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Unauthorized Vigee Le Brun: What Museums “Forget” to Tell You!

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Self-portrait in a straw hat by Vigee Le Brun, in the National Gallery, London.

They said she spent 80,000 francs on a toga party; they called her a faithless wife and heartless mother; they said she was sleeping with the minister of finance, and that he paid her with sweetmeats wrapped in banknotes while the people starved. No, these are not anti-Hillary statements, but just a few of the libels against Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, official portrait painter to Marie Antoinette. As is often the case with political propaganda, the truth is far more interesting. From February to May 15, 2016, the Metropolitan Museum of Art presents, “Vigee Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France,” a 200-year overdue retrospective on the artist. The Met can always be counted upon for meticulous historical research, attention to detail, and insightful aesthetic commentary. For juicy gossip and salacious anecdotes, Sartle’s got your back. Here are the top ten sexy, hilarious, or just plain weird facts about Louise Vigee Le Brun you might not find in museum brochures.

  1. She was a total hottie
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Self-portrait of Louise as a Young Beauty, in the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth.

Louise was so beautiful that she was often stared at in the streets, and even had to paint male sitters with their eyes averted to keep them from ogling her. When they tried to sneak a peek she’d say “I’m doing the eyes now.” The guys may not have been the only ones looking. Marie Antoinette’s preference for the ravishing young artist contributed to rumors that the Queen was a lesbian.

2. Brought Marie Antoinette to her knees

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Marie Antoinette, one of the most powerful women in the world, stoops to pick up the artist’s brushes.

When Louise was heavily pregnant, she arrived a day late for a sitting with Marie Antoinette, and spilled her brushes on the ground out of nervousness. The Queen got down on her knees and insisted on cleaning up the mess herself. Louise always attested to the kindness and humility of the much-maligned Queen.

3. Painted while giving birth

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Self-portrait by Vigee Le Brun, in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Marie Antoinette appears on her canvas.

On the day her daughter was born, Louise continued to paint in between labour pains. When a friend advised her that her baby would be born that night, Louise replied, “I have a sitting tomorrow, it can’t be born today.” She remained at her easel, refusing to abandon her painting until the pain of childbirth physically overwhelmed her. Now that’s badass!

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Reproduction of Venus binding the wings of Cupid, which Vigee Le Brun painted while in labor.

4. Met Benjamin Franklin

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Yes, that Ben Franklin. When America’s horniest founding father was ambassador to France, he and Louise mingled in the same circles. Louise was unimpressed by the supposedly witty Franklin, whom she found such a dull conversationalist she wondered if he had taken a vow of silence, though she conceded “No man was more the fashion in Paris.”

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This depiction of Franklin’s reception at Versailles demonstrates his popularity with the French ladies. Louise seems to be one French Hedge he didn’t prune.

5. Had an “Argo” moment escaping from revolutionary France

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Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix, in the Louvre-Lens. This is actually the revolution of 1830, but it captures the bloodshed of 1789. Louise survived both revolutions.

On the night that Marie Antoinette was taken from Versailles by an angry mob, armed guards barged into Louise’s house ordering her not to leave Paris, effectively placing her on house arrest. She and her daughter Julie disguised themselves as working-class women and snuck out to catch the midnight stagecoach, barely saving their necks.

6. Was ‘Frenemies’ with Jacques-Louis David

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The Intervention of the Sabine Women by Jacques-Louis David, in the Louvre Museum, Paris.

David was one of the few male artists who acknowledged Vigee Le Brun’s talent, but she never forgave him for voting to send her beloved Marie Antoinette to the guillotine. He paid Louise the dubious compliment that one of her paintings was so good “…that it could have been painted by a man.” Gee, thanks but no thanks, David.

7. Was kind of psychic

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Originally posted at meanpll.tumblr.com

Louise was noted for her amazingly accurate predictions. During her exile in Russia she became a legend in the Imperial Court for successfully predicting the death of the King of Poland, after which she was much in demand. Knowing when royalty is about to kick the bucket is a very useful skill among the nobles.

8. Royally pissed off Catherine the Great

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Grand Duchess Alexandra Pavlovna and Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna by Vigee Le Brun, in the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.

Louise committed the ultimate faux pas by forgetting to kiss Catherine the Great, Empress of all Russia’s hand. She painted this portrait of Catherine’s granddaughters in the neoclassical style, with exposed arms. Catherine was “scandalized,” so Louise hastily painted over the offending arms, but felt that it spoiled the painting.

9. Stayed in a hotel with a dead guy

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During an agonizing carriage ride from Saint Petersburg to Moscow, Louise stopped to take rest at an inn. She retired to her room, where she found an overpowering stench. After a while, she perceived that the rancid smell was coming from behind a door in her room. When she asked a waiter, he said, “Oh, there has been a dead man behind that door since yesterday. That’s probably what you smell.” Luckily for the inn there was no Yelp back then.

10. Totally burned Napoleon’s sister

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Caroline Bonaparte Murat by Vigee Le Brun, in the Palace of Versailles.

Louise begrudgingly agreed to paint Napoleon’s sister Caroline, though she was paid half her usual fee. Caroline was habitually late or absent from sittings, and capriciously changed her hairstyle and clothing so that Louise had to repaint her several times. Finally Louise lost it and said loudly enough that Caroline could hear, “I have painted real princesses who have never tormented me or kept me waiting.” Oh no she di’in’t!

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Not surprisingly, Napoleon never commissioned another painting from Louise.

Don’t miss “Vigee Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France,” on view at the Met through May 16, and log onto Sartle for all your gossip needs.  Just remember, they’ve got the scholarship, but we’ve got the dirt.  So grab your smartphone and dig, baby dig!

By: Griff Stecyk

Griff Stecyk

Contributor