Cover image for The exceptional woman : Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and the cultural politics of art
The exceptional woman : Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and the cultural politics of art
Sheriff, Mary D.
Personal Author:
Paperback edition.
Publication Information:
Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Physical Description:
xiv, 353 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
ND1329.V53 S54 1996 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Elisabeth Vig#65533;e-Lebrun (1755-1842) was an enormously successful painter, a favorite 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 The Exceptional Woman, Mary D. Sheriff uses Vig#65533;e-Lebrun's career to explore the contradictory position of "woman-artist" in the moral, philosophical, professional, and medical debates about women in eighteenth-century France. Paying particular attention to painted and textual self-portraits, Sheriff shows how Vig#65533;e-Lebrun's images and memoirs undermined the assumptions about "woman" and the strictures imposed on women.

Engaging ancien-r#65533;gime philosophy, as well as modern feminism, psychoanalysis, literary theory, and art criticism, Sheriff's interpretations of Vig#65533;e-Lebrun's paintings challenge us to rethink the work and the world of this controversial woman artist.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

A court painter to Marie Antoinette, Vigee-Lebrun is a part of the feminist hidden heritage rediscovered in the 1970s. Although she has inspired exhibition catalogs and book chapters since, this is the only recent English-language book devoted to the artist. But it is not a traditional biography. Beginning with the notion of professional exceptionality--i.e., the idea that something elevated this artist to a status above her peers--Sheriff (art history, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) reviews specific incidents, other art and literature of the period, and Vigee-Lebrun's portraits. The author uses a variety of analytical methods: feminist, psychoanalytical, literary, formalist, and even medical-anatomical. Although most previous publications on Vigee-Lebrun emphasize the French court, Sheriff also examines the artist's postrevolutionary relationships with Madame de Stael and Emma Hamilton. This book is best described as a series of essays about the publicly political nature of the Royal Academy and royal portraiture, and the more subtle political undercurrents of family and self-portraiture. Vigee-Lebrun is a recurring character, but the real focus is on the role of ordinary (and extraordinary) women in French society and within the artistic community. Extensive notes and bibliography. Recommended. Upper-division undergraduate; graduate; faculty. M. M. Doherty University of South Florida

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Part 1 The Anatomy Lessons of Elisabeth Vigegrave;e-Lebrun
1 The Sense and Sex Organs
2 The Mother's Imagination and the Fathers' Tradition
Part 2 Elisabeth Vigegrave;e-Lebrun in 1783
3 The Law, the Academy, and the Exceptional Woman
4 The Im/modesty of Their Sex: The Woman's Gaze and the Female History Painter
5 The Portrait of the Queen
6 The Portrait of the Artist
Part 3 Staging Allegory
7 Elisabeth, or Italy
8 Germaine, or Corinne Epilogue
Selected Bibliography
Photographic Credits