How Mary-Louise Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun helped save New Orleans’ museums after Hurricane Katrina

In the 1960s and 1970s the Great Lakes Mink Association advertised celebrities modeling fur coats. Without mentioning names, each ad simply asked “What becomes a legend most?” The icons (including Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck) were, as the French say, of a “certain age,” but celebrated photographer Richard Avedon made them look like debutantes. Recently, Madison Avenue has continued the campaign with Janet Jackson. Over two centuries earlier, a similar strategy made Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun a top-tier artist.

Marie-Louise Elisabeth Vigée (1755-1842) was born in Paris April 16, 1755, and perfected her artistic skills by copying works of Rubens, Van Dyck and Rembrandt. After Elisabeth married painter and art dealer Jean Baptiste Pierre Lebrun in 1778, her maiden name was joined to her husband’s, creating “Vigée-Lebrun.” A daughter, Julie, was born in 1780 and the couple divorced in 1794.

Sterling Silver Flatware.

A summons to Versailles in 1799 put Elisabeth on the artistic map and led to perfecting a dazzling skill. Vigée-Lebrun scholar Joseph Baillio wrote that “Marie Antoinette could not accurately have been called a beautiful woman. She had an aquiline nose and the thick lower lip.” Even though Vigée-Lebrun artistically forgave these traits, “she succeeds in capturing a more than recognizable likeness.” Marie Antoinette was so pleased that Elisabeth created more than 25 portraits of the Queen. Three of the most renown captured a glamorous Marie Antoinette holding a rose, a mother with her children and a young matron.

Even after such success, a colossal hurdle faced Vigée-Lebrun: affiliation with the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, which controlled French art. Only members of the Academy could exhibit in official salons, which, in essence, was a governmental stamp of approval. Vigée-Lebrun had little clout since the bigoted Royal Academy director opposed female membership. So Elisabeth’s mentor, the Queen, asked her husband to lend a royal hand. Upon Louis XVI’s command, access was granted May 31, 1783, and Elisabeth always prized the Queen’s role in propelling her career.

By the 1780s Vigée-Lebrun had become the premier portraitist in a country highly venerated for art. In 1789 as the French Revolution ravaged the country, Vigée-Lebrun, so long associated with the Queen, fled France. While exiled Vigée-Lebrun earned her living by painting and became quite wealthy. During the next 12 years European society and royalty thronged to Madame’s studio. Dazzling subjects included the Prince of Wales, (the future George IV of Great Britain), English poet and bon vivant, Lord Byron and Caroline Murat (née Bonaparte), Queen of Naples.

The brutality Marie Antoinette endured during “the worst of times” as novelist Charles Dickens described revolutionary France in “A Tale of Two Cities” chagrined Elisabeth. Jacque Louis David (1748-1825), an artist who captured Revolutionary events such as “The Death of Marat” (1793) sketched Marie Antoinette en route to the guillotine. This last likeness from life tragically illustrated that although only 38, the Queen had aged beyond recognition from Madame Elisabeth’s paintings.

David’s work distressed Vigée-Lebrun and motivated her to fashion from memory a small portrait. This work, entitled “Marie Antoinette 1800,” depicted a youthful, scar-free Queen garbed in white (to signify innocence), was given to the only child of Louis and Marie to survive the Revolution. Marie Therese Charlotte (1778-1851), who lost father, mother and brother, wrote to Vigée Lebrun that it was “an image very dear to my heart.”

After completing the portrait Elisabeth returned to France and lived in Paris until her death in 1842. She was buried in Louveciennes, near Versailles. Decades later, Impressionist artists frequented the village and one of the superstars of that group revered Vigée-Lebrun. Comparing an actual photograph of the Parisian actress Madame Henriot to the lovely 1877 portrait by Pierre-Auguste Renoir in the National Gallery of Art in Washington substantiates that Renoir continued Vigée-Lebrun’s artistic editorial approach.

Two Vigée-Lebrun portraits of Marie Antoinette, phenomenally, survived Revolutionary mobs, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, World War I and the German occupation of France during World War II, and still hold court at Versailles. And extraordinarily, a third not only survived a natural catastrophe but help sooth its wrath. How Marie Antoinette now reigns as the “Queen of New Orleans” is a slice of recent American history.

E. John Bullard was the director of the New Orleans Museum of Art for 37 years. It was under his tenure that Vigée-Lebrun’s portrait of Marie Antoinette came to reside at NOMA.
E. John Bullard was the director of the New Orleans Museum of Art for 37 years. It was under his tenure that Vigée-Lebrun’s portrait of Marie Antoinette came to reside at NOMA.

E. John Bullard, the director of the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), founded in 1911, has an endless list of accomplishments including authoring “George Rodrique Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné 1970-2007” and obtaining for the museum’s collection over 29,000 objects. But acquiring a Vigée-LeBrun work may just be his favorite.

A portrait of Marie Antoinette created in 1788 by Vigée-Lebrun was offered in 1981 at Sotheby Parke Bernet in London. This work according to Baillio was a “replica of a painting in Versailles,” which Bullard says the painter used as a marketing ploy. The earlier portrait and the later are very similar but Baillio says the Queen in the second work has a less bouffant coiffure. Vigée-Lebrun sold the portrait in 1818 to Louis XVIII, a brother of Louis XVI and eventually it went to his son. Throughout the 1800s the picture remained in France but in 1906 the canvas turned up in London at Duveen Brothers and by 1951 was auctioned in New York City at Parke-Bernet Galleries to Mr. and Mrs. John Trevor. Their son, Bronson Trevor, later consigned the work to Sotheby’s where experts predicted a (then) lofty price of $150,000 to $200,000 (lot #114), but it failed to sell on July 8, 1981. Bullard feels that the picture, 109-1/2 inches high by 75-1/2 inches wide was too gargantuan for most homes but points out with a smile that it was “ideal for museum galleries.”

After not selling in London the painting was loaned to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, for the 1982 “Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun Exhibition.” Works were also loaned from the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, Versailles and from Henri, Count of Paris, the claimant to the French throne. After the Kimbell show the painting, formerly dismissed as a mere copy of the Versailles original, became “museum quality,” a very charismatic feather in its provenance cap.

After the exhibition the painting was again for sale and a dealer alerted Bullard, who visited “Marie” (his affectionate name for the picture) in her Oyster Bay, N.Y., location. While mentioning cost is avoided, he does say that the painting “by the greatest female artist prior to the 20th century was the most expensive NOMA bought up to 1985,” and adds “a fitting acquisition for NOMA’s 75th Anniversary in 1986.” For an idea of a more recent price for a fine Vigée-Lebrun portrait, Sotheby’s in New York sold “The Portrait of Countess Kagenek” (shown above right) painted in 1792 for $792,000 (including buyer’s premium) in January 2003. The Vigée-Lebrun touch that so beguiled Marie Antoinette shines in this work, which Sotheby’s described as a “warm and loving light.”

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