Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Planning Visits to Art Exhibitions in Paris, e.g. Vigée Le Brun at Grand Palais

Lovely as serendipity can be (I've also written about Serendipity in travel-planning here), we don't rely completely on its charms when we travel. Generally, I scope out can't-miss exhibitions or concerts before we fly; sometimes, as with the Tate Modern's Matisse show last year and our visit to the Borghese Gallery a couple of months ago, even buying tickets online. But we also try to leave room to check out what's happening when we arrive in a city, matching the scene to our energy levels, the weather, and our overall priorities for the trip.

As is so often the case for art-viewing in Paris, the architectural setting is as delectable as the exposition itself...

For our first visit to Rome, for example, summer before last, we had only two days and decided to devote them to random strolling with plenty of breaks for coffee, wine, and people-watching.  This year in that city, other than the opera and the Borghese Gallery, which required advance planning, I only wanted to get to a couple of specific churches to see specific works, and I wanted to get inside the Pantheon. No tickets required for either, and we managed to avoid all line-ups. For the next several years, the Eternal City will be home to my daughter's family, and spending time with them will be the main focus of each trip. I'll gradually work my way through a list of art and architecture that I'd like to see, and I'll probably book something specific for one or two days of each visit.

A delightful spot to rest and recharge between sections of the show in the Grand Palais
In Paris, by contrast, Paul and I need only plan around our own interests, and we generally organize several days around visits to exhibitions we'd rarely see back home. This last trip, as I've already posted, our first day back in Paris took us serendipitously (via the Silver Lining route) to the Kuniyoshi show at the Petit Palais. But you might remember that we'd actually been hoping to see either of two exhibitions showing in the Grand Palais, both of which were sold out for the next few hours.

So after we'd enjoyed the Kuniyoshi show, followed by a delicious lunch at an old favourite, Le Petit Vatel, on the way back to our hotel in the 5th, I settled in for a nap, and Pater headed off to FNAC on Rue de Rennes with a list of exhibitions to buy tickets for. We've been taking advantage of FNAC's patient, helpful staff to organize our Paris days and evenings for a few years now. They all speak English, but they've also been very willing to rester en français so that we can practise. There is a handling fee, yes, but it's very reasonable, and we've been able to buy tickets for most exhibitions as well as for concerts -- we've bought billets for the St. Germain des Près Jazz Festival and for string quartets in Sainte Chappelle, passes to join the short lines at the d'Orsay and to stroll through the doors at the Palais de Tokyo. FNAC stores dot the city (my sister and I bought our tickets in the underground mall at Les Halles last May), so you should be able to find one along your way, no matter what part of the city you're staying in. And, of course, you can do all of this online, perhaps even more efficiently, but without the assistance and the chance to interact with a human being you can see.

When you buy your tickets, you'll need to know what days and at what times, you'd like to visit which exhibitions, although the FNAC staff are, as I said, helpful and patient and generally willing to guide you through the choices. You also need to pay attention to the ticket's terms. Most often, the ticket permits you to enter at a certain time but is limited to entry within an hour from that time. You also need to be sure you get in the correct line-up at the exhibition, which can be a bit confusing; there's always someone to ask, though, and better to do that than to wait and wait and wait in the line for ticket hopefuls rather than the one for Munis d'un Billet (Armed with a Ticket).

Paul got back to our hotel room just as I was making myself a cup of tea, after a very satisfying afternoon nap, and he laid out the tickets that would organize our days in Paris: two for shows at the Grand Palais and one for a Fragonard exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg. Each ticket was for a mid-morning entry (they ranged from 9:30 to 10:30), allowing us a two-hour visit before lunch. Well done, Pater!
This portrait in pastels--Femme au mantelet bleu à "coqueluchon"-- by Vigée LeBrun's father, Louis Vigée, suggests the source of some of her talent. Not only did she inherit his, but she also benefited from his training and his confidence in her skill, although he died when she was only 12.

So the next day after we'd had our breakfast of coffee and tartines across the street, we walked to the Grand Palais again, this time assured that we'd get to see the exposition  I teased you with a peek at a week or so ago. . .

