The Power of a Gaze

It was at the Petit Trianon that I’d met the artist Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Elisabeth, after the royal family’s arrest, wisely left France taking her young daughter with her. At the time of Marie-Antoinette’s execution, she was in Vienna painting portraits of aristocrats.

J’adore how Elisabeth easily created whimsical atmospheres in her Ancien Régime paintings although her childhood had certainly not been whimsical. Her father, well-known pastel portrait painter Louis Vigée, had taught his daughter how to paint. Elisabeth was a natural talent but, being a woman, she wasn’t permitted to study at the Académie des Beau-Arts. And to make it worse, when she was 12, her doting father died and her mother, looking for security, married a wealthy but unscrupulous jeweller.

Just a teenager, Elisabeth attracted many rich clients because of her light and airy yet sophisticated and intimate painting style. Unfortunately, her greedy step-father took control of Elisabeth’s earnings. Maybe that’s why she married Jean-Baptiste Le Brun, a well-known Parisian art dealer who owned a vast collection of paintings Elisabeth could study from. Pity that he was greedy, too.

Marie-Antoinette became aware of the young woman’s talent and invited her to Versailles. Having gained the Queen’s patronage, Elisabeth painted more than 30 portraits of the Queen and her family depicting Marie-Antoinette as a devout mother and wife.

The saddest “Devout Mother” painting was undoubtable “Marie Antoinette and Her Children” (1783) with the young Dauphin pointing at an empty cradle. Originally her daughter Sophie had been in the cradle but was painted out after her premature death. Sophie had been born with an abnormally large head. Her various deformities were not uncommon with the Bourbons and Habsburgs perhaps due to centuries of inbreeding.

Despite her seemingly demur attitude, Elisabeth, was quite progressive and had a good understanding of human nature. Once at the Petit Trianon, we had an interesting tête-à-tête regarding the power of the gaze. Elisabeth confided that there was a reason behind her self-portrait where she is holding her palette with some brushes and is looking directly at the viewer. With this portrait, she is clearly establishing who she is—a painter and not a passive object for the male gaze.

Women were taught to control their eyes because a careless glance could be interpreted as a provocation.

But as a portrait painter, it was only obvious that Elisabeth would have to look at the sitter. In general, men make women the object of their gaze. They are not comfortable when the opposite occurs. Sometimes her male sitters would interpret her looking at them as an invitation to look at her in a lascivious way. It created a problem as this erotic attention impaired her concentration and the chance to get an appropriate likeness of them.

When she was still young, to avoid this problem, her mother would always be present when Elisabeth men were sitting for portraits. However, she eventually invented the “lost look” effect. By deflecting the male gaze, she could control and displace their visual advances.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s treatise “Emile” (1762) had made a huge impact on the French. The philosopher said a child’s initial environment would have an impact on him for the rest of his life. This inspired Elisabeth to do a series of child related paintings including several of her daughter. Of special interest is “Julie Le Brun Looking in a Mirror.” It’s unusual in that the reflection in the mirror would have been impossible considering the angle in which it’s held. Nevertheless, the painting shows how children have a natually innocent curiosity.

A quite different approach of looking at one’s reflection comes from one of Elisabeth’s tutors, Jean-Baptiste Greuze. In his “The Broken Mirror” (c. 1762), a dishevelled young woman is sitting looking down on a broken mirror that shows a shattered reflection. She sits gracelessly in a room that’s in total disarray while her frightened little puppy wonders what to do. It’s a painting with a self-reflection gone wrong. No innocence here just the feeling of male moralism judging a young woman living in a man’s world.

When the royal family was arrested, Elisabeth, along with her daughter, left France for 12 years living and working in Italy, Austria, Russia, and Germany. She painted mainly portraits of aristocrats as well as allegorical portraits. Elisabeth’s Rococo style so loved by Marie Antoinette was now substituted with the stiff, tight Neo-Classical style.

Elisabeth and I never saw one another again. But I know she continued to paint all her life and even wrote her memoirs (three volumes!) before dying at the age of 86.

(from “TONI O, The Beholder” 2021 ©)

Related: Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun: Art and Gender during the French Revolution + The Broken Mirror +


Nagel, Susan. Marie-Thérèse, the Fate of Marie Antoinette’s Daughter. Bloomsbury Publishing. London. 2008.

Elisabeth Vigéè Le Brun (1755-1842)

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