As I talked about in my post about Rembrandt van Rijn, self-portraits allow artists to create their own public identity, encompassing much more than their physical likeness. In fact, self-portraits don’t have to match their creator’s appearance at all! We each define ourselves by our character, our goals, our accomplishments, or even our failures. We want to be remembered for what we stand for, who we are.
That’s why Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun, whom I introduced in my previous post, made several strategic choices in her Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat, choices that would surprise and challenge her contemporaries. At a time when the art world was dominated by male masters and scholars like Jacques-Louis David, Lebrun was a female painter with impressive talent, astute social acuity, and a strong sense of personal pride in her work. Even though feminism was not yet a powerful social movement at the time, there are four profound reasons why Lebrun’s Self-Portrait undoubtedly embodies the spirit of future feminist movements:
1. Standing in Motion
Lebrun makes a powerful first impression as she stands assertively in a full frontal posture, directly confronting her audience of conservative critics with a soft smile and effortless, astounding beauty. With an aura of elegance and sophistication, she stands in motion, gesturing like an orator and holding her mouth slightly open, ready to speak, to move, to paint. From the first glance, you can’t help but be captivated by her presence, and you want to listen to what she has to say.
2. Palettes at Work
One of the most prominent features of this work is the large, colorful palatte Lebrun holds in her hand. She stands at the ready, brushes in hand and paints laid out for her next artistic endeavour. She is an artist first and foremost, a woman who is proud of her profession. In a society where women of class did not work at all and were supported by their husbands, this was quite a powerful feminist statement.
This focus on her work matches the intensity with which other extraordinary women painters portrayed themselves throughout history, such as Artemisia Gentileschi in her Allegory of Painting and Adelaide Labille-Guiard’s Self-Portrait with Two Pupils (interestingly, male artists like Albrecht Durer, Raphael, and Peter Paul Rubens were less likely to paint themselves at work, but rather emphasized their high social status and intellectual capacity).
3. A Hat Fit for a Queen
Simple yet bold, the graceful straw hat she bears speaks volumes about Lebrun’s social and artistic standing. On a purely visual level, the balanced curves and gently poised feather represent sophistication at its prime. But this strategic crown was also the trademark of Queen Marie Antoinette’s country fashions, worn by her feminine entourage. As the queen’s favorite painter, Lebrun enjoyed plentiful commissions, high social status, and high visibility among artists, which allowed her to showcase her talents at every opportunity. It is clear that Lebrun wished to align her public persona with the highest ranks of noblewomen in 18th century France.
The nonchalant hat dates even farther back into the past, when it was first introduced by Peter Paul Rubens in a portrait of his wife’s sister. By reappropriating this symbolic hat, Lebrun performs an emulation of Rubens that aligns her with traditional artistic “geniuses.”
4. Beauty is More than Sex
Lebrun portrays herself with incredible, unattainable beauty, and while she was known for her good looks as a lady, her portrait is too perfect to be true. I think Lebrun invites a second comparison with Rubens here. Rubens overly sexualized the subject of his portrait, emphasizing her breasts according to the latest fashions and portraying her with a demure gaze and submissive posture.
In contrast, Lebrun expresses her natural beauty without resorting to sensual allusions. She consciously avoids the sexual objectification of women that artists like Rubens tended to convey in their work. Her self-portrait moves beyond imitation and reproduction of reality to portray much more than her physical likeness. In this context, Lebrun’s beauty stems from her artistic talent. Instead of settling for her “given graces,” she celebrates her capacity to create beauty.
Not only did she produce a work of astounding beauty and cultural significance, but she also exercised the power to define her own identity. She chose the symbols that meant something to her. She chose to make a statement with her art at a time when women were just beginning to find their voices. She chose to celebrate her talents and prove to the world that she was a genius in her own right, no matter the opinion of her critics. Her portrait thus becomes an allegory of herself and her career, transcending the conventions of this “lesser” genre and ensuring that Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun would be remembered as one of the greatest artists of her time.