Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Vigée Le Brun: Courtesans and Countesses and Princesses! Oh My!

by Drew Martin
I often think about how the gender and personality of the photographer affects the expression of the person being photographed. I see it in the portraits I have taken over the years: the people in those pictures are looking at me with a certain look, which is usually a disarmed friendliness. But until today I never thought too much about the subject of paintings partly because I figured it was just a generalized expression since the process of sitting for a portrait could take a long time. I also assumed that most of the beauties in those portraits were glowing with fantasized returns of a male gaze. I do not recall coming across many female painters prior to the 20th century. So when I walked through the Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun show with my parents and daughter today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I was rather surprised by the sweetly intimate expressions of the ladies in the portraits from the turn of the 19th century.

Pictured here, clockwise from top left, details of the portraits of Princess Antoní Henryk Radziwiłł 1802, Countess Ekaterina Vasilievna Skavronskaya 1796, actress/courtesan Hyacinthe-Gabrielle Roland 1791, and mistress Isabella Teotochi Marini 1792.

The revealing portrait of Isabella (lower left) was painted by 
Vigée Le Brun as a gift to her friend, a diplomat and member of the Académie royale where she had studied.

"She painted the work in service of a relationship she knew to be a secret, creating a portrait that would fan the ardor of its owner."