Walks on the Wild Side: Female Empowerment and a Right Royal Faux Pas
The author, a Sophomore at Bronx High School of Science, offers a personal take on the Met’s show of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and her revolutionary portrait of Marie Antoinette.
I was only four and yet I had a job already. I’m walking, hand in hand with my mother, down crowded, chaotic New York streets and my job is to provide protection whenever we pass a group of men. Even though we were a mother-daughter duo, they’d be watching her like a hawk. I never forgot the helplessness I felt at that moment, because I knew that the men’s gazes demoralized my mother, yet what could I do?
This distinct memory came to mind the other day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A show of portraits of grand ladies like Marie Antoinette and Russia’s Princess Alexandra Golitsyna created during the late 1700s showed off the artist’s meticulous skill and way with vibrant pigments. The artist who painted these portraits of such esteemed individuals was a woman: Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, who was active as a portrait painter from teenage years until her death. Vigée Le Brun spent her early years in a convent, moving to the Rue Saint-Honoré in Paris when her widowed mother remarried a wealthy jeweler. Thereafter she grew up in an influential circle of court artisans. She was accepted to the Royal Academy and was then allowed to show her work in their Salon. Nevertheless, Vigée Le Brun was a fish out of water, since the academy was completely dominated by men. I can only begin to imagine the ridicule and disdain that her fellow male artists showed her, just for being a woman and endeavoring to fulfill her passion. In 1776 she married painter and art dealer Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, whose great-great uncle was Charles Le Brun, the first Director of the French Academy under Louis XIV.
As I strolled around the Met, looking at her paintings, I felt a strong sense of pride, respect, and indeed gratification towards Vigée Le Brun for helping to pave the way for female artists and women in general, just through her unconventional success. The painting that had the most drastic impact on me was one of a famous subject in a non-traditional dress: La Reine en gaulle (1783) whose subject is Marie Antoinette. In this painting the doomed queen, unadorned by royal jewels, wears a loose fitting muslin dress with a simple sash around the waist. She delicately holds a rose and wears a straw hat. This painting caused quite a stir when it was first shown, what with the Queen of France in such a relaxed and un-royal pose: It was a major faux pas. Yet to me, even though the painting does not show her in the typical grand style that was the custom with the royalty during that time, I believe that Marie Antoinette exudes a sense of regality—even though, at first glance, one would not recognize the subject as a royal or a wealthy individual, since it has all the bearings of a commoner. When I first laid eyes on this painting, despite the casual aspect of it, I knew that the subject of the painting was someone of great importance, simply through her stature and poise. Even in a simple smock, Marie Antoinette exudes elegance and that is what I find most striking. Marie Antoinette had a reputation for disregarding tradition and etiquette at Versailles, one that this painting confirms. It shows her “wild” side, the individual she might have become if she wasn’t a royal. That’s what attracts me to this painting, the unconventional female artist and her equally unconventional royal subject.
Due to public uproar that greeted this risqué painting, Vigée Le Brun was forced to execute another, this time with Marie Antoinette adorned in a lavish headdress and a heavy corseted blue satin gown. Ironically, the new painting mimicked the old, with the same body position, and Marie Antoinette once again posed holding a rose—a rose that by any other name would smell as sweet. All that differs is the style of dress. The curators have placed these paintings side by side, inviting comparison. I almost feel as if Marie Antoinette and Vigée Le Brun planned it so, as if to say “take a hike” to their harshest critics.
Max Weber once wrote, “Power is the chance to impose your will within a social context, even when opposed and regardless of the integrity of that chance.” I believe that this applies to Marie Antoinette and Vigée Le Brun. In a time where women had little or no power, art was the outlet in which these women interpreted themselves. That is why I find this work so powerful. Most art is meant to please, but La Reine en Gaulle was meant to provoke.
Since the dawn of time, society has regarded women as incapable, unequal, and subordinate to their male counterparts. The same can be said for the art world. According to a famous poster by the Guerrilla Girls from the 1980s, less than 4% of the artists in the modern section of the Met are women, but 76% of the nudes are female. This is only one statistic that shows how the art world is a man’s game. My mother, who I mentioned earlier, the artist Brenda Zlamany, has always been an inspiration to me, a single parent trying to create art in a field where the odds are set against her. She is a portraitist and has used me as the subject of countless paintings, which might be why I took such a liking to Vigée Le Brun who also created many a painting with her daughter as muse. Both artists show the stages of growth of their daughter, from infant, to tween, to teenager. Vigée Le Brun is not as well known as Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Auguste- Dominique Ingres, but women who are equal to men in every way are often left in the shadows. Even now in the “modern” era, women can still make less money than men for the same job and are often excluded from opportunities, just because of their gender. I hope to use Vigée Le Brun as an example and express my feelings about gender equality through art and the power of words. Art and words can change the world. Maybe I’m an optimist for saying that, but I really believe it.