When I was sorting through photographs recently I discovered a small cache of pictures from my trip to New York with Liana last February. Included were some snaps from the Vigée Le Brun exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum. Since I had recently written about a different visit to an art museum, and a different kind of painting, it seems like we are due for a bit of an antidote. Even though that trip was over 7 months ago, I thought I would share the photos I took here now.
I had forgotten that the Vigée Le Brun exhibit was in New York. We had gone to the Met to see something else (which I will write about later), but once I saw the banner I remembered that Frances had a wonderful post about Le Brun, here, and I was eager to see the exhibit. But by this time, we were quite tired (or at least I was quite tired) and I was not as intrepid as Frances. There was no listening to museum tours, no thoughtful analysis, just a meandering look and a pause. If you are looking for a more informed post, follow the link above.
The photo above is of the most formal portrait that I photographed. It is a commission for the marquise de Rougé, and she is shown with her two sons and her dear friend, the marquise de Pezay. It is an exception to the artist's oeuvre, and yet, even in this formal composition, it captures everything I love about Le Brun's portraits. Notice the warmth of the composition, the love and affection in the faces, and the fact that they are painted with a warm and understanding eye. The composition is classical in form, and yet the subjects are anything but. Here is maternal affection, friendship, loyalty, love for and by children, captured seemingly simply, but in reality not such a simple task, in a portrait that hits all the right notes for a commissioned work, and yet moves beyond them in its very humanity.
Then let us move from the formal to the personal. This very intimate portrait is of the artist's daughter, Julie Le Brun. Its very nature is both personal and introspective. And yet, in its simplicity there are layers of meaning. We see the child in profile; she sees herself (as do we) in not quite full frontal, perhaps three-quarter, profile. In this view we see both the child as she is and the child as she perceives herself to be, while simultaneously seeing the innocence of childhood, of the child as we wish her to be, and the same time that preternatural wisdom of childhood, an aspect of childhood that does not always make us comfortable, reminding us that children are perhaps aware of something which we have forgotten (and are eager enough to sooth over and deny). It is always hard, in a portrait, be it a painting, or in a more modern sense, a photograph, to capture the multifaceted nature that each of us possesses, and yet Vigée Le Brun shows us something of that here, of the self, internal and external, visible and invisible, and how they are both interrelated and reflected in our lives.
A later picture of the same daughter, as if startled by an unseen or unanticipated visitor. The portrait was modelled on Santerre's portrait of Susanna at her bath, and it was a familiar subject that was to some extent popular and increasingly secularized in the eighteenth century. Notice that this portrait is considerably less innocent than some earlier versions, where, although the voyeurs were far from innocent, Susanna herself is often portrayed with a lack of awareness. This Susanna is aware that she is being watched, and Le Brun perfectly captures that sense of being on the cusp of adulthood, of that almost liminal state where a child is both still child and yet adult, in fact actually neither. We must also remember that a girl of 12 or 13 was considered a woman and could be married, even though we find that shocking today. It is a painting of great tenderness, yes, and of both maternal affection for, and awareness of, the child that was and the woman that will be.
And lastly there is this portrait of a small boy with a gun. Boys are not as common in Vigée Le Brun's paintings, and as I recall the identity of the boy has not been established. This painting has haunted my thoughts (yes it is true, even though I had forgotten that I had taken the photograph). It is the boys eyes that have stayed with me, soulful childish eyes, and the reminder as seen in the gun, that the world intrudes. The utter humanity, affection, and love is evident, as it is evident in all of her paintings, and although I find the painting unsettling I do not know that the subject would have been considered unsettling at the time. And yet....
Contrast the boy with the girl above. Look at the sheer affection with which each is portrayed. Here is humanity in all its glory and all its weaknesses, captured with compassion and love and yes, an intentional, albeit subtle, subversion of form and expectation that continues to enlighten and confound the viewer even today.