Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Thirteen Contemporary Artists Portray Their Own Children

Slide Show
Slide Show|13 Photos

Artists’ Children, Depicted By Their Parents

Artists’ Children, Depicted By Their Parents

CreditCourtesy Cheim & Read, New York and Victoria Miro Gallery, London
As a young person learning her trade, the French artist Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) was trained exclusively in portraiture, a properly feminine pursuit. Vigée Le Brun then became a society portraitist, and for more than a century was looked down upon for that. (There’s a drawback to having your lucky break be a commissioned painting of Marie Antoinette.) At first Vigée Le Brun’s stepfather made off with much of her earnings; she then married a charismatic man of taste who again and again spent her money on finery, though he did successfully market Vigée Le Brun as an artist, and arranged high fees for her work. Some said the fees were too high, that she was not that good; others said her work was too good to have actually been done by a woman, that it must in fact have been done by a man, maybe a lover. Perhaps the most predictable of the gripes directed against Vigée Le Brun was Simone de Beauvoir’s: In dismissing a series of female artists, she wrote disparagingly of Vigée Le Brun that she ‘‘never wearied of putting her smiling maternity on her canvases,’’ even though only two of the extant Vigée Le Brun portraits are of herself with her daughter. Admittedly, they are particularly beautiful.
Among the paintings made by the 18th-century society portraitist Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun were several of children, including one of Marie Antoinette’s family, and this one from 1787 of the artist’s own daughter, Julie, entitled ‘‘Julie Le Brun Looking in a Mirror.’’ Credit Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Painting children must be difficult. Maybe even more difficult than being one of the first major female artists. It’s not only that children move so much, and are so alien, and fill us with outsize love (or outsize fear or revulsion). But also because their eyes really are so relatively large, and their skin really is so relatively unblemished. Avoiding cliché and idealization in portraits of children must be comparable to trying to un-cutely depict a panda, or a puppy. In literature, children often appear as animals or dolls or, as in the case of Pinocchio, a marionette whose peers are animals. It’s as if, in human form, the essential aspect of a child is too easily obscured. Yet when we see a Rubens or Velázquez child, we know that, cheeks and all, we’re seeing something that we would likely miss even with the child in front of us.
Vigée Le Brun did not especially dedicate herself to painting children, but she had an especial gift for it. Children in her paintings appear at ease, about to move; their postures look awkward, and accurate. In the 1787 portrait Vigée Le Brun painted of her daughter, Julie, holding a mirror, something is wonderfully wrong. The Julie in the mirror can’t be the reflection of the Julie holding the mirror; the gaze of the Julie in the mirror should look back at the girl who appears to be looking at herself, but instead the reflected gaze looks straight out at us. Also at the painter herself, her mother. It’s as though the work confesses frankly that to catch honest sight of a child requires an imaginary angle of reflection.

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