(b. 1755, Paris, d. 1842, Paris)
Self-Portrait in a Straw Hatafter 1782
Oil on canvas, 98 x 70 cm
National Gallery, London
The daughter and pupil of a minor Parisian painter, Louis Vigée, Madame Vigée-Lebrun was an attractive and charming woman, who specialised in the attractive and charming portrayal of women and children while remaining a competent portraitist of men. Eighteenth-century notions of graceful spontaneity may strike twentieth-century viewers as arch or sentimental; nevertheless, she pioneered a new style. Her fashionable portraits in the simplified dress called à la grecque dispense with Baroque props of columns or curtains to demonstrate 'natural' manners and feelings, anticipating the Neo-classical portraits of David.
Madame Vigée-Lebrun fled the French Revolution in 1789, avoiding the fate of her most illustrious patron, Queen Marie-Antoinette, to become an international success in the capitals of Europe. She returned to her native city after the Restoration in 1814 and gave an account of her early life and later tribulations and triumphs in the highly readable, if unreliable, Memoirs published in 1835.
The painter Claude Joseph Vernet, she recalls, advised her to study the Italian and Flemish masters but above all to follow nature. This picture is an autograph replica of a self portrait painted in Brussels in 1782 which wittily records her admiration of a famous Flemish masterpiece, Rubens's Portrait of Susanna Lunden, known as the 'Chapeau de Paille'. '[Its] great effect', she wrote, 'resides in the two different kinds of illumination which simple daylight and the light of the sun create...This painting...has inspired me to the point that I made my own portrait...in search of the same effect.'
The bright gleam and the general radiance of direct and reflected outdoor light as represented in Rubens's picture are indeed carefully noted, but Madame Vigée-Lebrun takes care also to record her debt to nature. She shows herself in the open against a cloud-flecked sky, and - not surprisingly since she is both sitter and painter - as almost a personification of the art of painting. For this fictitious excursion into the fields, but also to demonstrate her powers of observation, she wears a genuine chapeau de paille, unlike Rubens's sitter whose hat is actually made of beaver felt. To the dashing ostrich feather she has added a wreath of freshly picked rustic flowers. Her hair is her own, not a wig, and is left unpowdered. Where Susanna Lunden modestly crosses her arms above her waist and peers out from below her hat, Madame Vigée-Lebrun extends her unaffected friendship to the viewer. Most natural of all, however, is her charming bosom. For unlike Rubens's beauty, whose breasts are moulded by her tight corset, Madame Vigée-Lebrun lets it plainly be seen in her low décolletage that she has no need of such artifice.