The independent curator for the exhibition, who is not affiliated with a museum but rather with the trade, Joseph Baillio, is an old friend of ours. He has a house in Santa Fe but we have hardly seen him here as he has toiled over the show for over three years. His interest in the artist, however, has been for far longer than that.
Though we know he struggled with his Louvre publishers to make a proper catalog and not a picture book, which usually sells better. He prevailed and they had to reprint the hefty result three times when the show was on at the Grand Palais in Paris. New York, Paris and Ottawa all have varying catalogs not just because of language but also because different paintings were included. The main reason for this is that the Russians refused to lend to the show in the United States, I presume on account of restitution issues. Also, there were other paintings that were lent here and in Canada that did not go to Paris!
Vigée painted over 600 portraits during her career and the Metropolitan exhibition has 80 of them, which is not bad considering what it takes to get a loan these day both from public institutions and private collectors. Neither want to be without their treasures for too long.
Contrary to popular belief there have been important women artists in the past. Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) was one of the most popular portraitists of her time. She painted the important people at court. In 1774 at 19 she was admitted to the Academy of Saint-Luc, the guild for Master Painters and Sculptors. Just four years later she became official painter to her patron, Queen Marie Antoinette, and in 1783 she was accepted as a member of the Royal Academy.
In 1785 Louis XVI commissioned an official portrait of the Queen and her children, which was unveiled at the Salon of 1787 before it was hung at Versailles. The King had instructed that the painting be full length and full size resulting, of course, in the monumental tour de force of the official portrait.
Vigée, however, had the ability to look into the soul of her sitters, not just paint their likenesses. For instance, in this painting of her daughter “Julie Le Brun Looking in a Mirror” circa 1786 lent from a private collection. Haven’t we all see our children or those of our family look contemplatively at themselves? Here the reflected portrait of Julie seems to be staring back at the viewer!
When the French Revolution came Vigée’s association with the court made France a perilous place for her and she moved first to Rome, then Austria and Russia where she was welcomed by the aristocracy. In Rome in 1791, she painted a portrait I handled at one time, that of Countess Anna Potocka. Vigée tells an oft-repeated story in her “Souvenirs” (memoirs) about Potocka: “She came to see me with her husband and as soon as he had left, she told me quite coolly: ‘This is my third husband; but I believe I’ll take back the first one, who suits me better, though he is a drunk.’” Left out of the story is the fact that her first husband had died a decade earlier!
I will end with a painting not by Vigée but by Alexis-Joseph Pérignon (1806-1882) and shown after the subjects’ deaths. It is based on another story in Vigée’s “Souvenir”. It seems the pregnant artist missed a session with the Queen because of illness and arrived at Versailles the following day instead. While the Queen had other plans she allowed Vigée to stay, the flustered artist opened her paint box and her brushes fell to the floor. As she began to scoop them up the Queen stopped her and said, “‘Never mind, never mind,’ said the Queen, and despite my protests she insisted on gathering them all up herself.“
Vigée was the first woman artist to achieve international acclaim in her own time and yet this was her first retrospective in France and only the second exhibition devoted to her work in modern times. Ottawa is lovely in the summer so do go see the show.