That charming portrait of a young girl looking at an intriguingly angled image of her own face is a portrait by 18th-century artist Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun of her daughter, a subject she painted many times.  I'd never heard of Vigée Le Brun until reading of the show at the Grand Palais, but I wanted to see her work both because portraits fascinate me, and also because I'm thrilled when work by women in any field gains the attention it was denied for too long.

In fact, although her work was slighted for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Vigée Le Brun earned considerable acclaim in her day. Her talent manifested itself very early, and although the contemporary art schools weren't open to girls, she found professional-quality instruction through her father, then through friends. She was receiving commissions in her teens, and she quickly established a reputation for flattering her subjects while nonetheless representing them convincingly. As Geneviève Haroche-Bouzinac says in the Album de L'exposition, she was sought out because "elle sait l'art de détendre le modèle par une conversation enjouée" -- my rough translation: she knew the art of getting her model to relax through an enjoyable conversation.

These abilities led her to exalted places, and she became the favourite portraitist of that doomed Queen, Marie Antoinette. Through our rented headsets, en français so that we might practise our French (Note to self: next time, come armed with earbuds, and listen via smartphone, apps available for most exhibitions these days), Pater and I learned the complexities of this task, the importance placed on setting, clothing choice, pose, as Marie Antoinette established her position and negotiated her relationship with her subjects. Of course, with hindsight, we can see how the queen's deliberate declaration of her stature through pomp and luxe put her at risk, ribbon by ribbon, flounce by flounce, fold by sumptuous fold of deep red velvet, feather by dramatic ostrich feather... But what struck me most, in looking at this particular suite of portraits, was this image of Marie Antoinette et ses enfants. I find it almost unbearably poignant,  knowing that Louis Joseph, the young boy on the right, would be dead within a couple of years of the painting, and that Marie Antoinette gave birth to and lost a daughter, Sophie, during the year she would have sat for this grand work. I'm assuming that the boy on her lap is Louis Charles, born in 1785 -- the painting was completed in '87, but I may be mistaken. He died in 1795, in prison, probably of tuberculosis, 18 months after his mother was executed, two years after his father.
Please excuse the quality of this image, which I photographed from the Album de L'exposition -- the sheen of the rich, heavy pages bounces light back awkwardly...

Marie Thérèse, the young girl on the left, survived the carnage, but as an orphan, her siblings all passed away. After spending a good portion of her teen years in prison, surely in grief and despair, she made an unhappy marriage, not of her own choosing, and all accounts point to an unhappy life overall, stretched out for 72 years.

So yes, I'm fascinated and horrified and saddened, looking back at this young mother with her three sweet and very well-dressed children. Even more than photographic portraits can do, a portrait compresses time and experience, every brush stroke the result of many hours of subjects and artists sharing space. How did portraitist and mother conspire to keep those children still during the necessary studies? How many nurses and nannies and maids were just offstage, ready to put a cranky child to bed? Was there a wet nurse ready to suckle the youngest child? Was there a tangle of toys in the corner to distract? Did anyone think to tell the childrem a story as they tried not to fidget? And then back in her studio, working on the very large canvas, did Vigée Le Brun reflect on the queen's way with her children? Did she have much awareness of any growing dissatisfaction of the French public with what they saw as royal profligacy?

  I can't help think about choices and agency and chance and history's grand forces...While so many of those she had painted were being loaded into tumbrels for that last, ill-fated ride, Vigée Le Brun managed to arrange more auspicious transportation, and got herself out of the country! She spent the next years living and working in Russia, Austria, and Italy, traveling also to England, Switzerland, before finally returning to France, where she remained until her death in her late 80s,

So much more could be written about her life and work, as well as about my visit in October, not only in terms of my response to her paintings, but also to the experience of viewing it in the Grand Palais. The size, configuration, and pace of the exhibition, for example: the push from room to room, the crowds, however moderated by the limited admission, making it difficult at times to find a decent vantage for viewing that doesn't interfere with others' sightlines. A bit of cultural anthropology, the enjoyment of observing the difference between tourists and Parisiens making their way through the show, the particular dress of the women friends who worked the show together, building up, certainly, to a delightful lunch together afterward....

