Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was a celebrated 18th century French portraitist and one of the most important women artists of all time. I had the pleasure of seeing the exhibition dedicated to her life and work at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa (the exhibition also took place at the Grand Palais and the Met).
This is the first retrospective and only the second exhibition devoted to Vigée Le Brun in modern times. The exhibition ends Sunday, September 11, 2016, and I would highly recommend visiting before it closes.
An Exciting Biography
Vigée Le Brun lived a very full life. Here's a quick sketch of her career from the Metropolitan Museum:
An autodidact with exceptional skills as a portraitist, she achieved success in France and Europe during one of the most eventful, turbulent periods in European history.
In 1776, she married the leading art dealer in Paris; his profession at first kept her from being accepted into the prestigious Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. Nevertheless, through the intervention of Marie Antoinette, she was admitted at the age of 28 in 1783, becoming one of only four women members. Obliged to flee France in 1789 because of her association with the queen, she traveled to Italy, where in 1790 she was elected to membership in the Accademia di San Luca, Rome. Independently, she worked in Florence, Naples, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and Berlin before returning to France, taking sittings from, among others, members of the royal families of Naples, Russia, and Prussia. While in exile, she exhibited at the Paris Salons.
She was remarkable not only for her technical gifts but for her understanding of and sympathy with her sitters.
An Elegant Exhibition
After missing the exhibition in Paris by weeks and in New York by days, I knew I had to make the pilgrimage to Ottawa. The displays were beautiful, with paintings set off on the walls with simple colors and the occasional reproduction of scenes from Versailles.
The wall texts and audioguide content made the information readily accessible and facilitated close looking. I especially appreciated the interpretation areas of the exhibition. One room midway through the exhibition featured interpretation content and seats for resting. At the end of the exhibition, a learning space offered mirrors on the walls and props to help take a "#VigeeLeBrun selfie".
Portraits of Women
The highlights of this exhibition for me were the portraits of women. Vigée Le Brun's subjects are depicted with elegance and immediacy, from the queen Marie Antoinette to the artist's dear daughter Julie. I got lost in the faces, and had the distinct impression that Vigée Le Brun had captured glimpses of her subjects' personalities.