Vigée Le Brun, “Self Portrait with Daughter Julie”


Vigée Le Brun, “Self Portrait with Daughter Julie”


It’s not uncommon these days to see a mother and her child huddle together in front of  a phone camera to snap a quick selfie. An 18th century “selfie” with a mother and child, however, required significantly more effort and skill. Perhaps that’s why Vigée Le Brun’s exquisite painting “Self Portrait with Daughter Julie” (1789) is so special. It’s more than a portrait of a woman and her daughter: it’s a mother’s heart conveyed through brushstrokes as well as the depiction of a woman as portrayed through her own narrative lens.

As simple a scene as this image portrays, much of Le Brun’s career took place in the lavishly opulent Palace of Versailles, where she was the court painter to the equally extravagant Queen Marie Antoinette. Much of the popular contemporary art at the time was in the Rococo style, a trend which glorified the luxuriant, excessive, and carefree lifestyles of the aristocracy. Le Brun’s virtuosity in portraying details like the rich fabrics and wardrobe details enabled her to create dazzling portraits of France’s majestic queen.

            However, when the time came to depict her own likeness, and that of her young daughter, the image she created is one of warmth, tenderness, and maternal love. Unlike the palace scenes, the background is simple and plain so that nothing distracts from the two figures in the center. Their arms wrap around each other, and as if that were not enough,  the little girl’s face nestles into her mother’s neck. From their shining eyes, to their gentle smiles, their faces show contentment and security. In contrast with the extravagant attire in the Palace of Versailles,  Le Brun painted herself in a loose fitting and simple cloth outfit; a nod to classical culture that frequented the art of the 18th century.

            Serene as this portrait appears, the surrounding historical context was quite the opposite. Le Brun painted this portrait in 1789, the same year that the French Revolution broke out. The resulting upheaval led to the death of Marie Antoinette, and deemed Le Brun an exile from France. The material wealth and excess of the aristocracy that had formerly filled canvases of Rococo painters had begun to crumble. In this painting, however, Le Brun showed her true treasure: her daughter and the love they shared. Riches fade, and kingdoms fall, but a mother’s love is forever.