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In praise of Mothers

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VIGEE LE BRUN Elisabeth Louise - Letter Signed to her banker 1820In Britain, Mother's Day is celebrated in March; in the United States and much of Europe, it is celebrated in May. But whenever we choose to mark the day, Mother's Day is an occasion to remember and celebrate everything mothers have done for us, and the mother love that prompted those actions.

The French Enlightenment, and the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in particular, did much to change the attitude towards the bond between mother and child. Artistically, few expressed this attitude better than Elisabeth Louise Vigée LeBrun. Madame Vigée LeBrun did much to create the popular image of Marie Antoinette, and part of that image was the portrayal of the Queen with her children. One portrait, showing the Queen with her three children, poignantly includes an empty cradle, an allusion to her youngest child who had died in infancy, before the portrait could be completed.

And then there are the portraits of Madame Vigée LeBrun's own daughter, and portraits of her with her daughter, one of which is named La Tendresse Maternelle. While visiting the exhibition of Vigée LeBrun's work recently in Paris, I overheard a gentleman comment that she was the queen of the selfies - in an age before mobile phones.  Indeed she was, but her portraits with her daughter, just like her portraits of Marie Antoinette with her children, or the royal children in a bucolic landscape, remind us of the period in which they lived and worked, with the rational balancing the emotional, scientific enquiry co-existing with sentimentality.

Of course, she never forgot that one has to live, and in her case, live quite comfortably. Although Madame Vigée LeBrun was technically an exile because of the Revolution, that exile was not impoverished. Her prices were not cheap, eliciting comment when she arrived in London, and in Naples she painted Emma Hamilton, in Prussia, the lovely Queen Louise, and in Saint Petersburg she discovered an array of beautiful Countesses, Grand Duchesses, and Princesses.

 After the fall of Napoleon, she was back in Paris, and attentive to her finances as she was to her portraits: In possession of an income from the Mont de Milan on which I received interest until the end of 1813, I have learned that because of an agreement reached between various Powers, French creditors of Mont de Milan are now at the charge of the government of Rome . . . As you assured me that you would be prepared to collect in Rome the payments due to me and to come, and send them to me here, I take the liberty of sending you herewith my original deeds which name me as the owner, which, I have been told, is indispensable in Rome. . ."

The exhibition is now on in New York, at the Metropolitan Museum. I can only recommend everyone to see it. It is beautiful, sumptuous, glamorous. Don't look for peasants or workers, they didn't exist in Madame Vigée LeBrun's world, even idealised. But children did exist, and mother love was on a pedestal.

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