Apprendre sur le tas


There are just a few weeks left in which to see the Vigée Le Brun exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York before it moves to Ottawa. We got there last weekend, and it was delightful.

imagePrior to seeing the show, we watched a film about Vigée Le Brun that I picked up last month in Paris. Although I already knew a lot about the life of one of my favorite artists, the film presented her life story in a compelling way, intermingled with information about her most iconic paintings. Vigée Le Brun began her professional career at the age of fourteen, and some of her male subjects had hopes for more than a portrait. The canny teenage artist developed the technique of having those men gaze off meaningfully into the distance so that they couldn’t make eyes at her. It gave us a new way of looking at her portraits and a heightened respect for her incredible intelligence.


imageThe exhibit brings together eighty paintings that span the entirety of Vigée Le Brun’s long career. We’d seen some of these paintings before at various museums or in books, but many of them were from private collections or far-flung museums. The installation artfully paired some paintings that have never been displayed together before, such as the portraits of Marie Antoinette in a simple white dress and the almost identical portrait that Vigée Le Brun rapidly painted to try to rehabilitate the impression that the Queen was indecent, above.

imageThe painting that we liked the best was a masterful portrait of Comte Charles Alexandre de Calonne that is in the collection of Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle. As the Comte’s looking straight at the viewer, he mustn’t have been one of those naughty clients.

imageAnother painting that we adored is one of Vigée Le Brun’s earliest, a portrait of her brother.  Apprendre sur le tas (ap-rehn-druh soor luh tah) means “on the job training.” Vigée Le Brun was largely self-taught after she got some initial guidance from her father, a professional pastelist. Simply amazing.

imageIf you can get to the Met by May 15, I highly recommend that you see this exhibit. It travels next to Ottawa, Canada, expanded by about ten more paintings from Vigée Le Brun’s days in Russia. (Due to an unrelated legal dispute, Russia is currently unwilling to loan art works to exhibits in the US). She was such a talented artist, a loving mother, and an intelligent woman.

About Patricia Gilbert

Patricia Gilbert is a French teacher. She's Canadian, lives in the United States, but dreams of living in France. Follow her on Instagram @Onequalitythefinest and on Twitter @1qualthefinest.
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