Portrait of Marie Antoinette (à la Rose)

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Madame Vigée LeBrun, Portrait of Marie Antoinette, 1779

LeBrun painted portraits of the rich and influential in France, eventually becoming the portrait painter for Marie Antoinette herself and developing a close friendship with her. And, of course, Madame Vigée LeBrun was a highly skilled and successful woman painter at a time when fine art was still largely a men’s world. Married to a husband who took the majority of her profits for himself, slandered in gossip for no better reason than her gender and her talent, she nevertheless was highly in demand as a Rococo portrait painter in eighteenth-century French court circles, and for good reason.

Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigée was taught the basics of painting by her father, also a painter, who encouraged his daughter when she began showing her talents as young as six or seven-years-old. At school, she was constantly getting into trouble for drawing in her schoolbooks and even the walls of her dormitory. Later, after the death of her father, she and her mother visited art galleries and private collections to distract herself from her grief, admiring the works of Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and other masters. When the strain of supporting her family became too much, she married a rich jeweler and regretted it, since he claimed nearly all the profit she made from her portraits. A witty and beautiful young woman, she often had to endure noblemen commissioning a painting in order to flirt surreptitiously during sittings. Her solution was to paint the young man looking away and scold him every time he attempted to look toward her with a sharp, “Now I am doing the eyes!” Good for her.

Madame LeBrun and Marie Antoinette were around the same age, and, despite the difference in social class, they maintained, if not a true friendship, respect and gratitude for each other. LeBrun admired the queen’s beauty and poise; in turn, Marie Antoinette appreciated her skill and her company. This particular portrait, from 1779, was the first that Madame LeBrun painted for her; it was commissioned as a gift for Emperor Joseph II, the queen’s brother. She was pleased enough with the finished product to ask for two more copies, one for herself and one for the Empress of Russia. Rosy-cheeked and elegantly dressed, the twenty-four-year-old Marie Antoinette smiles enigmatically at the viewer, holding up a rose and extending one delicate pinky. The shading, the rich colors, and the textures of fabric, ribbon, lace, and skin add up to a vision of beauty and grace in fine Rococo style, smooth and glowing, and done by a woman’s hand. Despite the adversity Madame LeBrun encountered in her public and private life, she was always cheerful and optimistic until her death at eighty-seven. She never stopped painting.

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