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Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun : the Odyssey of an…
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Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun : the Odyssey of an Artist in an Age of…

by Gita May

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I must point out that I am reading this because I don't know that much about the subject; I can't really speak to its accuracy. I have always been charmed by Vigee Le Brun's work, and this is a relatively brief (237 pp.), but insightful and informative account of her life. Since Vigee Le Brun's memoirs ran to three volumes, I assume that this could have been much longer, but I thought it was a satisfying length, giving me the feeling of having a good sense of the person without being overwhelmed by detail, cant and speculation. There are a couple of other monographs, noted below, if the reader wants more detailed information.

May is quite aware that Vigee Le Brun, who became official painter to Queen Marie-Antoinette, might be considered politically incorrect, being rather conservative, lacking social awareness for the plight of the poor, and a Royalist with regard to the French revolution. I thought she handled this well, signalling her understanding that this might distress some readers and critics, while accepting her subject as she was. Unlike some writers, she keeps artistic talent, personal qualities and political thinking separate, without neglecting any of the three.

The book is gorgeously illustrated. There are sixteen color plates, plus a number of black and white reproductions scattered throughout the text. Of course, there are never enough illustrations. In reading about artists, I would like to see examples of the work of close associates, in this case Vigee Le Brun's father and mentors. Of course, I want this without having to give up any reproductions of the main subject's work. One can dream.

I was originally going to give this fewer stars because of the problems listed below. However, outside of being bewildered at a few points, I really enjoyed the book and I'm glad that I read it. I leave the reader to decide how much bad editing bothers them. I urge the Yale University Press to correct any other editions.

I believe that this is the most badly edited book I have ever read. Among less serious flaws, an allegorical painting entitled 'Peace Bring Back Abundance' is described as, "the figure of peace gently guiding and protecting peace." I believe that should be "protecting abundance." Further, it is frequently repetitive; e.g., the sad end to the life of Lady Hamilton is described twice (pp. 97 and 173.) More seriously, it is sometimes repetitive and self-contradictory. Plate 2 is a reproduction of a Vigee Le Brun portrait of a man in a yellow vest, identified as Hubert Robert. On page 16, this painting is described in detail and identified as "Joseph Vernet ... (plate 3)" and on p. 62, described again and identified as Robert. This is particularly pathetic for a university press.

The notes are nicely done and, one of my pet causes, the running titles is used to identify the sections of notes, making them easier to match up. There are some explanatory notes included with the bibilographic information. There is a fairly good index, although only one of the above noted accounts of Lady Hamilton's death is listed in her entry under "death". The other is included under "in London"; she actually died in Calais. There is not a bibliography as such, but May points to other monographs on the artist such as Mary Sheriff's "highly theoretical and ideological interpretation" Exceptional Woman; and Angelica Goodden's "more straightforward narrative" The Sweetness of Life. I very much appreciate that she explains the difference in approach between the two. (Introduction, note 7, p. 205) ( )
  juglicerr | Sep 27, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0300108729, Hardcover)

The foremost woman artist of her age, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755—1842) exerted her considerable charm to become the friend, and then official portraitist, of Marie Antoinette. Though profitable, this role made Vigée Le Brun a public and controversial figure, and in 1789 it precipitated her exile. In a Europe torn by strife and revolution, she nevertheless managed to thrive as an independent, self-supporting artist, doggedly setting up studios in Rome, Naples, Venice, Milan, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and London. Long overlooked or dismissed, Vigée Le Brun’s portraits now hang in the Louvre, in a room of their own, as well as in all leading art museums of the world.

This gripping biography tells the story of a singularly gifted and high-spirited woman during the revolutionary era and explores the development and significance of her art. The book also recounts the public and private lives of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, connecting  her with such personalities of her age as Catherine the Great, Napoleon, and Benjamin Franklin, and setting her experiences in the context of contemporary European politics and culture. A generous selection of illustrations, including sixteen of Vigée Le Brun’s portraits presented in full color, completes this exceptional volume.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:42 -0400)

The foremost woman artist of her age, Elisabeth Vig�ee Le Brun (1755-1842) exerted her considerable charm to become the friend, and then official portraitist, of Marie Antoinette. Though profitable, this role made her a public and controversial figure, and in 1789 it precipitated her exile. In a Europe torn by strife and revolution, this singularly gifted and high-spirited woman nevertheless managed to thrive as an independent, self-supporting artist, doggedly setting up studios in Rome, Naples, Venice, Milan, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and London. Long overlooked or dismissed, Vig�ee Le Brun's portraits now hang in the Louvre, in a room of their own, as well as in all leading art museums of the world. Illustrations include sixteen of her portraits presented in full color.--From publisher description.… (more)

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