The Exceptional Woman: Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun and the Cultural Politics of Art

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Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun (1755-1842) was an enormously successful painter, a favourite portraitist of Marie-Antoinette, and one of the few women accepted into the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. In accounts of her role as an artist, she was simultaneously flattered as a charming woman and vilified as monstrously unfeminine. In this study Mary D. Sheriff uses Vigee-Lebrun's career to explore the contradictory position of woman-artist in the moral, philosophical, professional, and medical debates about women in 18th-century France. Paying particular attention to painted and textual self-portraits, Sheriff shows how Vigee-Lebrun's images and memoirs undermined the assumptions about woman and the strictures imposed on women. Engaging ancien-regime philosophy, as well as modern feminism, psychoanalysis, literary theory, and art criticism, Sheriff's interpretations of Vigee-Lebrun's paintings challenge us to rethink the work and the world of this controversial woman artist.