Favorite Women of Art #14--Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun
I think the time has come for an occasional revival of this series. My art writing is undoubtedly among the best work I do, besides that it invariably puts me in a positive state of mind in spite of all the objections which might be argued against its doing so. I had the good fortune to have formed romantic ideas about various subjects, including most of the arts and even much of history before I was exposed to the more realistic and exacting interpretations and scholarship, either of the exalting beyond the reach of my understanding or too thoroughly eviscerating variety. The sense of the sublime, or the ideal, or even the merely sensuously better never died entirely within me; and it still seeps through the myriad unpleasant to contemplate truths in most instances.
Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun seems to me an excellent painter. She was primarily a portraitist (portraitiste? portraitess?), and not just of run-of-the-mill and now forgotten aristocrats and wealthy merchants either, but royalty and the elite of the elite of her age. She was fond of doing flattering self-portraits as well--talk about controlling the image--of which this is my favorite example, at least of the ones that I am aware of. I like the hand full of paint brushes--it says, I am serious, and I like to work, but I am not grim about it. I like the prim petite black dress with the red sash--I don't exactly know what it says, but I think it is something like, I favor a slightly understated look that is still feminine and attractive. The headgear with the greater part of a head full of ebullient curls still out and framing the face, says, I am a 18th century French lady du monde, I really understand what titillates the more refined type of male brain, and there is pleasure in having the capacity to do so. The single visible row of teeth, and the eyes lazily open and completely exposed to the viewer says, I cast rather than bore for artistic truth. Illumination holds for me the primary appeal, obscurity very little.
Has there ever been a time when the greatest artist in a particular age, or country, or school, was a woman? It has occurred in literature; Jane Austen for example was almost certainly the best novelist working in English from 1800-17 (her death), and some would argue that Emily Dickinson was the greatest poet active during the 1860s and 70s, in America at least (I am less certain about this, though I am as yet skeptical of the supposed greatness of Whitman). It is true that neither was, or probably would have been, recognized as such at the time, but the retroactive recognition demonstrates that obviously the possibility exists at any time. Going way back I suppose most Greek scholars consider Sappho the best lyric poet of her generation. One would think it would have happened in painting at some point. In England anyway I had the impression that drawing was one of the major components of the education of young ladies of means going back to the 1700s. I realize that in most of these instances intense training was not received yet there are always instances throughout history where people who would not appear to have received world class preparation in a subject have managed to burst through with works or acts of original genius which altered the historical course of their nation's culture. I suppose the great artists have by tradition been a physically robust and combative lot, very competitive, energetic, quick to disparage the work of rivals and pour contempt on that of inferiors. When men of this combination of personality traits mixed with serious artistic abilities and a serious intellect, working in a culture that understands, cultivates and highly values the especial talents that they possess, you get something like Periclean Athens or the Italian Renaissance, in English literature perhaps the Elizabethan period, hyper-male ages of male cultural achievement, in which the contributions of female artists seem to be even more conspicuously absent than in ordinary eras, as if when highly realized male energy and power are set loose in the artistic arena, the best efforts of women are simply for a time overwhelmed? I don't know where I am going with this. Women are of course highly prominent in the art world at present not only as artists but as curators and scholars, where my suspicion is that among the under-50 set they are dominant, and as big money patronesses as well. When you get into the money and the higher refinements of true taste I kind of lose the thread because there is a disconnect with that side of the business from my romantic view. Now we're talking about who controls art, how it is presented, what one is supposed to think about it, etc, and it does seem like in many ways there is a class of woman that definitely has a strong say in that...
I don't have much time to write reviews on Amazon.com--I think I have gotten nine up in two years. No one has commented on any of my reviews yet and only 8 of 14 people have found my pieces helpful, 3 of 9 when you take out the one review I published (of the silent film Variete) that was popular. This is a matter of no interest and little meaning, but I thought I'd throw it out there.
Winter was short this year, I was busy, and I think I might have missed Maple Sugaring season. I've grown to like Maple Sugaring season, and I find myself looking forward to it, so hopefully it will still be going on somewhere. But I doubt it.