A monographic exhibition of the French painter Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) has been traveling through Europe and North America. It started at Grand Palais in Paris, it’s currently on display at the Met Museum in NY (until May 15), and will end in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (Jun 10 – Sept 11).
Le Brun’s Self-portrait Painting Queen Marie Antoinette (1790), raises interesting questions about the self and the medium of painting. Imagine that there is a pair of eyes fixed in space and their gaze is directed at Le Brun’s eyes. The gaze is always there, but the identities that can use it are changeable. If you want you can be Le Brun, looking back at yourself from a mirror, working on your self-portrait. You can also be the queen, looking at Le Brun looking at you, working on your portrait. But not less than that you can be yourself, looking at Le Brun looking at you, suggesting that it’s not the gaze that is shifting, but the selves that borrow it for a moment.
Self-portrait, 1790 Self-portrait, 1791
And to complicate it further… a year later, the 4th Earl of Bristol Frederick Augustus Hervey (1730-1803) commissioned Le Brun to make a copy of the aforementioned painting, but this time with the portrait of her daughter Julie on the canvas, instead of the queen’s. Taking into consideration that Marie Antoinette was guillotined on Oct 16, 1793, could it be an artistic prophecy? Or was it Hervey flattering Le Brun, implying that her daughter is “the real queen” or “princess”?