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Vigée Le Brun, Self-Portrait with her Daughter, Julie

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self-Portrait with her Daughter, Julie, 1789, oil on canvas, 130 x 94 cm (Musée du Louvre). Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) - [Man] We're in the Louvre in Paris, looking at a self-portrait by the artist Vigee Le Brun. - [Woman] But interestingly, a portrait with her daughter, Julie. Being a mother who has a daughter named Julie, I especially love this painting. - [Man] When we think about late 18th century painting, we so often think of grand history painting or mythological subjects, and here we see a modest portrait that is all about intimacy. - [Woman] Vigee Le Brun was the official court painter to the Queen of France, to Marie Antoinette, and the year this was painted, 1789, is the year of the French Revolution. Only a couple of years from now, Marie Antoinette will be beheaded by the revolutionaries. - [Man] And Vigee Le Brun herself will leave France. - [Woman] She'll have her citizenship revoked because of her support of the monarchy, and less than a decade later, her citizenship will be restored. - [Man] She was held in extremely high regard by the French painting establishment. - [Woman] It's important to remember that there were only four positions available to women artists within the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, the institution in control of the fine arts in France. As a woman artist, she was up against many, many obstacles that her male colleagues didn't face. - [Man] The brilliance of this painting makes clear why she was accepted into the Academy. - [Woman] And that brilliance to me is in how much the faces and those gestures communicate the affection of a mother and daughter. - [Man] When this was painted, the monarchy was being accused of living a life that was entirely one of artifice. - [Woman] Out of touch with normal people in France. - [Man] And this is a painting that is all about authenticity. Vigee Le Brun herself moved among the aristocracy, and in a sense, this painting is establishing that authenticity and aristocracy were not mutually exclusive. One of my favorite passages is the way that Julie's right eye is nestled against the artists neck, shadowed by her chin. There is this wonderful sense of touch. Look at the way the arms reach around, and you can almost feel those small hands. - [Woman] And to me, Vigee Le Brun's eyes communicate sheer pleasure in this embrace of her daughter, and their bodies together form a pyramid, they form this single shape as though they're merged together as one, and there's a sense of genuine affection here, that I think you're right, was not something associated with the aristocracy. And to assert that natural, genuine emotion as something that is felt by people who move in very high circles like Vigee Le Brun, had a political dimension to it. - [Man] You can see that also in the dress. The artist is rendering herself in a dress that recalls the ancient Greek. And this style, a la grecque, was part of this idea in the late 18th century, that one can go back to a style that both the nobles, but is in some ways more inherently natural. - [Woman] More simple, more direct. - [Man] In contrast to the ornate hoop skirts and gowns often worn during formal occasions. - [Woman] Look at Vigee Le Brun's hair. The curls are unruly. There's an informality that did have this political dimension. - [Man] Although, I would say it is a study to informality. - [Woman] Absolutely. - [Man] There's something very contingent here. That embrace only lasts a moment. - [Woman] It only lasts for a moment, but the feeling of affection is universal and timeless. Vigee Le Brun was successful among the aristocracy in Europe broadly. This was a woman who moved easily among the royal courts of Europe and was highly successful. - [Man] In Russia, in Austria-- - [Woman] In Italy-- - [Man] And in London. - [Woman] Although there were many difficulties faced by women artists, it's fascinating to see a woman as successful as Vigee Le Brun presenting herself so powerfully as a mother. (piano music)