Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun: History Painting and the Woman

In many ways, the painter Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun represents an anomaly within the academic tradition; as a female artist who is able to support herself through her art, she contradicts many of the traditional notions regarding women. Not only is her profession at odds with received 'wisdom', but the genres in which she practiced her painting proved problematic. Like other women who aspired to become academicians, Vigée-Lebrun faced significant opposition from the Academy, which viewed the admission of females as almost antithetical to the institution's goals. In practical as well as theoretical terms, women ended up as second-class members of the Academy; they were essentially 'useless' to the ultimate goal of creating an elevated national art. However, Vigée-Lebrun was able to work in the elevated genres, thereby contesting the 'uselessness' of the female painter. Unlike many of her contemporary female painters, she did not restrict herself to genre and still-life, which were appropriate subjects for a 'feminine' approach to painting; though she is mainly remembered as a portraitist, Vigée-Lebrun had ambitions for history painting. As portraitist and chief painter to queen Marie-Antoinette, Vigée-Lebrun was already in a position of power that was unusual for a woman; as the primary individual vested with the responsibility of propagating images of a royal personage, albeit a personage whose importance was secondary to the king, Vigée-Lebrun wielded the ability to put the political messages of the monarchy forward. Despite this high position, Vigée-Lebrun did not focus all of her energies on portraiture, but also created several paintings that fit in the most highly regarded of genres: discursive history painting. For a woman to attempt a style of painting which was allied with the 'masculine' powers of reason and intellect rather than 'feminine' strengths such as sensitivity might well appear contradictory to the Academicians and Salon critics alike. The potential for a woman to create 'useful' art was not universally greeted with applause, as Vigée-Lebrun's art, insofar as it succeeded in its aims, would be problematic, as it mixed 'femininity' and 'masculinity'. Over the course of her career, Vigée-Lebrun's roles as an Academic and history painter put her and her works in conflict with the commonly understood notions regarding art, intellect, discourse, and their connections to gender.

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun was admitted to the Royal Academy in 1783; however, she was not admitted by the bureaucratic mechanisms of the Academy itself, but by an order from above. The king's 'request' forced the Academy to reverse its earlier decision and let her join the ranks of academic artists, as the institution was ultimately an extension of the centralized royal power and had to follow the royal will. Obstacles to Vigée-Lebrun's admission stemmed from her position as a woman and wife. Like other professions at the time, the art profession found the inclusion of women contradictory, as it conflicted with the existing ideals of womanhood. "The Academy finds women foreign to its body, alien in some fashion to the constitution (the physical makeup?) of the Academy. The academicians never specified how or why the admission of women was alien, but given the general cultural construction of woman as outside the political body, it is not surprising they found it problematic to incorporate women into the academic one" (Sheriff 79). The particular problem that Vigée-Lebrun faced was the fact that her husband was an art dealer; many academicians considered her marriage to a dealer as violating the precept that an academic artist cannot sully the liberal aspirations of art by engaging in the sale of paintings. However, earlier precedent had not pointed to an artist's exclusion on the basis of familial relation to a dealer, as the academician Ménageot was the son of an art dealer. "Not only was there no problem with Ménageot's admission as agréé in 1777, and as academician in 1780, but he was later favored by d'Angiviller, who gave him an atelier in the Louvre and made him director of the French Academy at Rome" (Sheriff 98). Rather, it was Vigée-Lebrun's womanhood and role as wife that seemed to be a conflict to the academicians who fought against her admission. The Academy's Director, d'Angiviller, in offering explanation for declining Vigée-Lebrun admission, places her professional life as below wifely duties. "[Le Brun] is very talented and would have long ago been elected to the Academy were it not for the commerce of her husband. It is said, and I believe it, that she does not mix in commerce, but in France a wife has no other état than that of her husband" (Sheriff 91). Even though she was not directly involved in her husband's business, as a woman she was inevitably attached to her husband's profession; in the existing cultural framework, her femaleness and aspirations as a painter could not help but come into direct conflict with one another.

In addition, while the Academy would accept women in practice, academicians were often conflicted about the admission of women. Heavy restrictions were placed on the admission of females in the Academy to ensure that the institution did not face the danger of 'feminization' that might undermine the grandiose ambitions of the Academy itself. For d'Angiviller, who desperately wanted to elevate the Academy to its former glory, female academicians could only hinder his stated goal of producing 'useful' history painting. "Women would impede art's progress by taking academic positions that might otherwise be filled by (male) history painters, who would be useful to the progress of the arts" (Sheriff 113). It was explicitly stated that no more than four women could be admitted, and it was also made clear that these positions should only be filled in exceptional cases. "During its history the Academy admitted more than 450 artists, and of that number no more than 15 - one-third of one percent - were women. The collective anxiety about these women is encoded in certain phrases that appear repeatedly in the Procés-verbaux, specifically, those indicating that the acceptance of a particular woman was not meant to set a precedent" (Sheriff 79).

