In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

The Real Thing!Julian Barnes

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Splendeurs et misères: Images de la prostitution 1850-1910 
Musée d’Orsay, until 17 January 2016Show More
Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun 
Grand Palais, until 11 January 2016Show More
Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun 
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 9 February 2016 to 15 May 2016Show More
Show More

In​ 1849 Flaubert was in Cairo with his friend Maxime Du Camp, a rising littérateur as well as the official photographer for their tour of the Middle East. On 1 December, Flaubert wrote to their mutual friend the poet Louis Bouilhet:

This morning we arrived in Egypt … we had scarcely set foot on shore when Max, the old lecher, got excited over a negress who was drawing water at a fountain. He is just as excited by little negro boys. By whom is he not excited? Or, rather, by what? … Tomorrow we are to have a party on the river, with several whores dancing to the sound of darabukehs and castanets, their hair spangled with gold piastres.

Flaubert’s attitude to prostitution was complicated, as one might expect. In 1853 he explained it to – of all people – his lover Louise Colet:

It may be a perverted taste, but I love prostitution, and for itself, too, quite apart from its carnal aspects. My heart begins to pound every time I see one of those women in low-cut dresses walking under the lamplight in the rain, just as monks in their corded robes have always excited some deep, ascetic corner of my soul. The idea of prostitution is a meeting place of so many elements – lust, bitterness, complete absence of human contact, muscular frenzy, the clink of gold – that to peer into it deeply makes one reel. One learns so many things in a brothel, and feels such sadness, and dreams so longingly of love!

‘Madame de Loynes’ by Eugène Emmanuel Amaury-Duval (1862)

‘Madame de Loynes’ by Eugène Emmanuel Amaury-Duval (1862)

Flaubert remained largely consistent in his views throughout his life; whereas Du Camp, as time, renown and social position took their toll, became increasingly conservative and moralistic. Twenty years after landing in Egypt, he began publishing his six-volume Paris: ses organes, ses fonctions et sa vie (1869-75), a massive, Zolaesque account of the city, teeming with statistics and reportage, opinion and anecdote. In the third volume (1872), his chapter on the guillotine is immediately followed by one on prostitution. He defines the activity as one of ‘the chronic, morbid phenomena which are inherent in our species. The brutality of male passions, and the organic and moral weakness of women, have produced the same results, in every age and in every culture.’

In France at that time prostitution was of two main kinds: the ‘controlled’ sort, in which the state regulated the activity and carried out regular medical inspections on working women; and the ‘uncontrolled’, in which – throughout all ranks of society, up to the very top – money bought sex. For Du Camp, it was a question of essential moral collapse: Paris in the 19th century, like Venice in the 17th, had become a city in which the mind had repudiated its rights, leaving matter and the senses to take over. In middle-class society, men thought having a mistress just as much a fashionable necessity as ‘taking the waters, sea-bathing, and going to first nights’; while kept women, like ‘female minotaurs’, were ‘devouring’ France’s young men. There was also the practical, medical problem of limiting the spread of venereal disease. Du Camp knew what he was talking about: in Egypt he had endured three doses of VD to Flaubert’s one. And for all his moral disapproval, his attitude to ordinary working girls is much more sympathetic than to those higher up the social scale; he also reserves more scorn for the male than the female in their paid exchanges.

Luc Sante, in his recent The Other Paris: An Illustrated Journey through a City’s Poor and Bohemian Past, dismisses Du Camp as ‘an end-of-society hysteric’.* This seems a little over-robust; those six volumes were published during, and in the immediate aftermath of, the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune. When the war broke out, there had been many (including Flaubert) who wondered if the Prussian invasion was not some kind of necessary moral purge, a cleansing punishment for the vulgar iniquities of life under Napoleon III. (Fast-forward a century and a half, and an Isis spokesman is denouncing Paris as ‘the capital of prostitution and obscenity’.) The subsequent internecine horrors of the Commune suggested that society could equally be brought to an end even in the absence of external force. Nor, in the light of the French military collapse, was it irrelevant for Du Camp to point out the debilitating incidence of venereal disease among its soldiery. After the French capitulation, the Prussians demanded an indemnity of five billion gold francs, to be paid off within five years, with Prussian troops stationed in France until it was. But the victors had underestimated France’s wealth: the money was raised in half the time (indeed, the war did far less damage to the economy than the contemporaneous phylloxera epidemic in the vineyards). Moralisers’ warnings went unheeded, and the pleasure-loving part of France went back to its old prewar ways.

