Portrait of a Female Artist
The year is 1877. The Parisian group of artists who call themselves the Impressionists are displaying their works in an exhibit known as the “Salon of Rejects.” One such “reject,” Mary Cassatt, stands out as being one of only a few women and the only American among them. It was Edgar Degas, a prominent Impressionist painter, who invited Cassatt to join the ranks of the most daring and novel painters of their time, a position which Cassatt eagerly accepted.
From a young age, Cassatt had always dared to be bold. She traveled all over Europe in her youth, believing that the best lessons could be learned through worldly experience and observation. At age fifteen, Cassatt convinced her parents to let her attend the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to pursue her professional aspirations. Soon becoming frustrated with the slow pace and condescending attitudes of her male teachers and peers, Cassatt began her own independent study of the Old Masters, eventually moving to Paris in 1866. There, she honed her skills by taking private lessons with renowned artists, copying the Old Masters’ works, and sketching at the Louvre.
Marie Antoinette is an iconic, larger-than-life historical figure who has long embodied the French cultural and social milieu pre-Revolution. I am equally amused, disturbed, and fascinated by the Rococo lifestyle that suffused every aspect of her life at Versailles, characterized by its gross extravagance often verging into tackiness and frivolity. And yet the portraits of Antoinette that emerged at the time are not necessarily characteristic of such elaborate overindulgence. Instead what we have is a refreshing image of a regal, lovely, yet unusually sympathetic lady. One artist in particular can be held responsible: Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette’s court painter and a talented artist with a keen sensitivity to the nuances and quirks of her patrons.
Her portraits are a clear and vivid depiction of Marie’s likeness, featuring delicate pastel colors and showcasing her dainty features. The fact that these images are so widespread has perhaps contributed to our preoccupation and fascination with Marie Antoinette and the surprising but powerful empathy that people feel towards her. Vigée’s works have almost certainly shaped our perception of Antoinette’s cultural identity, laden with regal elegance and youthful vulnerability, especially in contrast to the larger presence of the French Rococo movement.
This article contains mentions of sexual assault that may be troubling to some readers.
“I will show Your Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do.” These words, spoken by the Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, embody the dauntless spirit of one of the Renaissance’s most famous painters.