How Mary-Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s art saved New Orleans treasures after Hurricane Katrina

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Marie Antoinette, thanks to Bullard, was about to be enthroned in a setting at NOMA befitting the Queen of France. The landing of the grand staircase, which Bullard declares with great gusto “seemed to say ‘welcome to Marie’s place,’” was chosen. But the landing was not deep enough to allow visitors to step backwards in order to relish the whole visual impact. So in 1993 on the second floor a dropped ceiling was removed to accommodate the picture. “To make her feel right at home,” Bullard had the gallery furnished with fine French furnishings dating from the Queen’s lifetime, including two Louis XV armchairs resembling the one Vigée-Lebrun depicted. Bullard, who has worked tirelessly to make NOMA visitor-friendly, says “the setting seems to invite visitors to sit and talk to the Queen.”

In NOMA’s collection, a blue and white plaster two-dimensional plaque resembling Wedgwood Jasperware unmistakably proves Vigée-Lebrun’s artistic prowess. In 1779 Nicholas Marie Gatteaux (1751-1832) replicated in great accuracy Marie Antoinette’s profile and as Baillio noted, today her nose would be a contender for “plastic surgery.”

Since 1986 this relic has helped to expunge memories from David’s morbid drawing of the Queen and more recently Vigée-Lebrun’s genius accomplished another marvel. On August 29, 2005 after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans most of the city was submerged under 8 to 10 feet of water. Bullard gratefully points out that the 1911 Greek Revival columned building rests upon a high point in City Park, where it literally became an island. The Director invited employees and volunteers to come to the museum “and to bring their pets” for safety. About 30 people were ensconced among magnificent art without any utilities during 90 degree weather and in time the National Guard took the refugees out in helicopters.

According to Bullard, NOMA suffered “water in the basement and mud on the statues in the outdoor garden plus 85 percent of the staff had to be let go.” The water caused about $2.5 million worth of damage and the museum was closed for six months. Then Joseph Baillio, a vice president of Wildenstein Gallery of New York City, devised a fundraising event for NOMA. At $10,000 per couple, guests at the Manhattan restaurant Le Bernadin, besides dining upon magnificent seafood, visually feasted upon works by Miro, Picasso, Degas, Jackson Pollack, Matisse and of course Vigée-Lebrun’s Marie Antoinette from NOMA. Bullard felt it was like “sending a child out to earn money,” but the opportunity made sense.

The show, “Spared from the Storm: Masterworks from the New Orleans Museum of Art,” was so successful that it traveled to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, the Jocelyn Museum in Omaha, Stanford University, Kalamazoo Institute of Arts and the Mint Museum in Charlotte.
Vicki C. Wright of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts says Vigée-Lebrun held her own in the company of Picasso and Matisse: “The portrait amazed people – especially the artist’s detailing of fabric [and other items].” During the three year tour, which raised about $1 million for NOMA, patrons kept asking, “When is the Queen coming back?”

Most experts, including Baillio, seem to agree that other museums have finer Vigée-Lebrun works. The 1789 portrait of Madame Perregaux at the Wallace Collection in London is considered prime Vigée-Lebrun, “typical of the glamorous, flattering portrayals,” according to the website. But NOMA’s picture truly stirs pathos, winning more kudos for Vigée-LeBrun than any masterwork. Today the once-maligned Queen has achieved martyrdom status that the artist herself practically started. Vigée-Lebrun wrote in her blockbuster autobiography, “Souvenirs de ma Vie/Reminisces of My Life,” published in the 1830s, how kind the Queen had been.

In the mid 1800s another French ruler and trendsetter extraordinaire, Empress Eugenie, was in modern terminology a Marie Antoinette groupie and granted panache to anything related to the dead Queen from furniture styles to fashions. The cult continues to grow; the recent Antonia Fraser biography, “Marie Antoinette the Journey,” objectively demystifies folklore pertaining to the Queen. And, of course, Marie Antoinette’s portrait at NOMA continues thank to Bullard to wow patrons.

Bullard is a California native and before arriving in New Orleans honed his curatorial expertise at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif., and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. In April 1973 he became the director of the New Orleans Museum of Art. When I had the honor to interview him face-to-face for “Keep Antiquing!” this gentleman could not have been more enthusiastic or gracious. NOMA is the love of his life and he has worked hard to make it “visitor friendly.” No wonder Bullard remained director of NOMA for 37 years. Such a long tenure for a curator may never again be duplicated. Susan M. Taylor who became NOMA’s Director this year probably has a good idea how newly elected John Adams felt when succeeding President George Washington.

The year 2011 marks the centennial of NOMA and Marie Antoinette’s portrait will be a star for this grand occasion and for many future events. How the “greatest female artist before the 20th century,” her Royal mentor and the museum curator diminished Hurricane Katrina’s destruction is the fodder of legends. No doubt this tale will be reverently heralded for NOMA’s bicentennial.

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