Academic journal article Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art

More Than "A Preposterous Neo-Classic Rehash:" Elisabeth Vigee le Brun's Sibyl and Its Virgilian Connotations

Academic journal article Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art

More Than "A Preposterous Neo-Classic Rehash:" Elisabeth Vigee le Brun's Sibyl and Its Virgilian Connotations

Article excerpt

Often defined by her role as the court painter to Marie-Antoinette, Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun is generally known for her flattering, modish, and sometimes superficial representations of Europe's elite. The preponderance of stylish portraits in her oeuvre has regrettably eclipsed her comparatively rare opportunities to demonstrate her powers of pictorial invention. Among the latter is her Sibyl (Fig. 1), a striking depiction of an ancient seer for whom the notorious Lady Emma Hamilton served as the model. Vigee Le Brun created this self-proclaimed masterpiece while living as an expatriate in Italy, where exposure to ancient and modern works contributed appreciably to her artistic evolution. Although it transcends mere similitude, the Sibyl has repeatedly been identified and discussed as a portrait of Emma Hamilton. When exhibited at The Hallsborough Gallery in 1965, the painting was described in the sale catalogue as "a beautiful and unexpected portrait of a famous sitter, [which] is an important document in the history of taste." (1) It was concurrently denigrated in a review by Benedict Nicholson, who called it "a preposterous neo-classic rehash of Domenichino and the late Guercino, the very last gasp of the Bolognese Seicento." (2) Neither the exultation of its aesthetic and documentary appeal nor the derision of the Sibyl as an absurd imitation are satisfactory ways to characterize Vigee Le Brun's painting. Given the persistent generalizations about the fashionable of her art, (3) summary pronouncements like these, dispensed assuredly by ostensible authorities, threaten to foreclose any meaningful assessment of the artist's accomplishment. Moreover, the infamy of Lady Hamilton, the presumed subject of the Sibyl, has long overshadowed the actual content of the painting. In addition to these impediments, direct exposure to Vigee Le Brun's Sibyl is limited. Although there are two three-quarter-length renditions, which are nearly identical, both remain in private collections, (4) as does an autograph bust-length version that was given by the artist to Sir William Hamilton. (5) Nevertheless, a careful evaluation of Vigee Le Brun's Sibyl in its cultural and historical context reveals that the artist executed an intelligently classicizing work that is imbued with Virgilian allusions.

Vigee Le Brun's nascent interest in elevated subject matter is found in her allegorical and mythological works of the late 1770s and early 1780s, more than a decade before she painted her Sibyl Upon her acceptance as an academicienne by the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1783, Vigee Le Brun audaciously presented Peace Bringing Back Abundance (1780; Paris, Musee du Louvre), executed three years earlier, as her reception piece. The subject and composition of this allegorical work are consistent with history painting, the most respected category in the Academie, yet women were effectively precluded from such an achievement because they were forbidden the requisite study of the nude model. (6) At the Salon of 1783, the anonymous reviewer in the Memoires secrets opined, "I do not know in which class the Academie has placed Madame Le Brun, whether history, genre, or portraiture, but she is not unworthy of any, even the first. I consider her reception piece very likely to gain her admittance therein." (7) She was, in fact, received by the institution without a designated category. (8) Around the same time, Vigee Le Brun exhibited several other allegorical and mythological pictures, which she identified as "tableaux d'histoire." (9) Among them were Venus Binding the Wings of Cupid (private collection) and Juno Borrowing the Girdle of Venus (location unknown), both shown at the Salon of 1783. (10) Innocence Taking Refuge in the Arms of Justice (Fig. 2) was created in 1779 and exhibited four years later, with Juno Borrowing the Girdle of Venus, at the Salon de la Correspondance. (11) Her Bacchante (Paris, Musee Nissim de Camondo), a single half-length mythological figure, hung at the Salon of 1785. …

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