Women were not only marginalized in the admission process; those who actually earned admission to the Academy were not permitted to participate in many of the activities which were integral to the Academy and its ideals. Male academicians needed to give an oath upon admission, yet Vigée-Lebrun and her fellow female academicians were denied participation in this rite; they were simply sent a letter of admission. "Oath taking in ancien-régime France formalized and added force to commitments, but women were banned from swearing them, except, of course, the oath of marriage" (Sheriff 80). Women were denied the power of the word, and the subsequent lack of discursive power put women in a subordinate position within the Academy itself. Women were also denied participation in the lectures that served to place the visual arts within an intellectual context.

Finally, women were not allowed to attend the classes which theoretically provided the necessary intellectual background for the serious painter. D'Angiviller's assertion that women cannot be 'useful' in his project to glorify the arts is largely rooted in women's lack of training in life drawing of nude male figures, the cornerstone of grand history painting; the prohibition on the training of female painters is validated by essentialist notions of womanhood. "Women cannot be useful to the progress of the arts because the modesty of their sex forbids them from being able to study after nature and in the public school established and founded by Your Majesty" (Sheriff 115). Unable to draw the male nude1, the female painter was seriously handicapped, as she was barred from depicting what was considered the most august of subjects and a necessary component of elevated painting. The most revered history paintings, such as those by Charles LeBrun, focused largely on the male body and its didactic function as an instrument of war. "It is the legibility of the body which above all interests LeBrun. In his arrangement of battle scenes there is hardly a head which does not turn in some way towards the viewer, to display fully its readable surface" (Bryson 38). To render their paintings legible in a way that was 'useful' to the state, a painter would need to master the ability to draw the human (male) body with precision, yet women were not given this right in order to preserve 'feminine' modesty.

Not only were these practical limitations imposed upon women, but theoretical ones existed as well. Women, whose reputed strengths were in emotion and intuition rather than reason, were thought of as incapable of treating the intellectual and symbolic elements of painting in the proper way. History painting is dependent upon the creation of a clearly articulated 'text' in which symbols are employed properly in order to serve discursive aims. In the Discourses of Charles LeBrun, the academic preoccupation with intellectually and textually rigorous painting is made clear. "The Discourses not only, through verbal description of the works in the royal collection, focus the word on the image with an intensity that is without precedent; they reveal a bias in favour of the discursive that is at times bizarre" (Bryson 32). At the same time, the temperament that would be required of a history painter in the mold of LeBrun was gendered as 'masculine', thereby implying that no woman would have the frame of mind necessary to create 'useful' history painting. "Because history paintings displayed and required imagination and judgment - two central components of reason - they traditionally belonged on the side of the masculine. This aspect of history painting is assumed when the painter says that women do not have the 'head' to follow men into the highest regions of the arts" (Sheriff 195). In this context, d' Angiviller's contention that women "could not be useful to the progress of the arts" can be further understood. Supposedly lacking the intellectual facilities to produce art that would be rigorously discursive, women could not make the textual art that would best serve the purposes of the state.

In bringing her energies to these higher genres of painting, which women were theoretically barred from, Vigée-Lebrun clouded the gender constructions that were implicit in received notions of academic painting. Her successes in the most 'masculine' field of art inevitably clashed with the received notions of history painting and painters, particularly at a time when d'Angiviller wanted to ennoble the genre by removing the decadent and 'feminine' elements which rococo artists had introduced to the painting of 'elevated' subjects. As a woman, Vigée-Lebrun threatened to imbue history painting with this femininity even if her treatment of these subjects was appropriate. In one review in the Mémoires secrets, this ambivalence is expressed. "In spite of the unprecedented abundance of history paintings to be found in this place and in spite of the excellence of the numerous masters competing in the arena of the grand genre, would you believe it, - and is it not a blasphemy? - Apollo's sceptre seems to have become a distaff and a woman has carried off the palm" (Harrison 696). Though the reviewer from Mémoires secrets expresses admiration for Vigée-Lebrun and casts her as the inheritor of the practice of history painting, he cannot deny that the idea of a woman taking such a position is, in some way, 'blasphemous'. Another painter, when discussing Vigée-Lebrun's art with a musician, is asked whether she is a history painter; he fiercely denies that she or any other woman could be. "The arms, the head, the heart of women lack the essential qualities to follow men into the lofty region of the fine arts. If nature could produce one of them capable of this great effort, it would be a monstrosity, the more shocking because there would be an inevitable opposition between her physical and mental/moral (morale) existence. A woman who would have all the passions of a man is really an impossible man" (Sheriff 191). Vigée-Lebrun, insofar as she succeeds in her ambitions as a history painter, is a monstrous creature who cannot be allowed to exist; "the painter raises the specter, shows the musician the monster, the woman with 'force,' the intellectual woman, the woman with a penis. The monster must be slain, and the painter does it easily by denying that Vigée-Lebrun's history paintings are history paintings" (Sheriff 193). Even by attempting to make this effort, she presents the potential of destabilizing both the hallowed conception of womanhood and that of the history painter.

