Royals in Oils

Peter Campbell

  • The Sweetness of Life: A Biography of Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun by Angelica Goodden
    Deutsch, 384 pp, £19.99, June 1997, ISBN 0 233 99021 6

In her portraits Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun did her very best to give a pleasing account of the facts of the flesh. The faces are attractive, the expressions forthcoming and responsive. The phrase ‘a smile played around her lips’ could have been invented to describe them. Her trademarks are half-disclosed rows of little pearly teeth; up-and-under looks; draped shawls, Greek smocks, Oriental accessories and loosely gathered curls; or a heavenward gaze (which owed something to Greuze, but doesn’t have the repellent sentimentality of his tearful bearers of crushed blossoms). On seeing themselves in the mirror of her art, her sitters must have felt that they were smarter, prettier and livelier than they had imagined.

When she failed to please it was, at least in one case, because something stiffer was expected. Catherine the Great complained that her granddaughters were too informally dressed – and thus, I suppose, too available. Her touch with Varvara Ivanovna Narishkin, the illegitimate daughter of Countess Stroganova (the Countess had lent Vigée Le Brun a house in Moscow) is perfect, showing, in Angelica Goodden’s words, ‘a warm and seductive romanticism’. Mrs William Chinnery is, by comparison, a little bland.

Vigée Le Brun was at her best with romantic young girls and attractive men. The sublime was beyond her register: it is hard to take her picture of Madame de Staël strumming her lyre seriously, and when, late in life, she undertook a painting of Marie Antoinette in prison, the task proved so painful she gave up. Sentiment saved her from the kind of mistake Greuze made when he tried to extend a talent which had proved wonderfully apt to modern subjects into the realm of classical history.

She worked in an idiom which combined pretty colour, soft, bright light, and a meticulous but painterly finish. The colour and lively handling were part of the legacy of 17th-century Flanders to 18th-century France. The broader gestures and stormy chiaroscuro which her English contemporaries favoured, and which came to them by various routes from Caravaggio, would not have suited her. The painter John Opie is reported to have found Vigée Le Brun’s pictures good in ‘the imitation of particular things, velvet, silk etc’ but he also remarked that they gave him ‘no high pleasure as works of art’. Hoppner, more brutally, found even her way with stuffs wanting: a piece of drapery by Rembrandt ‘differs from the piece in the woollen-draper’s or in Madame Le Brun’s shop as much in appearance as in value’ and ‘on a feeble, vulgar and detailed imitation of articles of furniture and dress rests the whole of Madame Le Brun’s reputation.’

Her defence was good craftsmanship: ‘as for these fabrics, these speaking cushions, these velvets on display in my shop, my view is that one should pay as much attention to all these accessories as possible, but without detriment to the heads.’ There was no easy meeting possible between a late 18th-century supplier of a well-made high-fashion commodity and early 19th-century painters persuaded they were gentlemen pursuing a liberal profession. Time has not decided the matter. A row of paintings by Copley, Hoppner and Opie may be dashing but you can tire of them before you are sated with Vigée Le Brun’s pretty frocks and bright eyes. And of these there is no shortage: she was prolific. She drove herself and sometimes she said she had spread herself too thin, but it is pretty clear that her talent perfectly suited her chosen métier. Painting less would probably not have meant painting better.

The feeling you get looking at her portraits – that it is the people she painted who have won you over – is, in part at least, an illusion. Much of what seems to be their personality is her invention. A few faces (the very beautiful, the very dramatic) make their own impression. Fashionable portrait painters are (or were – the genre is moribund) able to make show-stoppers of the less facially gifted. Their pictures stand to the portraiture of unvarnished (well, less varnished) truth – Frans Hals’s Dutch burghers, say – as court masques do to middleclass fiction. Courts have special needs when it comes to portraits. Vigée Le Brun did for Marie Antoinette and a swathe of the European aristocracy what Winterhalter did for the young Queen Victoria and Cecil Beaton for the women of the House of Windsor. She invented them as one might invent characters in a novel, treading a delicate path between the swooning – very hard to treat Emma Hamilton any other way, but not right for a princess – and the starchy. There is life in her inventions still. Trivial life as greetingcard material. Respectable (if more sedate) life as historical documents, to be studied in the hope that the informed mind will be able to persuade them to flutter with their old vivacity. Painting apart, she is clearly interesting, from our point of view, as a woman who was successful in a male profession.

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