Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, 1782, National Gallery, London.
I’m no milliner, but I know a straw hat when I see one. And Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun is wearing one here. This is a defiantly confident self portrait. Doubly confident, in fact, because it is a copy she made of one she had only just completed, having written of the first version that, ‘When the portrait was exhibited at the salon, I dare say it greatly enhanced my reputation’. She knew when she was on to a good thing.
She is dressed in the height of fashion, wearing a pink, high-waisted dress. I think we’d call it ‘Empire Line’ now, but the ‘Empire’ was still a few years off – Napoleon wasn’t to crown himself for another 22 years. Indeed, she was still very actively painting Marie-Antoinette, and would continue to do so until 1789 when the unfortunate royals were arrested – at which point Vigée fled Paris, and ended up painting Marie-Antoinette’s sister Maria-Carolina, who was married to the King of Naples. Elisabeth’s dress has a wonderful, flouncy white collar, and a remarkable décolletage – it’s hard to miss it, as the exposed flesh is not only expansive, but also, with the exception of the collar, the brightest part of the painting. By means of a contrast, she wears a black shawl, which I am reliably informed was a must-have in 1780s Paris – or for that matter, Brussels, where the portrait was painted. And although she is not actually painting now, she was very recently – I suspect she has just laid down her brush, having finished this very portrait. The clue is in the palette, and the brushes she is holding in her left hand.
Compared to the rectangular palette carried by Catharina van Hemessen back in 1548 (Picture Of The Day 28), Elisabeth Louise uses the archetypal, though more modern, version, far more familiar to us today, designed so that the colour can be laid out in a sweeping curve at an equal distance from the brush. It is arranged from light to dark, from white to black, passing through yellow and red, with blue off to one side, next to some pink which has been made by mixing the white and red. There is not much mess here – which can only mean that Vigée Le Brun is an expert painter, she knows what she is doing. After all, these are all the colours she needs for this painting – no more, no less. The white for the cuff, collar, feather and flowers, the yellows for her hat and the gold sash belt, red for more flowers and her lips, pink for the dress and the flesh tones, black for the shawl, and blue for flowers and sky. Each of the brushes she holds is reserved for a different colour – the white is closest towards us, with black at the top and blue just below it, for example. This isn’t quite the subtly bravura display of Judith Leyster (POTD 34) who was holding at least 18 brushes, a mark of her perception and sensitivity to colour and tone, but it is a mark of precision.
She gazes out at us from under the shade of her hat – the light is fantastic. It cuts diagonally across her right cheek, catching the lustre of her slightly open lips and the tip of her nose. One of her drop-pearl earrings reflects the light, the other is in shadow (what a show off!), and the diffuse light reflecting from her face catches the underside of the rim of the hat. The undulating circles of its woven structure are clearly delineated, and it is dressed with flowers and a feather. This is an ostrich plume, which is not only fashionable and expensive, but it also echoes her natural hair: she is not wearing a wig, as this is a relaxed portrait, not tight-laced formality. The following year (1783) year she would paint the Queen in a simple chemise – which caused a scandal. So much the better for her reputation, and her sales! Not only that, but with this particular painting she was deliberately challenging one of the most revered Old Masters.
In one of those curious coincidences, both Rubens’s Portrait of Susannah Lunden (?) and Vigée Le Brun’s Self Portrait have ended up in the National Gallery. She had seen the Rubens on a visit to Antwerp, apparently, and was impressed by the combination of direct sunlight and reflected glow – and she deliberately set out to paint her own version. She changes the fashion – from the 1620s to the 1780s – and gives herself a palette and brushes and something to lean on, but it is still an open-air three-quarter length portrait of a woman looking at the viewer, wearing a hat with a feather, two drop-pearl earrings and a remarkably low-cut dress with a brilliantly illuminated décolletage. Apart from this, only the hat is different. Well, that, and the attitude.
We can almost tell what Rubens’s interest in the sitter was – the clue is in the décolletage, which I’m assuming Ms Lunden – if that is who she really was, we can’t be sure – is displaying to please the men, rather than herself… She is corseted, after all, to give a more Rubensian bust. By the 1780s there was a move against corseting – although it would return. If this is Susannah Lunden, she would later become Rubens’s sister-in-law. She may look a bit flirty, but she was already married (for the second time, as it happens) – and her younger sister got the eminent artist in the end. She looks out at us with unnaturally large eyes – if you’ve seen Shrek II, it’s what I call the ‘Puss-in-Boots effect’. If you haven’t, you’re probably wondering if you’ve got me wrong all this time. She has also lowered her chin, and is peering out from beneath the brim of her hat – which is what I call the Princess Diana effect. If you understand both references we are probably about the same age…
The Rubens was a remarkably famous portrait, and had already earned itself a nickname back in the 18th Century – Le chapeau de paille, ‘The Straw Hat’. Now, I’m not a milliner, but I know a straw hat when I see one – and that is not a straw hat. The only possible explanation is that it is a felt hat – un chapeau de poil – which actually means hair, but it depends on what type of hair. This is beaver, apparently. Anyway, at some point along the line someone must have mis-transcribed poil as paille and the rest is history. Well, art history. All of which goes to prove that you should never write about a painting without actually looking at it.
Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was one of those women who became an artist because her father was: Louis Vigée was also a portraitist, but because he died when she was only twelve, she was mainly self-taught. In her case having a father who was an artist was secondary to her own skill and determination. She married an art dealer, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, which was an astute move, as he could help her find her way to the clients, but it didn’t last and their marriage was eventually dissolved. Precisely how cynical a move the marriage was on her part is hard to determine, but her connection to the art market nearly got her excluded from the Academy – but then, they were trying anything to keep the women out. She wasn’t having that though, and fought her way in. So why the low-cut dress? Does she want to objectify herself? Oh no! She knows exactly what she’s doing. It’s something I said about Judith Leyster (POTD 34) – she’s doing a man’s job, but she wants to show that there is nothing mannish about her. And let’s face it, you really wouldn’t paint in that dress. And certainly not in that shawl. Imagine, every brushstroke with her right hand, the shawl would be flicked forward and catch on the palette, on the spare brushes, on the canvas… it would be a mess. But no, not her – clean, tidy, precise… and feminine.
One of the reasons that women didn’t get to be artists was because they didn’t know about art, they just didn’t have the education. Well, that’s what the men said. But Vigée Le Brun does – she knows about Rubens, understands the brilliance of his depiction of light, and can better him. Compare the earrings – there’s no doubting it. Look at the precision of the shadow cast across her face. And look at the indirect light on the underside of the hat – Rubens doesn’t even attempt that.
So there you have it. She is an artist, doing a man’s job, but she’s all woman. And she knows about art. And what’s more, boys, she knows what a straw hat is.