Splendeurs et misères at the Musée d’Orsay, given a red-plush overall design by the opera director Robert Carsen, is a vast and sprawling show: aesthetic, sociological and historical, from high-end paintings to low-end memorabilia (police reports, brothel calling cards, and a ferocious gimletty prodder which, as far as I could work out, was for puncturing a hydrocele). Perhaps out of some libertarian spirit, there was no system of timed entry; this, combined with the usual cramped d’Orsay spaces, and the well-advertised presence of much early photographic and cinematic pornography, resulted in a Parisian thrum as intense as any at that famous place of masked assignation, the Opera Ball, of which several pictures are on display. Orientation was made the harder by the catch-all nature of the show. What were we being shown, and why?

For a start, some great art. Early on, I found myself wondering what an equivalent British show might look like. A couple of rooms, perhaps, with Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience, Watts’s Found Drowned, Augustus Egg’s three-part Past and Present, then a time jump to Sickert’s prostitute paintings (two of which are shown at the d’Orsay). The subject, when not off-limits, was morally corseted for the Victorians. Here, the opening rooms give us Manet, Lautrec and Degas at the height of their powers; Van Gogh and Cézanne; then lesser but very interesting painters such as Forain, Béraud, Guys, Vallotton, Emile Bernard. At first – because this was, after all, an art gallery – the eye dutifully went to pick out the best pictures: Degas monotypes, Lautrec brothel interiors, and, of course, Manet’s Olympia. I have seen this painting many times before, but never before with such a particular effect. For a start, its sheer size (among many smaller genre pictures) overwhelms; you realise how extremely bold it was of Manet to paint his courtesan this big and this bare. And then – because of the context, which makes us all, if at one remove, customers of prostitution – I have never before felt so inspected by Olympia: by the courtesan herself, by her black maid, by the black cat in the bottom right-hand corner. We know what you’re here for, they all seemed to be saying: you can’t fool us.

As the show proceeded, however, the eye became less concerned about hierarchies of talent, more about the specifics of the subject. It also recorded the range of tone. That imaginary British show, for instance, similarly combining art and sociology, would be fairly monotonal: shocked, moralistic, pious and, where sympathetic, concerned with rescuing the fallen woman. (There might be allusions to Gladstone’s and Dickens’s rescue projects; to Gissing marrying a prostitute.) The French pictures, by contrast, run through many moods: realistic, sympathetic, tender, celebratory, farcical, satirical, glamorous, erotic, voyeuristic, masturbatory, but rarely moralistic or dissuasive. Even allegories of vice often make vice appear, at the very least, interesting. Félicien Rops covers some of the darker sides of prostitution, not least the sanitary hosing-down a naked prostitute is seen receiving in The Perineal Douche. But the only items which might make you, as a man back then, wonder if prostitution was an entirely good idea are not works of fine art. Rather, they are two pieces of moulded wax apparently commissioned by a psychiatrist: a woman’s hand and a woman’s face, the former with a single syphilitic lesion, the latter with a rash of them. The extreme lifelikeness of such modelling (the hair circling the woman’s forehead even contains a kiss-curl) makes them properly alarming. Though would men have been put off? Some regarded venereal disease as a male rite of passage; Maupassant was exultant when diagnosed. ‘I’ve got the pox! At last! The real thing! Not the contemptible clap … no, no, the great pox, the one François I died of. The majestic pox … and I’m proud of it, by thunder.’

That British show would be predicated on the idea of the fall, often of a triple kind: the fall from virginity (perhaps leading to an illegitimate child) or from marriage; the fall into prostitution; then the fall into the river. The thematic armature of this French show, on the other hand, is the rise. The top end of the profession might easily appear glamorous, because it was. There is a photostrip story, made up of 11 ‘aristotypes’, of a young grisette who falls asleep in her ordinary surroundings and dreams of being raised in her profession: benevolent sprites redecorate her apartment, maids dress her in the finest underwear, all has been achieved – until she wakes and finds herself back where she was and will remain. Nowadays, girls may dream of becoming top models – those fabulous, sultry creatures who won’t even get out of bed for less than a very substantial sum; back then, over there, girls dreamed of becoming grandes horizontales – those fabulous, sultry creatures who wouldn’t even get into bed until a million gold francs had been deposited in their bank account. Du Camp noted that the whole system of high-end vice was bringing about a major redistribution of capital: it had the same effect as drainage systems in agriculture.

