Thursday, October 23, 2008

Marie Antoinette and her Portraitist, Elisabeth-Louise Vigee Le Brun

This portrait of Marie Antoinette, entitled La Reine en Gaulle (The Queen dressed in a Gaulle), caused a scandal when it was shown at the Paris artist's salon of 1783. The traditional accoutrements of royal portraiture - the grand habit de cour, the royal jewels, and the heavily powdered hairstyle - were absent. Marie Antoinette was portrayed in a white muslin dress and the reaction to this break in tradition and convention was vociferous.

Critics and the public thought that Marie Antoinette was "wearing a chamber-maid's dust cloth". Generally it was thought that the Queen violated "the fundamental law of this kingdom, that the public cannot suffer to see its princes lower themselves to the level of mere mortals (Mademoiselle de Mirecourt)."

The painting was withdrawn from the salon and replaced with another, hastily executed painting called La Reine a la Rose. The substituted painting showed the Queen in more a traditional blue-gray silk robe a la francaise and pearl jewels. Unfortunately the damage had already been done by the first portrait of the queen "dressed up like a serving girl" and fueled further speculation about the Queen's respect for the throne and her loyalty to France.

Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun, the Queen's portraitist, preferred to dress her sitters in more natural styles of dress. In her published memoirs, she recounts how she gained the trust of her models in order to allow her "to dress them after my fancy" aiming for the beautiful drapery of Raphael and Domenichino. She also wrote that she "detested the powdering of hair" and how she convinced the Duchesse de Gramont-Caderouusse not to put powder in her beautiful black hair when she sat for her portrait.

Le Brun painted many self-portraits and her affinity for simple gowns and unpowdered hair is evident in how she portrays herself. This self-portrait completed in 1781 (two years prior to the salon fiasco), Le Brun wears a white muslin gown, adorned only with a coral-coloured bow, and styles her hair simply without powder.

Le Brun's influence on French fashion was substantial. Le Brun was considered to be "one of the major painters at the epicentre of art and fashion" of the time and that "perhaps more than any single individual in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, Vigee Le Brun influenced the development of women's costume" with her preference for "a more natural look". (Memoires secrets pour servir a l'histroire de la republique 1777-89, vol. 16, pg. 226).