Apr 17th, 2017, 05:20 PM

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun: Portraits of Marie-Antoinette and Courtly Life

By Jewel Goode
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, "Marie-Antoinette à la rose" (1783)
Idealized representations of Marie-Antoinette which provide serene and spiritual interpretations of courtly life

Élisabeth Louise Vigée le Brun still remains a relatively unknown female artist belonging to the Age of Enlightenment, despite having achieved many notable successes. Born in 1755 during the reign of Louis XV, Vigée le Brun was raised in a family of artists who introduced her to the world of painting and fine art. She is perhaps most renowned for her portraits of Marie-Antoinette.  Yet, she was never fully celebrated in France until the 21st century when the Grand Palais devoted an entire exhibition to the artist and her work in 2015.

Image credits: (Left) Self-Portrait by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1782).  (Right) Self-Portrait by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1790).  

Vigée Le Brun’s idealized representations of the Queen offer an innocent, serene, and spiritual interpretation of courtly life while highlighting the essence of royalty.  Marie-Antoinette en grand habit de cour (1778) was the artist’s first official portrait which shows the Queen en grand panier, or wooden hoop skirt. 

She is dressed in a voluminous, luxurious, white satin gown with exquisite golden tassels and trimming as her gaze is averted to the right.  Her intricate lace bodice with princess seams and three-quarter length sleeves is carefully adorned with white, satin bows. This whiteness mirrors the paleness of her delicate, translucent flesh.  A sophisticated feather hat sits atop Marie-Antoinette’s elegant coiffure.  The Queen’s stance is both intimidating and gracious as she poses in the corner of a stately room holding one pink rose. Her crown rests inconspicuously upon a purple cushion embroidered with golden fleur-de-lis.  It is situated next to a vase of pale pink, purple, and white flowers.

Image Credits: (Left) "Marie-Antoinette en gaulle" (1783).  Photo by Jewel Goode, 2015. All Rights Reserved.  (Right) Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, "Marie-Antoinette à la rose" (1783). 

During this time, 18th century women began to opt for the robe chemise in mousseline cotton which did not require an obtrusive panier.  These simplified garments were designed from one piece of fabric.  They were preferred for their comfort and ease of movement. Vigée Le Brun’s portrait of Marie-Antoinette, La reine vêtue d’une robe chemise, was shown at the 1783 Salon, an exhibition space for the Royal Academy.  The Queen appears in a white, cotton “peasant dress” with a transparent, golden sash tied around her waist.  Her relaxed curls are topped by a simple, straw-feathered hat with blue satin ribbon.  She fixes her soft gaze upon the spectator as she arranges a simple bouquet of flowers in her delicate hands.  Despite its charm, the portrait was deemed inappropriate and offensive by many due to the severe informality of a dress meant to be worn in the privacy of one’s boudoir.  It was soon replaced by Marie-Antoinette à la rose, showing the Queen in more traditional, courtly attire. 

Image credits: (Left) "Marie-Antoinette en grand habit de cour" (1778).  Photo by Jewel Goode, 2015.  All Rights Reserved.  (Right) Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, "Marie-Antoinette et ses enfants" (1787).  

As a masterful propaganda exercise, in 1785, Vigée Le Brun was commissioned to paint a monumental portrait of the Queen. The portrait was to highlight the maternal characteristics of the Queen by having her appear with her three children. Marie-Antoinette et ses enfants (1787) shows a serene, gracious Queen comfortably seated in a chair. Her feet rest upon a green cushion embroidered with golden arabesques.  These same arabesques are mirrored in the multicolored Persian rug.  Marie-Antoinette is clothed in a red, stately, full-length gown with plunging décolleté edged in delicate white lace.  Atop her simple coiffure sits a stylish, red hat with white feathers and blue satin ribbon. 

Her outward gaze is confident, yet tranquil, as she loving embraces a restless baby on her lap, clothed in a white cap and gown with blue sash.  A blond-haired daughter with cherubic features, dressed in a similar velvet red gown with satin bows in blue and gold, lovingly gazes upward as she wraps her arms around her mother’s right arm.  The third child is also elegantly clothed in a red velvet pant suit with white lace collar and blue satin sash. This piercing blue is reflected in every figure’s eyes. The child stands proudly next to a royal bassinet heavily draped in a deep, forest-green satin.  The ensemble of voluminously-clothed figures is prominently arranged in a pyramidal form.  This is in direct contrast to strong vertical lines created by the architectural columns and wooden cabinet situated in the background. 

Due to the success of Marie-Antoinette en grand habit de cour, Vigée Le Brun was invited to paint a series portraits of the Queen. By varying the accessories, clothing, poses, and environment, the artist successfully highlighted certain inimitable characteristics of Marie-Antoinette’s complex personality: her natural grace, elegance, and confidence.