THE SWEETNESS OF LIFE by Angelica Goodden


A Biography of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun
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A scholarly, illuminating biography of one of the 18th century’s most successful female portraitists. Although her paintings appear in museums the world over, critics and historians have often given VigÇe Le Brun short shrift, faulting her for the complaisant quality of her art. Here Goodden, a fellow in French at Oxford University, duly notes this tendency but also makes plain the aesthetic and economic constraints within which the artist had to work. For although she was the daughter of a minor portrait painter and precociously talented as a child, VigÇe Le Brun was denied any formal art training on the basis of her sex. “Such institutional prejudice mattered insamuch as life drawing was the basis of historical painting, the highest genre in the pictorial hierarchy, and one to which ambitious women aspired,” notes Goodden. And so, from the time she first set up her own studio—when she was just an adolescent—VigÇe Le Brun became a painter of portraits, primarily those of French royalty, power brokers, courtiers, and courtesans. For better or worse, she also gained unparalleled access to the royal court and became the chosen portraitist of Marie-Antoinette. Fortunately, her close affiliation with the queen did not doom her to suffer the same grisly fate; she fled Paris in disguise even as the royal family was being forcibly removed from Versailles. Although Le Brun continued to earn a handsome living from the royal ÇmigrÇs who scattered throughout Europe in the wake of the French Revolution, the world she had known disintegrated, and with it her hopes of becoming a painter of history. What she did, though, she did exceptionally well and earned her place as one of only a handful of women admitted to the AcadÇmie Royale in Paris. Without overemphasizing the rarity of her subject, Goodden balances VigÇe Le Brun’s personal adventurousness and her political conservatism with cool objectivity. (8 pages color, 16 pages b&w illustrations)

Pub Date: Jan. 15th, 1999
ISBN: 0-233-99021-6
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Collins & Brown/Trafalgar
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 1998