Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun Still Needs a Real Biopic

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I’ve been meaning to review The Fabulous Life of Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, Portraitist to Queen Marie Antoinette (2015) for a while, and since I was sick, and in dire need of unchallenging subject matter and pretty visuals, this seemed like a good time to dive into a subject that’s near and dear to my heart: the life and career of 18th-century French portraitist Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun. Full disclosure, my Master’s thesis focuses on Vigee-Lebrun’s controversial 1783 portrait of Marie-Antoinette (and its replacement), so while I hesitate to call myself an expert in her life and work, I lived and breathed it for several years all the same. So, my already-high-bar here is even higher than usual.

Documentary or docudrama?

When I first came across the stills from this show, I had the impression that it was more of a docudrama than outright documentary. I was somewhat disappointed to find that, upon watching it, it’s actually a straightforward documentary on the painter, with all the typical commentary from experts and an unseen narrator who does most of the talking. That said, we’ve been sorely lacking even a rudimentary documentary on Vigee-Lebrun until now, so at least this is filling a giant gap in art history documentaries. What it does mean is that there is far less of the “costume content” than I was expecting based on the stills alone.

In other words, we still need an actual film about Vigee-Lebrun, complete with fabulous costumes, so if anyone out there reading this is in a position to pitch a script, please do so. You’d make me very happy.

So, what about the costumes?

Most of the costume content is interspersed around the images of portraits and paintings by Vigee-Lebrun and her contemporaries, as well as the usual expert commentary from various art historians and curators. Some of the costumes are pretty good. Most of them, however, fluctuate between “poorly fitted” and “why is that random chick hanging out in just a corset in the Queen’s salon?”

Who is also rocking some Cinderella’s Wicked Stepmother hair.

How is it as a documentary?

Not bad, truly. It doesn’t delve too deeply into the nuances of Vigee-Lebrun’s relationships with her clientele and patrons, or the scandals that followed her based on those relationships (with men and women, alike). The script appears to derive heavily from her 1835 memoir Souvenirs, which is a polished and lovely autobiography that skims over a lot of the less savory things about her life, like her crappy relationship with her husband, her supposed affairs with various noblemen, and other salacious tidbits that I always found more interesting than her glossy self-promotion. But the highlights are all there, from her loving relationship with her father who doted and encouraged her talent in an era when women were not seen as serious artists, to her remarkable artistic ability that literally did take Paris by storm at the tender age of 23, to her controversial acceptance into the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1783, as well as her close professional relationship with artist Jacques-Louis David, who was eventually responsible for her 13-year exile from France.

Note: I still desperately want to see a film that focuses on these two. Maybe I should just fucking write it myself.

The verdict?

Worth watching if you want the basic overview of Vigee-Lebrun’s life without reading her memoir. Just don’t expect spectacular costume content.

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

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Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. Her undergraduate degree is in Clothing & Textile Design, and she has a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, Sarah enjoys reading true crime books, writing fiction, and sewing historical clothing from the Middle Ages through the 20th-century. One of these days, she might even start updating her old costuming blog again.

8 Responses

  1. Alexa Levin

    I actually just watched this recently and found it pretty good, however I did not know much about her life so I couldn’t speak to the history. I do recall lots of okay costumes (and a number that would have been okay if they had taken 5 minutes to fit better). The main thing that ticked me off while watching was how quickly the narrator talked – I wondered if he was paid by the word, rather than the hour, and just wanted to be done with it ASAP.

    Reply
  2. Elizabeth

    There was a Major exhibition of Vigée Le Brun’s work at the Met in New York two years ago. If anyone deserves a real biopic with fabulous hats and dresses, she does!

    I want to see the look from her portrait of the Comtesse de la Châtre recreated on the screen.

    Reply
  3. Susan Pola Staples

    I enjoyed it but felt that it omitted alot. Such as her relationship with David (which you mentioned), and her closeness with several of her patrons. And I’m not restricting it to just Marie Antoinette, but possibly Duchess of Polignac, MA’s bestie.

    Reply
  4. LadySlippers

    I know very little about her — what would you all recommend to fix the conundrum? Please and thank you! 🌷

    Reply
  5. M.E. Lawrence

    Is this an English-language documentary or the French one from 2015? I read a young-adult bio of her decades ago, and was fascinated. Now, as a 60-something, I really appreciate women who know/knew how to take care of themselves.

    Reply

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