Friday, May 6, 2016

Exhibition Review: Vigée Le Brun, Woman Artist in Revolutionary France (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, through May 15)

By Julia Doe

This spring the Metropolitan Museum of Art presents a retrospective of the paintings of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842). One of the outstanding portraitists of the eighteenth century, Le Brun had a long and wide-ranging career, working both in her native France and in cultural capitals throughout Europe (moving across Italy, Austria, the Russian Empire, and Switzerland). She is best known for her association with the Bourbon court—and in particular, her close friendship with the queen, Marie Antoinette. In the decades leading up to the French Revolution, Vigée Le Brun served as the quasi-official painter of the monarch and became a fixture in her inner circle at Versailles. [1]

The exhibition at the Met provides a window into the world of the French court, vividly encapsulating the shifting tastes (both fashionable and musical) of the leisured aristocracy in the waning years of the old regime. The most celebrated (or, perhaps, notorious) portrait on display is “Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress,” which provoked a scandal when it was unveiled at the Paris Salon of 1783. The painting depicts the queen not in formal regalia but “en gaulle,” in a loosely fitted muslin gown and straw hat. Critics accused Vigée Le Brun of degrading the royal image by portraying Marie Antoinette in such an unconventional manner. As Caroline Weber relates in her study of the queen, even progressive commentators were offended to see Marie Antoinette exchange her traditional court dress for “the gown and apron of a country wench.” [2]

“Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress” (1783), Hessische Hausstiftung, Kronberg.
Despite its controversial reception, such faux-rustic attire represented the height of contemporary courtly fashion and paralleled significant changes in cultural taste. The painting of “Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress” corresponded precisely with the construction of the queen’s “hamlet” at the Petit Trianon, a pseudo-Norman village replete with a mill, a pleasure dairy, and a functioning farm. The iconic image also resonated with broader trends toward paysannerie in the literature, theater, and music of the late eighteenth century. The reign of Marie Antoinette was marked by substantial developments in the music performed at Versailles—a disruption in the conventional ideals of royal display as provocative as the more widely understood shifts in the realms of fashion and iconography. During the 1770s and 1780s the lavish tragédies lyriques of Lully and Rameau, which had for decades served as potent symbols of Bourbon power and prestige, were rapidly phased out of the courtly repertory. These were replaced by streamlined works from a new generation of composers supported by the queen: reform tragedies of Gluck (known for their ethos of “noble simplicity”); imported Italian comedies of Piccinni, Anfossi, and Paisiello; and, especially, light dialogue operas (opéras-comiques) that idealized the charms of country life.

These interrelated trends in music and theater are aptly captured in the oeuvre of Vigée Le Brun presented at the Met. In the portrait of the baronne de Crussol Florensac (1785), the sitter grasps a score of Gluck’s Echo et Narcisse, a pastoral opera that premiered in Paris in 1779. The exhibition also features a striking painting of Paisiello, whose comic works headlined an Italian season at Versailles (a noted departure from the expected French-language fare) in the summer of 1778. Perhaps most remarkable is “Madame Dugazon in the Role of Nina” (1787), which depicts a leading actress of opéra-comique in one of her most famous roles. Nina was composed by Nicholas-Marie Dalayrac, a musician in the employ of Marie Antoinette’s brother-in-law, the comte d’Artois. With its contemporary setting, popularly-infused lyric idiom, and sentimental plot (centering on a lovesick heroine driven to madness and sequestered on her country estate), the opera represented a stark contrast to the serious and grandly allegorical theatrical aesthetic long associated with the Bourbon monarchs.

“Madame Dugazon in the Role of Nina” (1787), Private collection.
More Information here:
Vigée Le Brun was an avid musician, as were many of her principal patrons and painted subjects. (Marie Antoinette, for her part, took lessons in keyboard, singing, and harp, and hosted informal concerts for her associates several times each week.) It is hardly surprising, then, that we find ample evidence of amateur music-making among the items included in the Met’s exhibition. A glance at the score held by the baronne de Crussol reveals that her copy of Gluck’s opera is not the original but rather an arrangement for voice and keyboard, an edition prepared specifically for domestic consumption. And several of Vigée Le Brun’s noble sitters were well-regarded amateur actors, known for performing operas in private theatrical companies (or théâtres de société). The comte de Vaudreuil, painted by Vigée Le Brun in 1784, was among the most sought-after aristocratic actors in Paris, and often appeared alongside the queen in the productions of her famed troupe des seigneurs. Another member of the queen’s inner circle and society troupe, the duchesse de Guiche, was captured by Vigée Le Brun (pastel, 1784) in her theatrical attire—dressed as a milkmaid. The similarities between this costume and the gown worn by the queen in “Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress” attest to the fluid boundaries between the “real life” fashions of the Bourbon court and the fashions of the lyric stage.

 “Duchesse de Guiche” (1784), Private collection.
It is plausible, though not definitive, that the costume shown above was inspired by Le roi et le fermier (The King and the Farmer), an opéra-comique by Monsigny. This work was performed by a group that included the duchesse de Guiche, the queen, and the comte de Vaudreuil at the Petit Trianon in the summer of 1780. Toward the end of the opera, the queen’s character (“Jenny,” a virtuous peasant) sings a romance, a straightforward song with refrain, expounding on the joys of love in a village:

Such an aria exemplifies the blatant paradoxes inherent in both musical and artistic paysannerie of pre-revolutionary France. The radical simplicity of the romance, along with its rustic topos, were fashionable markers of operatic modernity. They also signaled (and confoundingly so, for critics of the Bourbon regime), a vehement rejection of the court culture from which they directly emanated.

Julia Doe is Assistant Professor of Music at Columbia University. Her current book project explores the influence of Bourbon patronage on the development of opéra-comique in the final decades of the old regime.

[1] For further information on the painter and the exhibition, see the catalogue: Joseph Baillio, Katharine Baetjer, and Paul Lang, Vigée Le Brun (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016).

[2] Caroline Weber, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006), 161.

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