Skip to main content

Film

1 video

Picture of the month: June 2020

1
0:56

“They call me Mme Van Dyck, Mme Rubens” Vigée Le Brun once wrote in a letter.

In this self portrait, we are left in no doubt as to Vigée Le Brun's profession and, indeed, her success.

Fixing us confidently with her gaze and holding her paintbrushes and palette – the tools of her trade – casually, as if they were the most natural accessories in the world, Vigée Le Brun presents herself as an experienced and self-assured artist. 

Her expression is one of openness and intimacy. Her eyes engage us unabashed, and her lips are slightly parted in a gesture that is both seductive and seems to put her on the brink of conversation. The rarity of professional female painters at this time adds to the sense of daring in her bold and direct expression.  

Though dressed informally, she shows herself wearing the height of fashion for her day. We see the various textures of her elaborate outfit, from the gauzy black shawl, to the delicate frills of her white chemise and frothy ostrich feather. The fresh flowers in the rim of her straw hat reflect a style made popular by her queen and patron, Marie Antoinette, who loved peasant-inspired dress. Though she would have been expected to wear a wig for a formal portrait, Vigée Le Brun lets us see her own real hair, in keeping with the picture's effect of naturalness.

Vigée Le Brun's self portrait mimics a famous work by Rubens, Portrait of Susanna Lunden (?), which was formerly, but incorrectly known as 'Le Chapeau de Paille' ('The Straw Hat'), despite the fact that the sitter does not wear a straw hat. In her response, Vigée Le Brun not only playfully 'corrects' the Old Master by depicting herself in a straw hat, she also explicitly associates herself with a great artist and his work.

An earlier version of Vigée Le Brun’s self portrait made quite a stir in 1782 when it was exhibited at the Salon de la Correspondence in Paris, and in her memoirs she wrote that it played a major role in securing her election to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture the following year.

Largely self-taught, Vigée Le Brun became one of the leading portrait painters in France in the years before the Revolution. She lived a fascinating life during one of the most tumultuous periods of European history, travelling widely and courting more than a little scandal. A favourite of court, she left France in 1789 in fear of her life, first travelling to Italy and later Austria, Russia, and Germany before eventually settling back in France. 

You might also like...

At 15 she was painting the aristocracy, in her 20s she was the favoured painter of Marie-Antoinette, and by her 30s she was fleeing the French Revolution
Fiona Alderton chooses some highlights in our collection
May 2020: A Wheatfield, with Cypresses
Van Gogh’s sunlit view of the French countryside has been voted your picture of the month
April 2020: Lake Keitele
Painted whilst in isolation, Gallen-Kallela's view of a Finnish lake offers a moment of calm
March 2020: The School of Love
A tender portrait of a young family – except this is no ordinary family
February 2020: The Supper at Emmaus
Caravaggio’s iconic painting tells this biblical story as never before
January 2020: The Baptism of Christ
This earliest surviving work by 15th-century Tuscan painter, Piero della Francesca, shows an important moment in the history of Christianity
December 2019: The Nativity at Night
Divine and earthly light illuminate Geertgen tot Sint Jans's tranquil night-time scene
November 2019: The Finding of Moses
A vast, dramatic painting telling the story of a mother’s love
October 2019: Noli me Tangere
Discover the painting that started our 'picture of the month' tradition during the Second World War
September 2019: The Healing of the Man born Blind
A small fragment of one of the most celebrated Early Renaissance paintings ever made
X
/
Y