I’m fascinated by the life and talent of 18th century portrait painter, Elizabeth Vigée LeBrun. I’ve written about her a number of times on this blog. A few years ago, I bought a video about her when I was in France to show to my students. Its production coincided with a major traveling exhibit dedicated to the artist that traveled from Paris, to New York (where I saw it), and then to Ottawa. I just found the video, voiced over in English, on Amazon Prime, with the title The Fabulous Life of Vigée LeBrun (the French title is Le Fabuleux destin d’Elizabeth Vigée LeBrun). It’s a 90 minute introduction to the life, technique, and turbulent times of this incredibly talented artist.
The film intersperses clips of actors portraying the story with commentary by world-renowned experts on Vigée LeBrun. It reminded me of a few interesting stories, for example, she was refused access to the Royal Academy by the traditional route because her husband was an art dealer. Women were considered to have the same occupation of their husbands, so Vigée LeBrun was also considered to be “in trade.” When she did get accepted, through her connection as Marie Antoinette’s portraitist, her recption piece, an allegory of La Paix ramenant l’Abondance (Peace Brings Back Prosperity), used female figures as women painters were not allowed to paint from male nudes and recption pieces required historical or allegorical subjects.
So many of her male subjects from her earliest years have a far-off gaze as she found that this kept them from leering at her during the long hours of posing, even though her mother was there as a chaperone. When Vigée LeBrun was in exile in Rome, she was invited to paint the Pope, but declined as she would have had to do so while veiled. She struggled against sexism and carved her own path in a country that was headed full-tilt to a time of extraordinary malice and blood lust. If you enjoy learning about French history or art, I think you’ll really like this film.