By Sarah Bochicchio
In 1787, Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun debuted her latest self-portrait at the prestigious Paris Salon. In it, her lips are parted in a demure smile; she cradles her young daughter, effusing maternal intimacy. Both are clad in gauzy white dresses that tenderly suggest a shared identity.
The Salon was appalled. “The painting shocked because it ignored rules about facial representation,” explains historian Colin Jones, a professor at Queen Mary University of London. “The idea of the smile with the teeth showing was not exactly new, but to have Madame Vigée-Le Brun actually identified with this gesture is seen as throwing away the rulebook of Western art.” A teeth-baring grin was for genre paintings, irreverent images of bourgeois domesticity à la Jan Steen. It was certainly not intended for the refashioning of Mother and Child, one of the oldest motifs in the Western canon.
One contemporary journalist wrote that Vigée-Le Brun’s display of teeth was “an affectation which artists, connoisseurs, and people of good taste are unanimous in condemning”—a fervor representative of the controversies that filled the French painter’s life. As Jones notes: “She liked breaking conventions.”
Vigée-Le Brun was born in 1755 to humble Parisian beginnings. She exhibited a gift for the arts from a young age, although she was rejected from formal training on the basis of her gender. Instead, the aspiring artist worked in a history painter’s atelier, took oil painting lessons, and visited the city’s most important galleries. By the 1770s, she was taking clients. By 1783, she had claimed one of the four seats reserved for women at the Academy, due to direct intervention from Queen Marie Antoinette, her most famous subject, and King Louis XVI………….