Large (Getty Museum Open Content)
This thoroughly Rococo painting from 1785 by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, called The Vicomtesse de Vaudreuil, is (I’ll admit it) not really what I want to tell you about.
Sure, it’s beautiful—and a prime example of Le Brun’s “flair for innovative poses, [and] unerring instinct for costume,” as the Getty Museum tells us—but that’s not the fun bit.
Rather, Le Brun is best known for a (less beautiful, and thus not here pictured) self-portrait that the Guardian tells us “scandalised a contemporary gossip” by portraying the artist smiling with teeth.
Why is it thoroughly Rococo?
There are several reasons why I used the term “Rococo” to describe this piece.
The first is also the most superficial—I am far from original in finding “Rococo” a useful term for describing the visual affinity of many 18th century French paintings.
The almost-ethereal brightness of the viscountess’ skin, and the depth of green and globular leaves of the tree in the background, are reminiscent of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s most popular works; the soft, almost watery satin and the slightly greyed pastoral background to a lavishly dressed woman suggest Antoine Watteau’s landscapes; the softness of the grass and the warmth of the viscountess’ features harken back to many portraits by François Boucher.
Of course, the boundary of what counts as Rococo is fairly arbitrary. There are plenty of people who count Thomas Gainsborough as Rococo, and understandably so—visually, he is quite similar (unsurprising, considering the inspiration he took from many Rococo artists).
I might not, though—and I certainly wouldn’t call him thoroughly Rococo—because the main reason I would call The Vicomtesse thoroughly Rococo is (I will admit) that I have always felt that Le Brun would have been a better painter if she had been in a position to have greater latitude in her choices of style and subject. Her most interesting paintings, to me, are often those I would call the least Rococo.
Even in his portraits, Gainsborough portrayed a much greater range of emotion: his subjects always have clear and vivid personalities.
Yet Le Brun clearly had an excellent eye for detail: her wigs look as coarse as wigs probably would be, for example. The difference, as I’ve always assumed it to be, was the social and painting communities they were a part of—she was more often (successfully) censored and curtailed in her work.
I feel she would have been a more substantial painter if she hadn’t been (as the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica put it) in “vogue…wherever she went.” In fact, I think pretty much every major Rococo artist after Watteau would have painted more interestingly had they not been as constrained by circumstances—that’s part of why I group them the way I do in my head.
That’s actually why I like the Getty quotation; she has good instincts, but to my eye she often applies them to fairly conventional things.
That said, if you’d be willing, I’d be quite interested in hearing more of your thoughts on why reading Le Brun’s work as Rococo is a mistake—I’m very willing to believe that I’m looking at the whole thing the wrong way around.
Hi there, I’m really happy to see you responding :D (this is kinda my specialty). I’m not sober right now, but this weekend when I’m all in order I will give you a cogent response. For now, suffice it to say, she had affinities with rococo, but also a number of commonalities with neoclassicism that make that classification bad.