The chance encounter of Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and Madeleine Albright

Marie-Antoinette by Vigee-LebrunVigeeLeBrun_Poster_Image_481x800Madeleine Albright3

Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842) has been on my mind, lately, as I bet she’s been on yours too.  All of us are curious about the exhibit, opening Monday, on her life’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (February 15 to May 15, 2016).

The works displayed together for the first time will be a marvel to behold and I can hardly wait to go there in late March. The review penned in yesterday’s New York Times makes it sound fabulous.

Reviewer Roberta Smith highlights the special features of the artist, how she uses light and captures textures such as lace and satin. Smith also puts a clever spin on the topic of portraiture: comparing the declining state funding for congressional portraiture in the USA today, to the craze for portraiture that sustained a vibrant art market in ancien régime France. She also could have noted the parallel between women and the political problems they encounter, now as then.

“What She Painted at the Revolution,” touches on Vigée-Lebrun’s style, noting that it “avoided both the lightness of Late Rococo and the artifice of Neo-Classicism,” to form a “modulated naturalism.” It is also adroit in the bio, noting how the woman artist “wisely fled France at the start of the Revolution” before returning in 1802 when she took advantage of the amnesty for those on the once-enemy émigré list. But the politics of this article are muffled.

What does it mean that she “died at Paris at the age of 86, feeling that she had outlived her time”? (C:1).  Or that her work at age 68 “can make you feel that she might yet have added another artistic chapter to her remarkable life” (C:26).

There is a truncated political message. And you don’t even have to pick up a boring history book to see how politics evolved in the life of Vigée-Lebrun—a stalwart royalist and friend of the Bourbons.


This is clear to anyone who peruses the gorgeous volume dedicated to Joséphine published by the Réunion des musées nationaux in 2014. The portraits of Joséphine, Empress of France from 1804 to 1810, would be the next logical place to look, to see what happened to court painters in France after 1802. The landscapes are lusciously romantic, as in Garneray’s Portrait de l’impératrice Joséphine (1813; a detail of that painting is above).


Clearly, Joséphine featured different styles for the different times in which she reigned. Which brings me back to Madeleine Albright. In an op-ed published in today’s New York Times, Albright argues why “women have an obligation to help one another.” But what she does not seem to remember, is that there are women of all kinds and sometimes politics is more important than gendered fellow-feeling. For Joséphine to call upon the portrait painter of Marie-Antoinette is just as unlikely as expecting Michelle Obama to follow the same artists as Laura and Barbara Bush. Or Jackie Kennedy to emulate Mamie Eisenhower.  C’est impensable! Being political is what people do, for the better or for the worse.

So I’m sorry, Madeleine. Although I’d like to agree with you, I’ve also lived long enough to know when it’s too much to expect. I think it is great that younger voters are suddenly so vocal and speaking up in letters to the editor like this one, from Allison Shoenfield in the South Bend Tribune. I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Sometimes, you just have to admit you’re beat.

Which is why, apparently, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun gave up painting. And why her retrospective, just like her biography,  leaves the reader waiting and wishing for more.

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