While Vigée-Lebrun is not represented in Academy records as having painted a morceau de réception for her admission, her painting of Peace Bringing Back Abundance was widely regarded as such; significantly, as an allegory, this work fit into the genre of history painting and signaled that Vigée-Lebrun wished to be placed in the most regaled rank of painters. Furthermore, as Vigée-Lebrun's 'reception piece,' the work can conceivably represent her statement to the Academy regarding how she wished to treat elevated subjects. Peace Bringing Back Abundance, like its painter, puts the inherent 'masculinity' of history painting into question. Though it contains many of the elements which characterized the discipline of history painting, it nonetheless contests many of the conventions of history painting in the grand 'masculine' tradition.

Peace Bringing Back Abundance may be said to fulfill many of the requirements of traditional history painting. The subject is appropriate and serves a 'useful' purpose relating to the state, given the political conditions of 1780, when the painting was made. "Vigée-Lebrun's work perhaps anticipates the end of French expenditures for the American Revolution, which would bring back abundance to the arts, in the sense of providing money to continue d'Angiviller's projects" (Sheriff 127). Likewise, Peace Bringing Back Abundance employs semiotic coding in order to strengthen the discursive power of the allegory. The symbols of both peace and abundance are placed within the painting; Peace carries an olive branch while Abundance holds an overflowing cornucopia and is crowned by flowers. In addition, the figures themselves are differentiated according to their allegorical roles. "Although two women are represented, in terms of contemporaneous painting codes they are alternately gentered as 'masculine' (Peace) and 'feminine' (Abundance). This division is signaled by color tonality - the darker flesh tones and hair color traditionally used to indicate maleness, the pearly flesh and blonde hair to suggest femaleness… These characteristics give onto locating the two figures in different traditions: Abundance in the more sensual colorist tradition and Peace in the more classical linear one" (Sheriff 126). In Vigée-Lebrun's treatment, the rational, and therefore masculine, figure of Peace is able to lead Abundance, who is feminine, supplicant, and fertile, back to France; her handling of the figures themselves helps to strengthen the associations that are necessary in order to render the painting legible. The critic of Mémoires secrets, noting these details, pronounces the work as a worthy history painting. "These various contrasts produce a harmony in this painting which induces in the spectator that pleasure whose origins are unknown to the vulgar man but are soon grasped by the connoisseur" (Harrison 697). Thus Peace Bringing Back Abundance can be said to succeed as a history painting, as it is able to rigorously articulate its subject and allow viewers the pleasures of intellectual reflection.

However, in spite of Vigée-Lebrun's adherence to many of the conventions history painting, the painting might also be thought of as undermining the tradition in some ways. The exclusion of male figures is significant; there is no male recipient of the fruits of Peace and Abundance. This contrasts with François Marot's 1702 reception piece which represented a similar theme but focused on the male figure of Apollo, a metaphorical stand-in for Louis XIV. "In Marot's work, Apollo-Louis grasps the arm of Peace, who in turn places her arm around the shoulders of Abundance. The enchaînement of the group, however, does not detract from the centrality of the central figure, Apollo, who within the larger composition holds the apex of its triangle" (Sheriff 127). As history painting was associated with the vigorous and active male body, an alleged history painting which does not include a male subject appears contradictory. In addition, the allegorical figures, while differentiated, are not abstracted to the same degree that they would be in a more traditional history painting. Earlier treatments of the figures, such as those of Marot and Simon Vouet, lent the figures an abstracted beauty, but Vigée-Lebrun paints them as real women, which prevents the figures from becoming completely subservient to the discursive needs of the allegory. Charles Blanc, a later critic, denigrates the allegory by postulating that it is actually a portrait of a painter's daughters, and thus does not deserve to be considered a history painting. "Whatever be the art with which Madame Lebrun has applied herself to idealizing her models, one senses oneself in the presence of living individuals. The result is a strange embarrassment for the mind (espirit) of the spectator" (Sheriff 125). By giving her figures individuality, Vigée-Lebrun takes them outside the 'masculine' intellectual vigor of the history painting and employs the 'feminine' strength of sensation to capture the impressions of actual women. In these ways, Vigée-Lebrun's work contests traditional works of history painting; the confluence of the 'masculine' and 'feminine' in Peace Bringing Back Abundance could be seen as undermining or obscuring the aims of the painting as well as destabilizing the genre of history painting itself.

The presence of women in the Academy challenged the higher aims of the institution, and, for me the case of Vigée-Lebrun seems particularly problematic in terms of its philosophy and aims. As a highly placed official painter with ambitions to cover the most respected and 'masculine' of subjects, she could be the image of the monster who attempted to incorporate the contrary and even antithetical states of masculinity and femininity into a single individual. In addition, her work could be seen as undermining the genre of history painting in a similar manner; as they incorporated 'masculine' and 'feminine' ways of painting, they threatened to feminize the painting of elevated works and turn history painting into a similar monstrosity. Vigée-Lebrun and her works, particularly those which somewhat precariously existed within the highly 'masculine' tradition of history painting, simultaneously challenged and inhabited received notions of what history painting was and should be.

1 Dorothea Terbouche, a foreign painter admitted to the academy, was able to sidestep this restriction by hiring a male model for her artwork; this inevitably ignited some controversy.


Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Peace Bringing Back Abundance, 1780. Salon of 1783.

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Study of Peace, for Peace Bringing Back Abundance.