Why is art history predominantly focused on male artists? Are there not enough female artists to fill textbooks? Of course there are enough, but this sexism has a long legacy and it continues even today. March is Women’s History Month, and to celebrate our artistic diversity let’s discuss one of the greatest female artists—–Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Vigée Le Brun was a prominent artist and gained great success in 18th century France. She was the portrait painter to Queen Marie Antoinette, an officially accepted member of the Académie Royale, and one of the first female artists to gain international recognition. She lacked high status, formal education, and social equality but still rose above these formidable barriers. She pursued a career dominated by male rivals, and became the most successful portraitist of her time. Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was a power-house of ambition, determination, and hard work. Her Self Portrait in a Straw Hat shows this and more. Let’s explore a woman’s image. Let’s explore a woman’s portrait.
Why are portrait paintings sometimes so interesting and most of the time so boring? We can walk through the halls of portrait galleries passing face after face, and then suddenly be struck by the originality of one person. His or her image captivates us, and sometimes we do not understand the reason. Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Self Portrait in a Straw Hat could be such a portrait. It is captivating with its colours, fabrics, skin tones and social implications.
She wears a dusty pink cotton dress known as a chemise en gaulle and later known as a chemise à la Reine since it was popularized by Queen Marie Antoinette in the 1780s. It is edged in white frills around the neckline and white cuffs around the wrists. A black fabric shawl dramatically contrasts against the dress as it wraps around her elbows and cascades below her arm. A flat straw hat known as a chapeau à la bergère rests atop her unpowdered hair. In essence, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s attire is in the height of late 18th century French fashion. She is depicted as a fashionable aristocratic woman. Her expensive jewelry and clothing hide her modest middle-class origins.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun depicts herself holding a painter’s palette and seven paint brushes in Self Portrait in a Straw Hat. Globs of paint adorn the edge of the palette as pearls on a string would adorn a lady’s neck. The painter’s accessories seem almost naturally intune with Vigée Le Brun’s fashionable attire. The paint resting on the palette highlights the colours in her dress, her hat, and the sky behind her. The paint colours are no coincidence. The artist’s tools are lovingly and delicately depicted, and boldly say “I am a professional painter.” Vigée Le Brun was a professional painter to Queen Marie Antoinette and to the leading people of French society. Both men and women wanted to be painted by her. In her images, she was able to blend aristocratic flattery and middle-class virtue. No ugly licentiousness enters her images. They are chaste, respectable, but youthful and attractive. The inner beauty of the soul shines on the outward beauty of the skin. Goodness has never been so gorgeous.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun painted herself in Self Portrait in a Straw Hat with the elegance and attire of a respectable aristocratic lady-painter. These implications are 100% intentional. Vigée Le Brun wants to appear to us as a courtly lady and as a professional artist. Vigée Le Brun never hid her middle-class birth. She accepted it, but did not let it define her in an age when birth equalled destined rank, and rank led to destined success. The aristocracy at the pinnacle of society were born high and supposed to live high. The middle-class was born middle and supposed to live middle. Getting above one’s station was not the ideal 18th century French way of living. However, ideal and reality rarely meet harmoniously. The reality is that plenty of middle-class professionals were infiltrating the guarded ranks of the aristocracy through salons, and patronage. One did not need to be a duchesse to have an acquaintance with a duchesse. Friendships between lords and lawyers were becoming possible. They were not fashionable but possible. Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun infiltrated the highest circle one could find in late 18th century France, and that was the circle of Queen Marie Antoinette. Vigée Le Brun became her official court portrait painter in 1778 and painted all the leading ladies of the Queen’s inner circle of friends and family, despite her birth. Talent could now overcome birth. Vigée Le Brun’s attire now matched her clientele. Dress for the job one wants, not for the job one has.
Self Portrait in a Straw Hat is unquestionably respectable in attire. However, the subject of a woman-artist was still risqué even in the progressive-thinking age of the Enlightenment. Being an artist meant being a man. The Académie Royale only accepted four women into its revered institution, essentially limiting female artists to be seen as rare exceptions. Female members were not guaranteed exhibition space at the Salon as the male members. They were not provided free art training at the École des Beaux-Arts. Female members could not win the coveted Prix de Rome that male members could win allowing them to visit Italy for artistic exposure and education. Essentially, female members were accepted into the institution but did not gain much benefit or advantages from the institution. Vigée Le Brun was no different in her experience but still made a remarkable success of her career despite her disadvantages.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun constructs a complex image of herself through her Self Portrait in a Straw Hat. Discussions on Rousseau and his natural sphere of domesticity are being challenged. Sexism is being affronted. Class privileges are being disputed. Vigée Le Brun is not allowing her sex, class, ignorance, and inexperience define her. She taught herself to paint through practice and determination. She approached influential hostesses at salons to build a support system. She began wearing the fashionable clothes of her aristocratic clients so she could easily associate and work alongside them. Vigée Le Brun was prolific and painted over 660 portraits and 200 landscapes. Vigée Le Brun was a power-house of ambition, determination, and hard work. Her Self Portrait in a Straw Hat shows this and more. It is a woman’s image. It is a woman’s portrait.
- Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society. 2nd ed. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1997.
- “Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun: Self Portrait in a Straw Hat.” The National Gallery. Accessed February 28, 2020.
- Lepetit, Emmanuelle, Andrea Mielle, and Eve Bertero. Modes du XVIIIe siècle: sous Louis XVI et Marie-Antoinette. Paris: Éditions Falbalas, 2014.
- Weidemann, Christiane, Petra Larass, and Melanie Klier. 50 Women Artists You Should Know. Munich: Prestel, 2013.