Where? Room 33 of the National Gallery in London
Medium and size: Oil on canvas, 97.8 × 70.5 cm.
What do you see? A self-portrait of the 27-year old Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. She painted herself standing outside, wearing a straw hat with an ostrich feather and a garland of wildflowers. And she holds a palette and seven brushes in her left hand.
She portrayed herself as an independent and emancipated woman, traits that helped her to become a successful artist in a male-dominated art world. Many other young ladies would have worn a corset, a wig, and a lot of make-up. Instead, Vigée Le Brun portrays herself in a fashionable, pink cotton dress, a black shawl, a straw hat, a pair of earrings, and her own hair.
Vigée Le Brun paid particularly careful attention to the impact of two light sources, the sunlight and the daylight. The impact of the sunlight is apparent when looking at how she painted her eyes in the shadow of the straw hat. The result is that the viewer is naturally directed to look at her neck and chest.
Backstory: The painting in the National Gallery is actually a copy of a version she made earlier in 1782 and exhibited at the Paris Salon. The original painting is in a Swiss private collection and only a low-resolution image of it is available.
The self-portrait of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun was inspired by the Portrait of Susanna Lunden (c. 1622-1625) by Peter Paul Rubens, which is also part of the collection of the National Gallery. In 1782, during her travels with her husband, she came across Rubens’ portrait in Antwerp. She was particularly impressed by the way Rubens simultaneously incorporated the effects of both natural daylight and sunlight. She immediately started to apply these ideas to her own portrait. After she returned to Paris, she created a second version of this painting, which is the one in the National Gallery today. The same year she also painted the Portrait of Yolande-Martine-Gabrielle de Polastron, Duchess of Polignac, which has a quite similar composition.
Who is Vigée Le Brun? Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) was born in Paris. Her father, Louis Vigée (1715-1767), was a moderately successful artist specializing in portrait painting. Unlike many other female artists from that time, she had a long and productive career, leaving over 600 portraits and 200 landscapes (which are way less popular), which she painted all across Europe.
She painted the first version of the Self Portrait in a Straw Hat when she and her husband (who was both a painter and art dealer) were on a tour of Flanders and The Netherlands to study their art traditions. During this tour Elisabeth was deeply impressed by the Flemish masters, and especially by the greatest among them, Peter Paul Rubens.
Due to the French Revolution, Vigée Le Brun would travel extensively through Europe from 1789 onwards. She would spend time in Italy (1789–1792), Austria (1792–1795), Russia (1795–1801) and Germany (1801), before returning home to France. Among her works are the Portrait of Countess Golovine in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts and the Life Study of Lady Hamilton as the Cumaean Sybil in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Fun Fact: Vigée Le Brun reflected on this work in one of her letters, where she wrote about the inspiration for her self portrait. It was the aforementioned Portrait of Susanna Lunden by Peter Paul Rubens, about which she wrote: ‘its great effect resides in the two different lights, ordinary daylight and the glow of the sun… This painting delights me and inspired me to make my own portrait in Brussels in search of the same effect. I painted myself wearing a straw hat with a feather and a garland of wildflowers, and holding my palette. When the portrait was exhibited at the salon, I dare say it greatly enhanced my reputation.’
Written by Eelco Kappe