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Detail from Élisabeth Vigée Lebrun's "Marie Antoinette and her Children". Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The National Gallery’s summer show: More than just a pretty face?

By Apartment613 on June 10, 2016

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Post by Crystal Parsons

Quick, name 5 famous painters. You probably got Picasso and Monet but did any female artists make your list? Art history has not always been overly generous to the ladies, but this summer there will be a little more “girl power” in the gallery with the retrospective exhibition Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1785-1842): The Portraitist to Marie Antoinette, which opened June 9th at the National Gallery of Canada.

The show features the work Vigée Le Brun was best known for in her own time and now – portraits painted prior to the French Revolution of herself, her daughter, aristocrats and royalty including her most notable sitter and patron – Marie Antoinette.

In past summer “blockbuster” shows the National Gallery has gotten its knuckles rapped for placing only a few works by big-name artists and surrounding them with many more lesser-knowns. There is no such “filler” in this show. The few works not by Vigée Le Brun in this exhibition serve the useful purpose of adding context and insight to the show’s star.

The jewel in the crown of the exhibition is the immense and iconic “Marie Antoinette and Her Children“. If for no other reason, you want to go to this exhibition just to see this painting; not only because it is famous but because if you want to see it later, you’ll have to go to Versailles. Rarely has this work been seen outside of France and this is the show’s only stop in Canada.

Also have a good look at the painting “Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress” and the portrait of the Queen displayed next to it. If you think they look very similar, it’s not a coincidence. One caused a minor scandal and the other was used to cover it up (literally)!

comparison

It’s worth mentioning that fans of fashion history will have an absolute field day in this exhibition and should also check out the complimentary exhibition The White Dress: Masterpiece in Focus which includes work by contemporaries of Vigée Le Brun alongside examples of period fashion.

Much of the remainder of the show features portraits of European aristocrats painted throughout Europe during the 12 years Vigée Le Brun lived in exile after 1789. If you’re not a fan of portraiture to begin with, you might find yourself suffering from “portrait fatigue” but it’s worth continuing onwards. These are not just rooms full of pretty faces but the exceptional achievements of an artist who received very little in the way of formal training. Several are on loan from Russia and were not included while the show was at the Metropolitan Museum in New York last year.

You might blunder in to the last section out of order by mistake or miss it all together due to an unfortunate arrangement of the gallery space. Titled Swan Song, the one small room reflects the end of Vigée Le Brun’s life when she focused more on writing her memoirs. While the titled sitters in these portraits still wear their best garments, the neutral backgrounds, smaller sizes and less active poses signal that for the ancien regime, the party is clearly over.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun: The Portraitist to Marie Antoinette is organized by the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), Ottawa, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Réunion des musées nationaux-Grand Palais, Paris with the generous support of the Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trainon. The exhibition continues at the NGC until September 11, 2016.

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