But I need to wind this post down, it having consumed too many hours already. So let me just note one other interest, for me, in these portraits -- the role of a female artist in representing female subjects, well aware of her need, as a member of the Royal Academy, to conform to conventions of portraiture, but perhaps also aware, as a woman, of the inherent politics of the gaze: of three gazes, that is, the one of the artist, sticking subject to canvas; the one of the subject, often directed away from the viewer, thus eclipsing subjectivity, rendering female as desired, potentially possessed, object; and the gaze of the eventual owner of the painting and the viewers of those who would be invited to enjoy it.

The portrait in the photo above, for example, of young Julie contemplating a framed image of herself, subject and object both, and compellingly so -- the frank return of the viewer's gaze in the small image, the more demure profile in the larger one, together a mise-en-abîme consideration of visuality and visibility. Below, more disturbingly, on the brink of puberty, clutching her right breast in imitation of the Book of Daniel "Susanna at her Bath" scene so often rendered throughout the European history of painting. The curator's notes to the right of the painting tell us that it was commissioned by a prince, and that it was modeled after Jean-Baptiste Santerre's interpretation of the scene. Given that Santerre was known for his erotic nudes, given that Julie was only twelve when this portrait was painted and sold, I couldn't help but think of the controversy over photographer Sally Mann's work,* her arguable confounding of her dual roles, mother and artist. And after all, is there any other trope in the history of painting that so calls upon an awareness of the gaze and its sexual implications (for those who aren't familiar with the story of Susannah, in the innocence of her bath, she was spied upon by "elders" who lusted after her and threaten to accuse her of adultery if she doesn't have sex with them)?

One last portrait, then, of mother and child together. I read somewhere that Vigée Le Brun's willingness to represent herself in the maternal role rested on her professional confidence established through years of high-status commissions together with her early admission to the Academy; other female artists might have been more inclined to obscure their female status, even more their maternal one. This photo compels me by the different tenor of those two gazes, as well as by the notion of the mechanics of observation and memory required to set up the composition. Some of this must have involved a mirror, would you think? And perhaps she might have used other models, just so that she could get the pose right from the other side of the canvas. Such a potent moment, mother arguably just at the peak of her youthful beauty, surely in that era close to losing her looks -- a tooth here and there, perhaps, her hair greying. And at the same time, her daughter already showing clear signs of looks that will eclipse her mother's. . .Her face surely draws the viewer more, takes up more light, more foreground. Her steadfast look at the viewer has an element of mystery, a sense she's going to turn back inward, away from us, while her mother, by contrast, looks almost simpering, her hold just a bit forced.
This photo, as well, was snapped from the album of essays and reproductions I picked up at the Exposition's Gift Shop -- although I have to keep a careful eye on volume and weight, I try to pick up one of these at each show, a great way to remember what I've seen and to expand my knowledge of art history.

And now I really have to stop, but you're welcome to stay for a while and imagine Vigée Le Brun's life on either side of the French Revolution, admire the sumptuous garments (and wonder how they ever cleaned them, and how often), or simply look on these faces, painted so richly, of people who once sat in a studio modeling and chatting and perhaps shivering, In these days of instantly transmitted Selfies, it bears imagining, no? I'd love to know what you think.

Finally, of all I'm trying to say here, I guess I'd love part of what you take away to be how magical Paris is, and has been, for Pater and me, and for so many others over centuries, as a place to be exposed to art. If not for this visit, I might never have learned of this fascinating woman and her art.

EDITED TO ADD; If you're lucky enough to find tickets to Paris in your Christmas stocking, this exposition continues at the Grand Palais until January 11th, 2016, but if you miss it there, perhaps you can arrange a jaunt to New York where it will be at The Metropolitan Museum from February 9th to May 15th.
And for all my compatriots, especially those of you back East, you can find this expo, along with some air-conditioned relief from summer heat and humidity, at Ottawa's Musée des Beaux Arts, from June 10th to September 12th.

*I spent some time reading and writing about Mann's photographs for my doctoral dissertation and then we were lucky enough to see an exhibition of them in London -- beautiful, powerful, and disturbing, no question.


