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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



In its seemingly unrelenting search to come up with the “relevant,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art is giving us “Vigee Lebrun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France” (through May 15). This is the first retrospective in modern times of Elisabeth Louise Vigee Lebrun (1755-1842), billed as “France’s last great royal portraitist,” and not so coincidentally, a woman

The show’s media preview was held on February 8. The day before, the New York Times ran a story quoting Madeleine Albright, our first woman secretary of state, seeking to boost support among women voters for Hillary Clinton in her bid to become the first woman President.

Albright said that “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” I guess that’s where I’m going, because I’m currently more enthusiastic about Bernie Sanders than Hillary, but even more because I can’t work up much enthusiasm for Vigee Lebrun, not at least upon the basis of the current show at the Met of about 80 of her paintings (mostly oils, but with a few pastels).

The Met’s original press release, sent out before the show was open, said that it had been organized by the museum’s own Katharine Baetjer, that it would travel to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa after it closed at the Met (June 10 to September 11), and that a larger version of it was already appearing at the Grand Palais in Paris (closed January 11).

Maybe the ten paintings that are in the checklist but not on view at the Met (and therefore presumably seen only in Paris) would cause me to change my mind, but – with only a few exceptions – I found too many of the paintings at the Met depressingly insipid.

I don’t think it’s necessarily the artist’s fault, of course. She seems to have been an enterprising lady of talent, daughter of a professional pastel portraitist who died when she was 12. Self-educated, she advanced her cause first in 1776, at the age of 20 or 21, by entering into an arranged marriage with principal art dealer and expert in 18th century Paris.

Two years later, she gained entree to the royal court at Versailles by painting Marie Antoinette, young queen to Louis XVI, France’s last monarch before the Revolution.

The first result was an imposing, nine-foot-high, full-length portrait of “Marie Antoinette in Court Dress” (1778). The queen must have liked it, for the show includes further portraits of her, including the elegant but highly-stylized one of her that accompanies this review and presents her still almost-girlish beauty enhanced by the single rose she holds.

In addition, there seems to have been a dizzying succession of commissions to paint many of the court’s countesses, duchesses, other members of the royal family and the occasional royal mistress. Some few men also sat for her, but women outnumber men roughly two to one in this show.

The fashion in portraiture seems to have been to present female subjects looking as flawless as possible, with the artist diplomatically ironing out the little imperfections that might have endowed all these vacuous and nearly identical pretty faces with any suggestion of distinctive experience or character.

A few of the men's portraits have more character, but none approach the delicious irony of Houdon, or the vision of Julia Margaret Cameron.

Maybe this show is relevant in a way not quite intended by its organizers, for the many oh-so-beautiful but nearly identical ladies' faces reminded me of nothing so much as the Bradford Bachrach photographs of young women whose engagements were being announced in the Sunday New York Times, back when I was in college.

It used to be said that a Bachrach photograph guaranteed that the Times would publish the announcement. It also guaranteed a steady sale on Saturday night of Sunday Timeses to dateless college boys on Morningside Heights who would slaver over these oh-so-beautiful photos and exchange indelicate comments with their buddies....

Nowadays, such ladies still exist I am sure, in senior categories, and they (or their daughters or granddaughters) inhabit all the high-rises between Park and Fifth Avenues, and between 59th and 95th Streets....married as they are to men of means if not distinction.....

And is it too much of a stretch to think of the beautiful Julia Flesher Koch as the Marie Antoinette of this set, married as she is to David H. Koch, who with assets of $43.3 billion is (according to Wikipedia) New York's wealthiest citizen?

Julia and her husband first bought and gutted Jackie Onassis's old apartment at 1040 Fifth Avenue, two blocks north of the Met, while David underwrote a renovation of the trees, benches and fountains in front of the Met that has been aptly described as "banal" by one critic but must needs now bear the Koch name.

David and Julia have since moved to even grander quarters at 740 Park.....though even the renovations on their $19 million duplex should still leave David & his brother Charles with plenty of billions to further the causes of the .01 percent in the political arena.....

Came the deluge, in 1789 (we should be so lucky in 2016). Vigee Lebrun --who was really more of a member of the ancien regime than a revolutionary -- chose to flee with her aristocratic subjects.

She didn't want to take her chances with the guillotine – or, like her far more gifted contemporary, Jacques-Louis David, throw in her lot with the sans-culottes.

Being clearly more practical than idealistic, she headed first to Rome and Naples, then to Vienna, then to St. Petersburg, in search of aristocrats whose heads had not yet rolled, and who still possessed the wherewithal to pay her extravagant fees.

She was, after all, very good at what she did -- rendering silks, satins, furs, lace, feathers, jewels and all the other trappings of wealth and station. She was also very good at varying the poses, costumes and accessories of her sitters.

And sometimes she could create images of people who look like somebody a modern might want to know: family members, children, senior members of the royal family, herself and the occasional bluestocking.

For my money, the most vital painting in the show depicts “Madame Etienne Vigee” (1785), the artist’s sister-in-law and a talented amateur actress & singer. With its loose brushwork and informal pose, this painting endows its subject with that rare & estimable quality of looking like nobody but herself.
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