From antiquity until about the 19th century, the involvement of women in art might be summarized as “clothing optional”. Women mostly served as models, expected to maintain their dignity even while holding ridiculous poses.
Creating art was considered to be the province of men; for the most part, women were not permitted to hold a palette or a chisel. There were some exceptions down through the centuries — there were indeed women who established themselves as artists — but unless you were an Art History major, you’ve probably never heard of any of them.
So let’s start by giving some credit to a man, a relatively minor painter named Orazio Gentileschi, who recognized and encouraged his daughter’s talent way back in the early 17th century. Artemisia Gentileschi painted in the Baroque style to great effect. Trust me — if you’re wandering through the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and come across her painting called “Judith Slaying Holofernes”, you’ll stop and say “Whoa!” Her contemporaries (men) acknowledged the quality of her work; Artemisia was the first woman accepted into the Florence Art Academy, which was a big deal.
You’ll see Artemisia Gentileschi’s name in art books, but if you come across the name Le Brun at all, it usually refers to Charles Le Brun. King Louis XIV called him “the greatest French artist of all time,” an assessment that now seems as over-the-top as Louis’s pet project, Versailles.
The Le Brun I find interesting, however, is Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (her husband’s great uncle was Charles Le Brun). Elisabeth’s father was an artist of no repute, but he taught her a bit about painting before he died of complications from choking on a fishbone.
Her mother subsequently married a jeweler in 1768 and the family moved into a neighborhood near the Royal Palace in Paris. Elisabeth got to know her aristocratic neighbors, and they got to know her work. By the age of 15, she was making good money painting their portraits.
That brought her to the attention of authorities who threatened her with arrest for painting without a license. Makes you wonder what one had to do to qualify for an artist’s license, doesn’t it? And were the ID pictures on artist’s licenses as awful as the pictures on driver’s licenses are now?
Well, let’s jump ahead to 1778, when Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun painted a portrait of the queen, Marie Antoinette. Over the next several years, Elisabeth was commissioned to paint something like 30 portraits of Marie Antoinette, and lots more of other members of the nobility.
Then the French Revolution happened.
Madame Vigée Le Brun got out of France with her head still attached and continued painting aristocrats in other European cities. She eventually returned to Paris, where she died in 1842.
To be honest, I’m not a big fan of her work, which is in the Rococo style. As I may have mentioned before, the fussy sentimentality of Rococo tends to trigger my gag reflex. In spite of that, I admire the technical skill with which she handled her brushes, and I think it’s worth calling attention to artists like Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, whose success helped open doors for generations of women artists who followed.