The rise. The subject of one of the period’s most repeated bons mots was the grand yellow onyx staircase of Esther Lachmann, aka ‘La Païva’, probably the most financially successful courtesan of the century. Born to Polish parents in a Moscow ghetto, she rose to become the wife of a Portuguese marquis and then of a Prussian count who financed her building of a mansion on the Champs-Elysées. The playwright François Ponsard, adapting a line from Phèdre, said of her staircase: ‘Ainsi que la vertu le vice a ses degrés’ (degré meaning ‘stair’ as well as ‘level’). But what did a minor dramatist’s witticism matter when those who trotted up that staircase to your grand receptions included Renan, Taine, Gambetta, Gautier and the Goncourt brothers? Whereas in Victorian England a woman who had once committed the morally dubious act of being on the stage would have to obliterate that part of her life in order to make a respectable marriage (Nellie Ternan did it by simply lopping 14 years off her age), in France a grande horizontale could have limitless ambitions. One of the most straightforwardly terrifying images at the d’Orsay is an 1862 portrait of the demi-mondaine Jeanne de Tourbay by Amaury-Duval. She was then in her mid-twenties, and dressed as if to sit for Ingres: fringed black satin on a yellow satin day bed; discreet jewellery; immaculate coiffure. But the face, of great beauty, is also of utter determination. Flaubert, a long-term friend, wrote that she had the grace of a panther. On this evidence, the ferocity of one too: there is something almost carnivorous about the way she gazes at us. This is a woman who knows exactly what she wants and exactly how to get it. Next to her, Olympia looks like a nice, friendly girl. Jeanne de Tourbay makes you want to turn and run for a taxi. Ten years later she made it to be the Comtesse de Loynes.

‘Alexandrine-Emilie Brongniart’ by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1788)

‘Alexandrine-Emilie Brongniart’ by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1788)

And in case we forget what the ‘hôtel de la Païva’ was built on, there are stereoscopic photographs of largely unenviable couplings, and early (1909-10) pornographic films to entertain us. The latter came as a surprise, both in the very existence and their manner. If they hadn’t been French, they might well have been English, with their jaunty-jolly, semi-embarrassed clowning. (Why does one expect French sex to be more elegant than British?) Most of the men wore ridiculous stick-on beards and moustaches, while the women were cast as being – mainly – in charge of events. There was also much smoking. In one sequence, an open-air prostitute receives a client’s money, stows it, then obligingly bends over; the man unbuttons, and enters her from behind, all the while puffing on his cigarette. After a while, with a knowing eye to the camera, he flicks away his cigarette butt and continues with his pleasure. The audience’s reaction confirmed that, as far as taboo goes, smoking is the new sex.

There is, however, only so much antique porno a gallery-goer can take, and the crowds thinned quickly in later rooms. This was partly because of exhaustion, partly because the show overreached itself. When focusing on Paris in the second half of the 19th century, it retained clarity and authority. But it wanted to go everywhere, and so, in the last rooms, it was back to fine art from across Europe: Munch, Kupka, Sickert, Picasso. This later imagery was more screechy in colour and sinister in tone, but the aesthetic lesson seemed to come too late. However, there were also a couple of pictures by the only painter with a name fit for a porn star: Kees van Dongen.

Walking​ from Prostitution at the d’Orsay to Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun at the Grand Palais, you pass the Rosa Bonheur floating restaurant on the left bank of the Seine. Bonheur was the most famous female painter of her day, Le Brun the most famous of hers. Would this make some kind of link, I wondered, between two such disparate shows? But in fact there is a more exact one, for among Le Brun’s many aristocratic and blue-blooded subjects was one who also featured in Du Camp’s chapter on prostitution: Madame du Barry, the low-born Jeanne Vaubernier, of whom he wrote that she ‘seemed to have opened a career path to fortune’ for others of her kind. Le Brun painted this former mistress of Louis XV, then living in retirement at Louveciennes, three times in the 1780s. In her voluminously agreeable memoirs, Le Brun comments at length on Du Barry’s beauty and grace, while allowing herself to note that her sitter had a rather childish pronunciation of certain words, and still retained one mannerism of the coquette: ‘Her elongated eyes were never entirely open.’ This exceptionalism is very well conveyed in the portrait of La Du Barry in a straw hat; it also makes you notice, as this show unfolds, how roundly open most of the sitters’ eyes are. It is a sign, you come to realise, of virtue, truthfulness and good birth.

The exhibition catalogue’s note on this painting describes Madame du Barry as a woman ‘who, coming from the lowest ranks of society, passed through the palace of a king, before ending on the scaffold, where her sad end makes us forgive the scandalous thrill of her life.’ Some might find the sexual politics of that sentence a little iffy, the more so when Le Brun has over the last decades been rediscovered – or at least retitled – as a kind of feminist heroine: in 1984 her Souvenirs were republished in ‘une édition féministe de Claudine Herrmann’. In a recent interview, Erica Jong announced that Le Brun (whose pictures she first saw with her mother) might be the subject of her next novel. If this is a slightly alarming possibility, it also confirms how the painter has for some time been better known in the States than in France. This is the first solo show Le Brun has ever had in her own country.

