The self-portraits of Elisabeth Vigée-LeBrun have never been widely revered. Criticism often focuses on their perceived narcissism and regressive depictions of professional women – indeed, de Beauvoir writes at length about the problematic nature of Vigée-LeBrun’s preoccupation with her own “personhood” and Boime discards much of her work as superficial. 1 While Vigée-LeBrun stood alone among her contemporaries as a female artist dedicated to constant self-depiction, she has spiritual successors in the twenty first century in the forms of Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton; her work has much in common with the ways in which these female celebrities choose to represent themselves on social media, and the selfie culture that surrounds them is arguably an extension of what Vigée-LeBrun herself pioneered. Such a culture is similarly derided for creating an age of self-involvement and upholding unrealistic standards of female beauty, but the kind of self-appreciation evident in the work of Vigée-LeBrun, Kardashian and Hilton, one that is simultaneously public but does not necessarily ask for external validation, is as subversive now as it was in the eighteenth century.
drawing by Millie K Nice
Much of Vigée-LeBrun’s early work is influenced heavily by the Rococo and it’s “fashionable ideal, wherein perpetual youth was libertine and pleasure-loving […] without guilt or consequence”.2 Such an aesthetic is similarly employed in the self-potraits of Hilton and Kardashian; while they continuously depict themselves in a variety of different roles, their work is unified by the same focus on youth and simplistic, perhaps material, happiness. LeBrun’s work was criticised for a lack of psychological penetration, but this seems to miss the point – it’s superficiality was to a degree intended, and the same approach can be found in the carefully curated social channels of reality television stars today. The influence of Vigée-LeBrun, and of the Rococo in a wider sense, is profound, as it created a stylistic template for the growth of the Instagram era, where messaging must be instant, and appearance is what matters most.
This focus on appearance is perhaps most evident in one of Vigée-LeBrun’s most famous works, Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, c. 1782,in which she appears as “beautiful, a sex object and an immodest woman pleasuring in self-display”.3 Open enjoyment of one’s physical form as a woman was, and is, taboo, and the contemporary response to the similarly sex positive portraits of Hilton and Kardashian is often similar to criticism of LeBrun in its insistence that a visual dialectic regarding one’s sensuality makes an image inherently narcissistic. For all three women, narcissism and empowerment are interchangeable, and their self-appreciation is a conscious act of subversion. Though generally critical of her work, Boime concedes that there is a spontaneity to Vigée-LeBrun’s portraits that gives them potency, and it is this that makes her, as well as Hilton and Kardashian, popular amongst other women – the work is accessible and easily replicated as a tool for their own self-empowerment.
Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, c. 1782 // Paris Hilton attends her sister’s wedding, 2015
LeBrun’s depictions of herself are ultimately multi-faceted, and she appears in later pieces as both a mother and a working artist. SelfPortrait of the Artist, c. 1786, and Self Portrait with Julie, 1789, both featuring Vigée-LeBrun with her daughter, are neoclassical in style and much more simplistic than her earlier works. The coexistence of these maternal images with portraits that emphasise both sexual availability and her career as an artist make them progressive in a way they would not be alone. Furthermore, they highlight the individuality of LeBrun’s visual persona – before this, there was no tradition of female portraitists depicting themselves maternally, largely over fears that they would no longer be taken seriously.4 Kardashian’s own desire to be a mother, a sex object and a businesswoman simultaneously is comparable in this sense; her reluctance to sacrifice an aspect of her visual identity simply by virtue of having become a mother reflects Vigée-LeBrun’s own careful balance of these aspects of her personal life in her work. Indeed, Kardashian’s choice to retain control of this portion of her image, rather than surrendering it to a third party (as Marie Antoinette did to Vigée-LeBrun herself), is equally unique in the landscape of modern celebrity culture. By taking ownership of their own maternal identity in their work, both Vigée-LeBrun and Kardashian make an important statement about the fact that motherhood does not have to preclude sexuality.
Kim Kardashian and baby North West attend the Givenchy show as part of the Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Spring/Summer 2015 on September 28, 2014 in Paris, France // Self-Portrait with Julie, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1786
In many of her Instagram portraits, Hilton chooses to highlight herself as a businesswoman, and this aligns with Vigée-LeBrun’s focus on herself as a professional artist, particularly in her work from 1790 onwards. The feminist art historians Pollock & Parker criticise LeBrun for remaining a woman of society while forging her artistic career, believing her to be a tool of the bourgeoisie, and in turn Hilton’s success as a businesswoman has been similarly devalued for her continued presence in society circles.5 LeBrun’s decision to foreground her careerism in her portraits has been seen as an intentional statement, and thus their shared insistence on depicting themselves in such a fashion can be interpreted as a rebuttal to their critics.6 Beyond even this, both LeBrun and Hilton, and perhaps Kardashian to an extent, again choose to highlight their femininity as they work, a choice that seems fundamentally third wave.
Vigée-LeBrun appears in her work as unrepentantly feminine, but equally with a clear sense of agency, and such a description of her work can be easily applied to that of her spiritual successors. Criticism that she conformed to male stereotypes of female beauty is perhaps a retrospective idea constructed by historians who disagreed with her politically, and certainly LeBrun herself considered only her own tastes and “fancy” when styling herself for her works.7, 8 In contemporary culture, Hilton and especially Kardashian are similarly criticised for their frankness about their sexuality, and moreover their ownership and enjoyment of it in a way that is still seen as vulgar. Ultimately, what Vigée-LeBrun has in common with her twenty first century counterparts is a liberal appreciation for, and re-appropriation of, their own so called narcissism.
WORDS BY LIZZIE MACKAREL
Featured image: Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, c. 1782, left, and Paris Hilton attends her sister’s wedding, 2015, right.
6. Mary Sheriff, “So what are you working on? – Categorising the Exceptional Woman”, in Singular Women – Writing the Artist, ed. Kristen Frederickson and Sarah E. Webb, (University of California Press, 2003)
7. Emma Barker, “Gender in Art – Women Artists and the French Academy: Vigée-LeBrun in the 1780s” in Art and its Histories, ed. Gillian Perry, Colin Cunningham and Emma Barker, (Yale University Press, 1999)