During the course of her lifetime, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun painted many self-portraits, including her 1789 Self-Portrait with Her Daughter Julie (à l’Antique). In this intimate painting, she is seated on a bench as her daughter Julie leans into her body, and the arms of mother and daughter circle around each other. What differentiates this work from other self-portraits is her choice of attire. In this work, she appears to be wearing a one-shouldered dress that resembles the ancient Greek chiton, a garment not worn since antiquity. Why would the artist dress this way?
What is she wearing?
While other self-portraits by Vigée Le Brun show her wearing fashionable but modest dress (see for example her self-portrait from 1790), this garment exposes one shoulder and the upper chest area of her body. Although Vigée Le Brun wrote in her memoirs that she often “wore white dresses in muslin or linen lawn,”  she is not wearing an actual dress in this self-portrait, but one that has been formed from a length of white cloth wrapped over one shoulder and around her body. The cloth is held in place with a red scarf that is bound twice around her torso and fastened underneath her bust. A length of green silk is draped across her legs and a red ribbon is tied around her unpowdered hair. The artist’s considerable skill in rendering cloth is evident but there is another message intended by her choice of dress in this work.
Why would she dress this way for her self-portrait?
As a woman artist in eighteenth century France, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun had to work harder to gain access to the profession than a man with comparable skills, especially since women were not permitted access to life drawing classes. At the time, the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture) governed the profession of art in France, such that only members of the Academy had the right to publicly exhibit their work in the official salons. Although Vigée Le Brun was initially denied membership to the Academy, in 1783 the king of France ordered an exception be made and the artist became one of four female members.
An artist’s self-portrait is a form of calling card that not only demonstrates skills in achieving a likeness but may also be designed to convey messages about the artist’s identity and inner life. Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s design of her 1789 self-portrait with her daughter echoes that of the Renaissance painter Raphael, a much-admired artist in eighteenth century France. Vigée Le Brun’s pose with her daughter creates a triangular composition that is reminiscent of Raphael’s Madonna and Child in The Small Cowper Madonna. In Raphael’s work, the arms of baby Jesus encircle his mother’s neck and the colours red, blue and green predominate. In addition, the manner in which the drapery falls across the lap in Le Brun’s work also seems to emulate Raphael.
Aside from the reference to Raphael, the draped cloth worn by Vigée Le Brun also creates a timeless quality that harkens back to the classical period. Although a more informal and lightweight type of long-sleeved dress was worn in the 1780s by women including the artist and her clients, the dress worn by the artist in this particular self-portrait is quite different from the the chemise á la reine. The garment worn by Vigée Le Brun in this work bares one shoulder and, in this way, closely resembles a chiton, a sleeveless and form-fitting dress created from draped cloth. Many examples of the chiton can be seen ancient Greek sculpture, including a marble statue of Aphrodite from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In creating a visual link to the classical era (ancient Greece and Rome) through her choice of dress, Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun may have wanted to reference legendary figures from that time. According to a Greek myth recounted by Pliny the Elder, the Corinthian maiden Dibutadis created the first drawing when she traced the shadow of her lover on a wall; this tale, in which the origin of drawing was linked to a desire to remember, was well known to artists in the eighteenth century. By wearing a form of dress linked to that time, Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun suggests that she is equally worthy of being remembered. Or she may have wanted the viewer to link her to the renowned painter Apelles of Kos from the fourth century B.C.E who Pliny the Elder considered superior to all other artists of the time. Either way, in dressing herself in a manner that is suggestive of classical antiquity, the artist invites viewers to equate her artwork to that of the artistic legends of the past.
Reading the clues of dress in a self-portrait
When an artist creates a self-portrait, they can choose to wear whatever they feel best reflects their identity. In reading such works, it is important to consider the fact that the artist’s choice of attire may or may not reflect what was actually worn at the time but instead be a deliberate reference to another artist and/or another time period. Such is the case in Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s Self-Portrait with Her Daughter Julie (à l’Antique) in which she references the classical period in her manner of dress in order to cast herself as equal to legendary masters from the past.
- Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun, Memoirs of Madame Vigée-Lebrun, translated by Lionel Strachey, 1903 (London: Dodo Press, 2017), p. 42
Joseph Baillio, Katharine Baetjer, Paul Lang, Vigée Le Brun (New Haven: Yale University Press in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2016).
Ingrid E. Mida, Reading Fashion in Art (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020).
Mary D. Sheriff, The Exceptional Woman: Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and the Cultural Politics of Art (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1996).
Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun, Memoirs of Madame Vigée-Lebrun, Translated by Lionel Strachey, 1903. (London: Dodo Press, 2017).