Self Portrait in a Straw Hat is a signed copy by the artist of a very popular self portrait that she painted in 1782 and which is now in the collection of the baronne Edmond de Rothschild. The pose is deliberately modelled on Rubens’s Portrait of Susanna Lunden (?) (also in the National Gallery’s collection), which was formerly, but incorrectly, known as Le Chapeau de Paille (The Straw Hat).
Vigée Le Brun offers us a highly calculated image in which she explicitly associates herself with a great artist and his sitter. Looking at us directly with an open expression as she holds the tools of her profession (a palette and brushes), she presents herself as an elegant society lady and as an accomplished professional artist. By posing outdoors – and not, for example, in a studio – she replicates the contrasting light effects in Rubens’s portrait by combining ordinary daylight with direct sunlight.
Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s life spanned a tumultuous period of French history. Born in Paris in 1755, she was the daughter of a portrait painter, Louis Vigée. His early death in 1767 left her without a teacher, so she was largely self-taught. Her husband, the art dealer Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, played a significant role in her early career by providing her with important contacts and commissions. She adopted his name but eventually left him – the marriage was formally dissolved in 1794.
In the years preceding the French Revolution in 1789, Vigée Le Brun enjoyed great success, particularly at the Versailles court. One of the most successful society portraitists of her time, she was also one of only four women admitted to the Académie royale de la peinture et de sculpture during the eighteenth century. She became the preferred painter of Marie-Antoinette and painted over 30 portraits of the Queen and her family. A portrait of Marie-Antoinette wearing a simple white cotton chemise and holding a rose caused a scandal when exhibited at the Salon in 1783 because of its informality. Following the arrest of the royal family in October 1789, Vigée Le Brun fled Paris and did not return until 1802.
Self Portrait in a Straw Hat is a signed copy by Vigėe Le Brun of a very popular self portrait she had painted in Brussels in 1782. The portrait was exhibited in the same year at the Salon de la Correspondance in Paris and at the 1783 Salon of the Académie royale. It is now in the collection of the baronne Edmond de Rothschild. The pose is deliberately modelled on Rubens’s Portrait of Susanna Lunden (?), which was formerly, but incorrectly, known as Le Chapeau de Paille (The Straw Hat) – ‘paille’ (straw) may be a corruption of ‘poil’ (hair), as the hat is in fact made of beaver felt. Vigée Le Brun had studied and copied paintings by Rubens and saw his portrait of Susanna when she was visiting Antwerp. The portrait was well known in France, at least by reputation, and several writers had commented on its depiction of light. In particular, they noted how the hat’s broad rim cast the face in shadow, which, as a result, was lit solely by reflected light. In a letter to Princess Kourakin included in her Memoirs (published in 1835), Vigée Le Brun similarly commented, ‘its great effect resides in the two different lights, ordinary daylight and the glow of the sun.’ She continues, ‘This painting delights me and inspired me to make my own portrait in Brussels in search of the same effect. I painted myself wearing a straw hat with a feather and a garland of wild flowers, and holding my palette. When the portrait was exhibited at the salon, I dare say it greatly enhanced my reputation.’
Despite its apparent informality, Vigée Le Brun offers us a highly calculated image in which she also explicitly associates herself with a great artist and his sitter. Looking at us directly with an open expression as she holds the tools of her profession (a palette and brushes), she presents herself as an elegant society lady and as an accomplished professional artist. By posing outdoors – and not, for example, in a studio – she replicates the contrasting light effects in Rubens’s portrait by combining ordinary daylight with direct sunlight. Although wearing a plain straw hat (in keeping with the original title of Rubens’s painting), Vigée Le Brun wears a low-cut dress unlike Susanna, who crosses her arms above her waist while peering out from under her hat. In keeping with the effect of naturalness, Vigée Le Brun’s hair is her own – rather than a wig (which she would be expected to wear for a formal portrait) – and is unpowdered. Her hat is decorated with fresh flowers and a white ostrich feather, whose textures echo the hair and clothing. The hat and flowers were consistent with contemporary fashions in the pastoral mode and especially recall pictures of shepherdesses – a favourite guise also of Marie-Antoinette, who even had a fake rustic village built in the grounds at Versailles.
Although the National Gallery’s version of the self portrait is a copy that Vigée Le Brun herself made of her original portrait (the copy was probably also painted in 1782), there are some minor, but significant, differences between the two paintings. In light perhaps of her comment that the original portrait had ‘greatly enhanced my reputation’, the National Gallery’s version presents a more assertive and self-assured image. This self-assurance is in part achieved by slight changes to the face – in the copy, for example, the eyebrows are heavier, the shape of the eyelids is given more emphasis, the lower lip is fuller, and the mouth more smiling. Vigée Le Brun has also changed the colour of her satin dress from a shade of lilac to a rose pink. Perhaps in response to comments by Salon critics that the unbroken blue sky of the original painting was too basic or just too blue, she has broken up the sky in the copy by adding wispy white clouds.
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