The love of great images coupled up with admirable artistic skills may be what Elisabeth Louise Vigee has a legacy for. She is one of the renowned female French painters in the world with most of her portrait in National Gallery in London, Hermitage Museum, Metropolitan Museum in New York City and Louvre just to mention a few art powerhouses that reserves culture based heritage. Under her name are 660 human portraits and 200 landscape portraits; some professionally drawn paintings admired up to this age.
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Before I venture deep into the portraits, allow me to focus lightly on Elisabeth Louise Vigee’s family from whence her motivation and inspiration in art came from. She was born in 1755 to a painter and portraitist father, Louis Vigee. His paternal dad, guided her in her infancy stage in artwork and by teenage she would make professional paintings. In her youth, she met Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Burn who was equally zealous in painting; he was an art dealer and painter. He would later be married to him, which explains which her light in art never went dim but rather shone from end to end. Today, Painter, Vigee Le Brun has an enviable legacy in painting having made a portrait for the Queen Marie Antoinette.
Although, Madam Elisabeth Louise may have made many portraits, of interest are two iconic paintings that carry so much meaning and are spectacular. This is majorly due to the lighting, principal focus, imagery therein, attires, interpretation of the picture among many other things. The two portraits are the Vigee Le Brun Self-portrait of 1790 and the portrait of Marie Antoinette with her children, one of the great portraits she made for her before her untimely death. Yet, the painting weighs more imagery, there is a lot we can deduct from the same; the wise men say a picture of a thousand word and so the above are one.
The Self portrait of Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun is about 100cm in length and 81cm in width and was painted in Rome while the latter has run into exile from France for a decade. She is sat poised on a high stool if not bench in an upright position with a direct focus to the viewer. He right arm is on a portrait due for completion; she probably was making some touches on the painting since she has a used painting brush on the portrait. The left arm lies leisurely on her laps close to her body holding several other painting brushes and a painting color board.
In attire, she is in a long dark dress with a broad red waist band tied around her waist flawlessly. The dress is long sleeved with raffled edges and similarly a raffled collar area that smartly brings out her femininity. That’s not all, on her head is a cream white head gear made of the same material used in raffled edges of the dress. Her hair is not long or even styled but the head wrap makes her appear courtly and womanly. What’s more in this portrait, is the lighting, the illumination majorly focuses on Madam Vigee Le Brun, the Painter with a dark background and we find her shadow lying on the edge of the unfinished portrait.
The Portrait of Marie Antoinette with her children brings in a new element of status, family and class. Unlike Vigee’s portrait which is ordinary, Marie’s expressed makes a different approach despite it being simple – may be its because of her position in the society. She is in an elegant red long ball dress with off white and gold details. She is seated on an arm chair holding the youngest kid and the other two around her. Her hair is not elaborately done although we can see a cloth wrapped around it in red, black and off white colors. There is an outstanding detail on it that looks more featherlike. She wears no jewelry but the low neck dress just completes the queenly appearance even in absence of accessories. Her feet are raise on a puffed big pillow made of black and gold fabric.
As mentioned earlier, this is a unique portrait that includes her kids which makes it unconventional. The firstborn daughter is in a low neck dress similar in design to that of the mother although with a different shade of red- she closely clings on the mother. It is easy to see a back and gold waist band that breaks the monotony of the main color. Her blonde hair has not been styled as would have been expected from children of such status. The second born is far off the mother in a different tone of red. Unlike all others child is in pants and directly facing the viewer yet appear ingrained in other things not necessarily posing for the picture.
Finally, we find the youngest of them all on the mother’s laps. Her dress is in white color and with a head wrap. Naturally, a child of such age is expected to be cuddled up around the mother but herein appear to be actually withdrawing from the same. That said and done, the lighting focuses on her and her children with a dark background although we can vaguely see some interior design that tells of the beauty in this house they are in.
Ideally, there is a lot of contrast between Marie Antoinette and her children with Ingres’ Portrait of Madame Ines Moitesserier and the Vigee Le Brun portrait. In the Vigee’s portrait she is portrayed as a woman who is submissive family based and simple. Well, it is easy to judge this from her grooming, reasonable simple but smart and the head wrap goes a long way to prove how humble this woman is. In addition, the portrait captures her image at her work place or with the thing that interests her the most, at art work room with painting tools. This depicts a character of a hardworking woman who is determined to pursue what she desires.
The womanly nature is majorly brought forward by her posture and grooming. She appears not to dwell much on being overly pleasant but rather on building and nurturing. Isn’t is classical for a family based woman to take care of her family? This entailed doing the household chore in an apron and hair wrapped while cooking. This is just the hospitable humble woman we find in Vigee Le Brun’s Portrait. Although she is not badly off in terms of societal status, her underlying virtue is being a great mother, wife and a painter.
Well, the portrait of Marie Antoinette and her children speaks of a woman of class, surrounded by wealth and power. The direct focus on the viewer with the head slightly raise shows dominance, rule and power. It is one those who are in power or in an upper hand have this kind of confidence. Naturally, the son who is supposedly the heir has a sharp focus on the viewer while the rest to not directly focus on the viewer. It is easy to spot authority from the seat next to where she is seated and the blurred background that shows of some amazing architectural work.
In the knowledge of who she was in France at the time this portrait was made, it is indeed correct to say she was powerful. As a matter of fact, she was a queen and so the flashy lifestyle and power bound. It is believed, she was not popular and was facing charges including treason at the time. She may have desired that Vigee Le Brun a painter and a close confidant to her make a portrait that alters this and makes her be viewed as a hospitable, social, homely and approachable person. Well, she attempted to make this although her reputation still stood steady.
In the same vein, Queen Marie Antoinette wanted to appear as a family woman. Well, she may have been one but probably far from it at the same time. It appears that she had been overly consumed in matters of the public or her position and forgot or alienated her family. We find not connecting between Marie and her second and last born child. Despite the fact that the mother is there, they are least drawn to her. The firstborn daughter clings on the mother’s arm which is a show of affection, but largely because she is grown to understand her sense of belonging and essence of family. On the contrary it can also be interpreted as a yearn for what she lacks; appreciation, and affection. As Marie is in the face of opposition and infamous, she realizes family is a significant part of her life but remolding the bond proves hard.
The environment in the two portraits draws a clear distinction between the two women. Le Brun is in a workshop evidently, while Marie Antoinette is somewhere in a palatial room enjoying life in wealth, power and authority. Although the light primarily illuminates the subjects it is easy to see the background. Marie is a woman who has her life all packed together while the latter has to work hard to make ends meet or better still lead a reasonably comfortable life.
Nonetheless, the underlying fact in both portraits is that both women are motherly although the degree may vary. Well, Le Brun may have been all through a mother and womanly, while Marie may have been and expressed mother by the virtue of giving birth. Their lives are in different context, Marie is in power which means most of her things get to be done by her worker and rather not herself. However, she now is resorted to being directly involved with her family. Either way the two are womanly. From the portraits, they are both girly and attractive, a classical definition of a woman.
In conclusion, it baffles me how one image can lead one to deduct so much more so when you understand the history and context to which the portraits were made or images taken. However, from the surface, one may not borrow much by an up-close look at things reveals otherwise. It is the fine details that help one deduct from the umbrella in a portrait and come up with refined bits. Such is in Marie Antoinette and Her Children with Ingre’s portrait of Madame Ines Moitesserier and Vigee Le Brun Portrait all of which were painted by Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun.
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