Vigee le Brun (1755-1842). Painted in 1799, this 53 1/2 x 38 inch oil-on-canvas depicts the Russian “Princess de Minuit” in the likeness of the goddess Flora from classical myth (South 34). The painting is one of many le Brun produced during her twelve-year exile from France during the French Revolution and was originally shown at the Exhibition of Russian Portraits at the Taurida Palace in St. Petersburg (Nickerson 7). The painting is not recorded among le Brun’s lists or memoirs, despite the obvious inspiration and fantasy with which it was painted (Nikolenko “Russian Portraits”). This work was gifted to its current home by Mr. Val A. Browning (South 34).
I first viewed this piece amid many other 18th Century European paintings and sculptures at an exhibition of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts on November 26, 2011. I had intended to write about another of Elisabeth le Brun’s paintings, but it was not on exhibit and I went searching for another piece. I was pleasantly surprised to come across the portrait of Princess Galitzine while wandering the display hall, and found myself admiring it more than my first choice. I already admired le Brun’s representation of female faces (particularly the eyes), and recognized her style at once. I ultimately chose this painting as the subject of my research because its mix of bright primary colors and the soft luminosity of light revealing the subject’s features was unique within the exhibit hall. It immediately stood out among the dark Baroque and early Renaissance pieces nearby, one of which was a rather grim depiction of the Deposition of Christ. A definite femininity was present, a quality I often find lacking in paintings of women from the Renaissance to the Rococo era. I have since learned this femininity is a hallmark of le Brun’s portraiture style, and is characteristic of her many paintings (Auricchio, “Women Painters”).
In the painting, a young woman stands in the foreground, dominating the distant landscape with her presence. A woven basket of pink roses sits atop her darkly curled hair, balanced easily by a casual hand. In her other hand she clutches a branch of fruit-bearing leaves. Her clothing is sophisticated, simple in cut, and colorful: saturated blues and reds contrast nicely with a white undergarment banded with gold. The filmy fabrics and plentiful folds of her drape give volumetric presence, while an unseen sun creates a soft glow upon her skin.
A delicate system of shading serves as a tool for creating three dimensionality, granting weight and realism to the young woman’s limbs and face. Her striking eyes are dark brown, with catch lights emphasizing the clarity of the irises. She bears a small smile, exuding peace and happiness, as if greeting a close acquaintance or friend.
Beyond the subject, soft green hills and a brown road are visible behind and below, slowly making way for cold blue mountains along the horizon. The corner of a classically-inspired building peeks into the frame, instantly recognizable by its pediment and surrounding portico of columns. Trees and bushes accent its outline, partially hiding a distant body of water painted in silver-blue.
Elisabeth le Brun’s use of atmospheric perspective heightens the sense of realism and creates a sharp illusion of depth, firmly placing the subject in the forefront. The light shading and yellow coloring of the clouds gives the piece a further sense of distance, as the viewer imagines them extending out from the painting to hang over their own head.
A wide variety of colors form the palette, ranging from the saturated blues of her dress to the pale yellows of the sunset-lit sky behind her. With red accents and shawl, le Brun breaks the potential monotony of the palette by complimenting the soft greens, flesh tones, and blues, making the figure leap from the surface (Nickerson 7).
Despite the natural posture of the Princess, this painting is not simply a depiction of a single, or candid moment in time. The details are arranged and represented with deliberate care. The subject’s pose is purposefully positioned, with her crooked arm subtly pointing behind her, moving the viewer’s eye to the background details, including the Greek Temple. Her state of dress indicates wealth and station, instantly identifying her as a member of the aristocracy (Nickerson 7). The roses in the basket on her head symbolize beauty, the worship of mythical goddesses, and are considered to be the flower of Venus. The olive branch in her hand represents peace and love, and the fruit it bears suggests fertility.
The portrait is a stunning example of how Elisabeth Vigee le Brun successfully blended the Neo-Classical and Romantic styles in her portraiture. More than anything, Le Brun favored a Romantic portrait style “aimed at seizing the subject in an intimate, unselfconscious and introspective moment of reflection” (May 136). Katheryn Gallitz suggests that the emotion and imagination of Romanticism came in response to disillusionment with the reason and order of the Enlightenment in the aftermath of the French Revolution. She goes on to state that, “This interest in the individual and subjective—at odds with eighteenth-century rationalism—is mirrored in the Romantic approach to portraiture. Traditionally records of individual likeness, portraits became vehicles for expressing a range of psychological and emotional states in the hands of Romantic painters” (Gallitz “Romanticism”).
The portrait is Neo-Classical in design, with elements of Romanticism in its execution. This romanticism is evidenced in the relaxed position of the subject, the peaceful cast of her eyes, the dramatic beauty of the landscape, and the billowing folds of her drape (South 34). The beauty of these elements complement the bright, classical clothing and Greek temple that embody the Neo-Classical ideals of simplicity and proportion.
