Some historians trace the role of the politically active artist to French Revolution-era painter Jacques-Louis David, a turbulent figure who signed the death warrants of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. But there are different kinds of revolutionaries, and David’s contemporary, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842), arguably played a more daring social game: an autodidactic female artist who achieved unprecedented success as portraitist to Antoinette and her court. Tender and sympathetic portraits of the doomed young queen and her high-ranking cohorts include two remarkably sensuous examples: The Comtesse Du Barry in a Straw Hat (ca. 1781) and The Duchesse de Polignac in a Straw Hat (1782). The subjects’ shepherdess gear, absent of the constraining corsets and panniers then in style, shows women in a relaxed state, as they might have appeared in the private, women-only salons of Versailles. Antoinette solidified Vigée Le Brun’s career by helping her get elected to the Royal Academy, an honor accorded few women. But the artist was forced to flee Paris in disguise in 1789 as her patron headed to the Guillotine. “Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France” is a groundbreaking exhibition for the Met; it is the first monographic show of a female painter there in over forty years. —Julia Wolkoff
Pictured: Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun: The Duchesse de Polignac in a Straw Hat, 1782, oil on canvas. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.