Portrait of a Female Artist
Marie Antoinette is an iconic, larger-than-life historical figure who has long embodied the French cultural and social milieu pre-Revolution. I am equally amused, disturbed, and fascinated by the Rococo lifestyle that suffused every aspect of her life at Versailles, characterized by its gross extravagance often verging into tackiness and frivolity. And yet the portraits of Antoinette that emerged at the time are not necessarily characteristic of such elaborate overindulgence. Instead what we have is a refreshing image of a regal, lovely, yet unusually sympathetic lady. One artist in particular can be held responsible: Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette’s court painter and a talented artist with a keen sensitivity to the nuances and quirks of her patrons.
Her portraits are a clear and vivid depiction of Marie’s likeness, featuring delicate pastel colors and showcasing her dainty features. The fact that these images are so widespread has perhaps contributed to our preoccupation and fascination with Marie Antoinette and the surprising but powerful empathy that people feel towards her. Vigée’s works have almost certainly shaped our perception of Antoinette’s cultural identity, laden with regal elegance and youthful vulnerability, especially in contrast to the larger presence of the French Rococo movement.
This article contains mentions of sexual assault that may be troubling to some readers.
“I will show Your Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do.” These words, spoken by the Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, embody the dauntless spirit of one of the Renaissance’s most famous painters.