I thought long and hard about how to make it in a man’s world of art. So I decided to go through history and find a woman artist who really made it. Specifically, she had to be commercially successful, feted by the society and approved by the institutions of the time, so… I had to go back to the time of the French Revolution
1755 … Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun was the real thing. She was one of the most successful and prolific portrait painters of all time. Precociously talented, one could see it as early as 6 years old. She started with a loving family behind her. Not allowed in the academic schools or attend life drawing classes as a woman she copied Rubens, Rembrandts and Van Dycks which her family introduced to her early on. She was so good at painting portraits she started to earn a great deal of money painting the grand ladies of the court starting at 16 years old (!) and helped to support her family.
In her lifetime she executed over 900 works which spanned from 1755 -1842. These works included history paintings, as well as landscapes. The majority were beautifully colored, deftly rendered, idealized likenesses of the most prominent aristocrats of her time. Oh, and did I mention she was absolutely beautiful?
At 20 years old she and her family moved into what she thought was a Mr. Lebruns mansion and after 6 months he proposed marriage to her and she accepted. He was not a bad man but squandered all her fortune and played around a lot. It was not till after the French Revolution that she was allowed to divorce him and start to keep her commissions. Her talent leads her to paint Queen Marie-Antoinette with her children and it was exhibited in the Salon of 1788. It was a huge success and met with universal acclaim. This leads her to paint all the Royal family. She actually painted 30 portraits of the Queen and her family and in 1786 she painted Mm du Barry.
In 1787 she exhibited at the Salon a self-portrait with her daughter Julie showing herself smiling and open-mouthed which was in direct contradiction of traditional painting. Then in May 1783, she was received as a member of the Academie Royal. She was extremely productive, at least 3 settings in a day, then going on to great parties with great poets artists and musicians at night. She herself threw wonderful parties with great style. Women reigned before the revolution and strangely after the French Revolution, were all dethroned and the women who were members of the Salon were also kicked out at that time.
It helps to be in the right moment in history when women are admired and accepted. Are we living in one now……maybe? Besides being beautiful she was full of wit, grace, and charm, all qualities appreciated in the Paris of the Ancient Regime and was a loving mother. If you are interested in reading more about her life, there are several books written about her but I had it in my mind: what could women artists learn from her, who had it all even in a world run by men?
So here goes:
- Beauty always helps. Look as beautiful as you can. The idea of the poor woman artist in jeans, no make up,…well really……We are deeply wired for beauty. It is Nature’s way to attract a partner
- Be brave, you must promote yourself. Go outside your circle, go to fairs talk to people and collectors. Men do it all the time. Get over that it is being pushy, women don’t do that… all the men artists are out there going to parties to art events chatting to collectors, writers etc…..out you go…
- Make some events in your studio, very good wine and conversation with poets, musicians… try to create a small salon. It has always helped historically speaking.
- People are jealous so you might have to become famous somewhere else. Hockney finally went to America where the American public appreciated him. Elizabeth had to run away from Paris during the French Revolution and traveled all over Europe where she was feted and given awards, in Italy, Russia. She painted the grand Aristocratic families wherever she was. One of the reasons she was given place in their Artist Organizations is the officials knew she would be moving on. Not living there permanently helped.
- OK here’s the real answer. She was a genius at painting. Her immensely seductive appeal was due to a highly individual style she developed I would say by 20. Her sensuous, brilliant and creamy coloristic use of pigments was used in an informal and spontaneous. way. She posed her subjects as if they were in motion and you caught them sometimes in a romantic setting sometimes austere.
- OK, she had an uncanny ability to represent her aristocratic subjects as unpretentious, thoughtful people in informal attire caught in moments of unguarded introspection. Great image making for very spoiled people I would say. But it means what you paint or sculpt will enhance your client’s image whatever it is. Are they bankers, businessmen… what do they want to show the world.
- At the end like Madame Le Brun be serious and original. If you’ve found your style stick to it. There is always a special period where the works are the strongest. Your work should be identifiable in any medium.
- Even in the eighteenth-century men who made great fortunes were eager to invest in bankable works of art. So look for the best gallery to show you. The best Museum to show you.
- From the beginning of your career try to be sold at auction. That is for today’s world the most important of all…I can not tell you how important that is. Luckily there are auction houses worldwide now.
- It is still a man’s world so it will not hurt if your husband is a dealer or curator, collector or somehow connected to the world of art. Not an artist- too much competition and jealousy between you.
- And last but equally important be intuitively attuned to the complex cultural currents of your time. Try to be deep thinking, step out of the noise. Where is our world now? Don’t be afraid to disrupt. Use what is available today, 3D printing, digital, new materials, The great artists were well versed in many fields, engineering, astronomy etc…..
Well, I hope this has helped. Feel free to email me your thoughts and All the Best.