Her father was a painter; she showed much early promise and made the right connections (her husband being an art dealer); by 23 she had painted her first picture of Marie Antoinette, for whom she became the portraitist of choice. She was very accomplished, excellent at flesh and all the varieties of material that covered it: the muslin and lace, the satins and silks, the straw hats and the flowers that lodged in them; she was good at and with children. She was also very professional, knowing how to disguise physical fault and accentuate any hint of beauty; she knew the most winning relationship between parted lips and visible teeth. She pleased her sitters; her sitters pleased her. She was expert at a kind of formal informality. In this, she resembles Cecil Beaton at the court of the young Elizabeth II: both produced a very highly worked art whose intended effect was of naturalness. She was very French. She spent three years in England, much of it – from Matlock to the Isle of Wight – reminding her of Switzerland. When visiting Bath she thought the city’s effect from a distance was ‘immense’; but up close, you realised its architecture ‘was not in good taste’. She also complained of Reynolds’s art that it was somewhat ‘unfinished’. Her own painting is always, always finished.

A tension between artifice and naturalness: this is where her art comes from, and what it delivers. The clothes are loose, the hair usually unpowdered, the pose informal, the smile of just the right size. All her aristocrats look noble, all her mothers devoted, all her children cute; even the background furnishings and fittings are loyally supportive. The charm is tremendously calculated. And charm is dangerous, double-edged. Take one of the century’s most famous portraits of a child, her Alexandrine-Emilie Brongniart of 1788, now in the National Gallery in London. This seven-year-old girl is all in white, a pocket minuet of muslin and silk, while her auburn curls escape from a knotted white scarf. She is rummaging in a sewing bag from which she has just removed a red ball of wool. Naturally – or rather, ‘naturally’ (since she would ‘normally’, i.e. in ‘real life’, be looking where she is rummaging) – she fixes us with big round eyes and a cautious, disarming half-smile. There are no two ways about this picture. Either you want to adopt this adorable bundle of girlhood; or else you want to strangle the knowing little moppet.

It is right that the French are doing Le Brun belated justice; but there is such a thing as too much belated justice. At the Grand Palais, the show is split-level: starting downstairs and then, halfway through, moving up a floor via a monumental staircase. In 2011 this same twin-level strategy worked to tremendous effect for Odilon Redon: downstairs, every single exhibit was murky, monochrome and mysterious; upstairs, the painter burst into riotous colour. The Le Brun show breaks at the year 1789, when the painter fled to Italy. There she began a life of wandering exile which also took her to Austria, Russia and England, while previous clients of hers who had not made such an escape (including Madame du Barry) were sent to the guillotine. As I paused on that staircase – alas, not made of yellow onyx – I found myself wondering what effect all of this might have had on her art, its style and subject matter.

And the answer came: very little. Wherever she went, her style went too, like a dog with flowers in its hair. Aristocratic women sat for her in foreign capitals and looked the same: appealing, direct, formally informal, regarding us in the same round-orbed way – the eyes have it. Such women were her clients, and doubtless employed her because they knew exactly what they were going to get; but even so. The longer the show goes on, the more limited her tropes and her manner seem. (Compared to, say, Liotard she seems hidebound. The Swiss painter had a similarly peripatetic life and well-born clients. But set Alexandrine-Emilie Brongniart beside Liotard’s Princess Louisa Anne of 1754: Le Brun shows us what we might prefer to imagine childhood to be like; Liotard gives us the existential lostness of a little girl in a dress too big for her and a lace cap that looks silly not stylish.) And then, suddenly, towards the end of the exhibition, there is a painting of the great outdoors: a shepherds’ festival at Unspunnen in Switzerland. Mountains, trees, hundreds of celebrants spreading up a green hillside, a table of lunching locals, a big circle of spectators round various groups of wrestlers. It doesn’t look like Le Brun: if you saw it in isolation you wouldn’t think it the work of a court painter, rather of a highly talented provincial artist. But it suddenly breathes air into the show, and hints at what might have been.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 38 No. 2 · 21 January 2016

I agree with Julian Barnes that there’s not much to Vigée Le Brun’s art, and that her little moppet with the sewing bag probably deserves strangling (LRB, 17 December 2015). He’s a bit hard, even so, on one aspect of the painting. He says that the girl ‘would “normally", i.e. in “real life", be looking where she is rummaging’, but I suspect the painter has tried to portray her caught in the act, looking up because someone has distracted her or called her name. It’s hardly a new artifice: Michelangelo did something similar with his statue of Moses in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome. Or think of John Opie’s portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft at the Tate – she’s glancing up from her book and looks as if on the whole she’d rather get back to it.

William Logan
University of Florida, Gainesville

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.