Tag Archives: artists

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antionette’s favorite artist and the woman who changed portrait painting (part 1)

Élisabeth Vigée (later Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun) painted her first exhibited portrait sometime before 1770 — a picture of her younger brother Étienne Vigée, who would later become a playwright and man of letters. She had not yet reached her fifteenth birthday.

Élisebeth’s early life was one of extraordinary good fortune.

— She had a talent for portrait painting and, more importantly, an inclination to use and develop that talent.

— She had a father who was also an artist, who doted on her, and who taught and encouraged her.

— Because of her father’s position, she had great teachers from a very early age.

— The artistic rage of her time was portrait painting. Everyone who was anyone wanted a portrait.

By the time she was fifteen (her father died when she was twelve, leaving her devasted with grief), she was supporting her family with so many portrait commissions that she barely had time to finish them. Her ascension as a French artist reached its highest levels when she became the favorite of Marie Antoinette while she was still in her twenties. She would paint more than 50 portraits of the queen, her husband, and family.

When she was 20, she married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, also a painter as well as an art dealer and curator. Despite the fact that in her memoirs later in life Élisabeth had few good things to say about her husband, Le Brun opened many doors for her and most crucially took her with him on a trip to Flanders and the Netherlands in 1781. There she saw many of the painting of the Dutch masters and especially those of Peter Paul Rubens.

Determined to apply the techniques that she had observed in the Netherlands, she returned to Paris and executed a self-portrait (Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1782, seen here) on wood rather than canvas that broke many of the conventions of portrait painting and caused a minor scandal. The work turned out to be highly popular, however, and she received many requests from patrons who wanted the same look she exhibited in that painting.

Her association with Marie Antionette, which had been so important to her reputation and income, became a detriment to her safety in 1789 when a mob stormed the Bastille, setting in motion the French Revolution. Élisabeth fled France with her daughter Julie when the royals were arrested and began a 12-year sojourn that took her around Europe and highlighted her fame.

That will story will be in part 2.

The courtroom sketch artist: art in a pressure-cooker

Courtroom sketch artists are people who can draw (or paint) quickly, accurately depicting what they see and unafraid to allow others — maybe millions of others — to see what they have done.

They work under seemingly impossible deadlines, sometimes only a few minutes, at best a few hours. There’s very little chance of editing or corrections.

Yet with the continuing ban on cameras in many courtrooms in America, the courtroom sketch artist is the only way we have of seeing what’s happening in the judicial system.

A few recent high-profile courtroom scenes (Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein) provoked Time magazine into doing an article of some of these remarkable people: What It’s Like to Be a Courtroom Sketch Artist | Time. The article includes this:

Courtroom sketch artists toe a line of talent, speed, accuracy and precision, as they often serve as the only individuals who can see what happens in some of the most high-profile court cases across the country. Their jobs have changed drastically recently as officials tweak the rules around when cameras can come into the courtroom and as the 24/7 news cycle creates tighter deadlines. All the while, these artists often create these sketches while squeezed into courtrooms, sometimes sitting behind pillars, using binoculars and, in Cornell’s case, shifting in their seats to see the central figures hidden behind bulky court marshals.

As someone who does a good bit of drawing and painting, I have often wondered what it would be like to work in these pressure-cooker conditions and what kind of drawings I would produce. How would I do what these excellent and talented artists do?

The answer I have come up with for myself would be twofold: prepare and practice. Before the proceedings begin, know what the scene looks like and who will be there. Then start drawing those folks in different postures and with different expressions. Practice, practice, practice.

And hope that when the time comes to produce, you’re having a good day artistically.

If this topic interests you, here’s a book to check out:

The Illustrated Courtroom: 50 Years of Court Art  by Sue Russell  and Elizabeth Williams  (Author)

Illustration: Harper’s Weekly sketch of the arraignment of John Brown, 1859. Sketched by Porte Crayon (David Strother).