chalks. So it may easily be imagined how often I was condemned to bread and water. I made use of my leisure moments outdoors in tracing any figures on the ground that happened to come into my head. At seven or eight, I remember, I made a picture by lamplight of a man with a beard…. When my father saw it he went into transports of joy, exclaiming: ‘You will be a painter, child, if ever there was one!’ "
Elisabeth (I think we can move on to first-name terms) enjoyed considerable success within her own lifetime, leaving behind 660 portraits and 200 landscapes. She painted many of “the most delightful and most distinguished men and women in Europe” – including members of the nobility, the Prince of Wales, Lord Byron, the family of Catherine the Great of Russia.
But I’m not inviting her round for supper solely on the strength of her contact list, but for the anecdotes, insight and pioneering spirit she’s likely to impart. For example, I’ll want to find out more about her singing sprees with Marie Antoinette. During the sittings for more than thirty portraits, it seems that they would warble duets by Grétry, for Marie Antoinette “was exceedingly fond of music, although she did not sing very true.” And we’ll certainly need to get the low-down on the sessions with the Prince of Wales (the future George IV) which enraged those English painters who were elbowed aside for the privilege and which worried the Queen Mother enough into thinking that some kind of hanky-panky was going on.
I’ll want to ask her about her scarf-draping techniques that came from her intense dislike of the female fashion at that time, when she found that wrapping bits of material made portraits “a little more picturesque”. Perhaps, too, she’ll reveal more about that famous exchange with an English painter she simply describes as M: "It seems that my lace shocks you, although I have painted none for fifteen years. I vastly prefer scarves, which you, sir, would do well yourself to employ. Scarves, you may believe me, are a boon to painters, and had you used them you would have acquired good taste in draping, in which you are deficient.”
|Marie Antoinette by Vigée Le Brun|
She had equally flattering comments to make about the Prince of Wales: “Tall and well-built, he had a handsome face; his features were all regular and distinguished. He wore a wig very artistically disposed, the hair parted on the forehead like the Apollo di Belvedere's, and this suited him to perfection.”
Whereas she may have felt favourable towards its monarch, generally, however, she found England "unmerry". She has a point - at the time she visited, London had no picture gallery, and great works of art could only be seen in the private homes of the wealthy. There was, therefore, much less of interest for an artist compared to Paris or Rome. And “Sunday in London is as dismal as the climate…" she writes. " The English are used to braving their weather. I often met them in the pouring rain, riding without umbrellas in open carriages. They are satisfied with wrapping their cloaks about them, but this has its drawbacks for strangers unaccustomed to such a watery state of things.”
The “watery state of things” was no mere idle complaint, for unlike in Paris, she needed to keep a fire burning constantly in her studio, then judge and juggle the distances of her canvasses from the grate in order to dry them.
She’ll be a sparky and fascinating guest. To make her feel comfortable on this first visit, I’ll arrange proceedings according to her own taste:
- the cleverest will get an invitation including, perhaps, a poet, a viscount, an actress
- start time will be 9.0 pm
- ladies will wear white gowns
- it will be a light evening repast - some fowl, some fish, a dish of vegetables, a salad
- no politics - but we’ll chat about literature and tell anecdotes of the hour
- there will be refined merriment and diversions such as charades
- no extra food will be provided, even if guests stay until midnight
I hope more than anything that she will inspire us about her passion for art. “Nor has that passion ever diminished; it seems to me that it has even gone on growing with time, for to-day I feel under the spell of it as much as ever, and shall, I hope, until the hour of death.”
All quotations from A Celebration of Women Writers: Memoirs of Madame Vigée Le Brun (1755 -1842)
by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Translated by Lionel Strachey,
Doubleday, Page & Company, 1903. New York