This portrait bears a marked resemblance to Julie le Brun as Flora, a portrait le Brun painted of her own daughter, also in 1799. Both sitters are portrayed as the goddess Flora in similar poses and clothing. Both bear a basket of roses atop their heads and leafy branches in their hands. In her daughter’s portrait, however, le Brun arranges the leaves in a heart-shaped wreath, symbolizing love and peace. The Italian landscape in her daughter's portrait is also altered, and her daughter’s clothes are composed and colored differently than Princess Galitzine's. The portrait of Princess Galitzine is rendered with more attention to the visual representation of detail, and shows the subject in a more natural pose and relaxed manner (Nikolenko, “Russian Portraits”).
Princess Eudocia Ivanovna Galitzine as Flora was finished two years after the Russian princess’s sister, Elizabeth Vladmirovna, commissioned her own portrait by le Brun (South 34). The resulting works are very similar, and a marked family resemblance is present. In fact, most of le Brun’s female portraits share physical similarities: soft skin, a delicately shaped mouth, large eyes, and delicate limbs. This style is especially noticeable in the the many portraits of Queen Marie Antoinette, who greatly favored le Brun (“Elizabeth Vigee-le Brun: Oxford Dictionary of Art”).
Several influences from earlier artists’ works are evident. The red shawl reflects le Brun’s admiration of Rafael’s Madonnas, which she often emulated in her portraits of female subjects. She also draws stylistic techniques from Peter Paul Rubens, giving her female subjects “supple flesh tones” and a soft luminosity achieved with the use of several layers of glaze (South 34).
Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigee le Brun was quite famous in her own time, and was a welcome dignitary in many court circles. Because of this, her style and works enjoyed a relatively wide viewership outside of France, and she amassed a not un-large personal fortune (South 34).
However, Elisabeth Vigee le Brun was more than just a talented portraitist. She embodied a stark change in the way the world thought of men's and women's roles in art and society at large. Brun was accepted into the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture on May 31, 1783, a particularly impressive distinction considering the protests of some of its members because of her gender. She also regularly exhibited in the biennial Salons (Auricchio, “Women Painters”).
Her style was so distinctive that, “the simultaneous admission of [fellow female painter] Labille-Guiard and Vigée Le Brun [to the Académie Royale] caused a stir in the art world and beyond, and the press immediately cast them as rivals, pitting Vigée Le Brun's ‘feminine’ style (loose brushstrokes, high-toned color, and flattering renderings of her sitters against the ‘masculine’ characteristics (crisp handling, muted tones, and truth to nature) of Labille-Guiard's paintings” (Auricchio, “Women Painters”).
Elisabeth Vigee le Brun has done much to change the art world, from developing unique blends of Neo-Classical and Romantic styles, to displaying a distinctly feminine touch while painting women, and finally, by becoming (at the time) one of the few female members of the Académie Royale.
Though she enjoyed great status and powerful friends, she still fought against the ideas of her time. During her lifetime, none of her portraits were displayed in France, the land she called home. It wasn’t until after her death that her work was widely shown in France, when her niece donated two inherited pieces to the Louvre. This was only the first step, and soon, her art would spread, even crossing the ocean to America. “Overcoming all odds, Vigée Le Brun has finally had the last word and gained her passport to immortality, for her paintings now hang in all the leading art museums of the world” (May 203).
Princess Eudocia Ivanovna Galitzine as Flora was only one of many portraits and paintings produced by le Brun, and while her characteristic style and manner of presenting women is remarkable in and of itself, it is her overall work that begs our attention. One can only imagine the breadth and scope of the very real impact Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigee le Brun has had on the world. She, and women like her, have done society an undeniable service by fighting archaic views of gender roles. Without such ambition and perseverance, the current art, political, and professional worlds would be very different places.
Auricchio, Luara. "Eighteenth-Century Women Painters in France.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. Web. 3 December 2011.
"Elisabeth Vigee-le Brun: The Oxford Dictionary of Art." ENotes - Literature Study Guides, Lesson Plans, and More. Web. 3 December 2011.
Gallitz, Katheryn. "Romanticism.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. Web. 3 December 2011.
Nickerson, Melissa. Princess Eudocia Ivanovna Galitzine as Flora Lesson. Women Artists Lesson Plan for Educators. University of Utah Printing Services (28 October 1998): 7. Print.
Nikolenko, Lada. “The Russian Portraits of Madame Vigee le Brun.” Reprinted from the Gazette des Beaux Arts. Web. 3 December 2011.
May, Gita. Elisabeth Vigee le Brun : The Odyssey of an Artist in an Age of Revolution. Yale University Press (2005): 136-202. Print.
South, Will. The Val. A Browning Memorial Collection of 500 Years of European Masterworks. University of Utah Printing Services (1995): 34. Print.