  1. Beautiful,beautiful description of the exibition and your consideration!
    Paintings are wonderful and sad,thinking about the time they were painted. I read a lot about Marie Antoinette when I was young (Dumas and other authors),so many opinions and approaches about her and her life,it is fascinating! And somewhere I met the lady paintress,too. Her life was very interesting,too. But it was long time ago (my reading).
    It is great post Frances,I like it very much. Thank you ,for the exibition and for the reminder!

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed the post! I was fascinated by Vigée Le Brun's life and by her work as well, and writing the post gave me a chance to review what I'd learned and find out a bit more. Apparently, there's a play about VleB and Marie Antoinette, and there's a film in the works -- The Colour of Flesh, it seems to be called.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your account of the exhibition. Lovely illustrations too. Those French exhibition catalogues are sumptuous, aren't they? - though expensive and heavy to carry.
    I was interested in your reference to the three gazes, and have been mulling over Vigee Lebrun's own three gazes - as woman, as artist and as subject (of the crown when painting the queen, but as subject per se in the self portraits).Thank you so much for such a thought-provoking post - I'd been looking forward to it very much and it was ALMOST as good as being there!

    1. Thanks, Rosemary. I spent too many hours putting this together and then wondered if anyone would want to read all the way through. Waking up to these first three knowledgeable and thoughtful comments made it all worthwhile!
      Yes, the exhibition catalogues are absolutely splendid. I'll admit I'm generally too frugal with money and suitcase space, and instead I get the much slimmer version which has at least the "best of"s and a selection of essays...

    2. If you haven't already read it, I think you'd really enjoy Caroline Moorehead's Dancing to the Precipice (2009) about Lucie de la Tour du Pin, another woman who survived the Revolution. Interesting times, indeed - and like all such times, I imagine, better to read about than to live through!

  3. It's years since I studied Vigee Le Brun, but I seem to remember she was criticised at the time for showing women's teeth - considered shocking in those days - was that because they would have been unattractive, or was there a perceived erotic element? She also challenged the idea of the 'male gaze' with her women subjects' gaze challenging that of the - usually male - onlooker. Elizabeth

    1. Elizabeth, I came across this response somewhere but then couldn't find it again so I didn't want to cite it. But it's true that several of her portraits do show women with their mouth at least partly open, allowing at least a glimpse of their teeth, as you can see in the mother-daughter pose above with V leB herself. What I understood from wherever I read about this was that in showing them, she was defying conventions of painting that had been adhered to for centuries.

    2. Elizabeth,the convention of painting portraits with mouths shut may be partially because of the conditition of their teeth. And teeth are difficult to paint to look natural
      Or everyone wants to look serious and smart :-)

  4. So much to digest here. I'm going to have to come back and re-read, but there's something (to me, anyway) very *modern* about Le Brun's works. There's a suggestion of earthy humanity, even in the most formal of portraits. The poignancy of both painted and photographed portraits of people we know met a bad end always stays with me.

    1. It was such a tumultuous time, and even though she was politically quite reactionary (a very loyal monarchist!), she was a modern woman in terms of her career, certainly, although pragmatic enough to conform to the most important conventions. So many fascinating lives.. .And portraits, especially, seem to me to point in so many interesting directions.

  5. I enjoyed this post very much. Your blog makes me feel I'm getting my brain in gear after many years of it being deadened by my job (ironically in a university, but on The Dark Side (management). You may be interested in another woman painter, Artemisia Gentileschi. Michael Palin is doing a programme about her on BBC4 after Christmas. http://www.themichaelpalin.com/ramblings/ (Eurostar to Paris); http://www.biography.com/people/artemisia-gentileschi-9308725. I know you probably don't get BBC iPlayer tho :(.

    1. What a nice thing to say, Linda -- thank you so much!
      We were lucky enough to visit an exhibition of Artemisia Getileschi's work a couple of years ago at the Maillol in Paris (closed now, sadly, although I have my fingers crossed it will straight out financial problems and re-open). I subsequently read Susan Vreeland's novel based on AG's life and I wrote a bit about it here http://materfamiliasreads.blogspot.ca/2012/10/a-historical-survey.html
      I suspect I'd enjoy the BBC program more -- I'll have to try to see if the iTunes store might have it. It would fit in nicely with the reading I've been doing on Bernini and Borromini and balance all that Baroque testosterone a bit...


I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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