We’ve all read that spammy email or comment on social media that says something along the lines of, “if you read this, you have three days before you die, unless you do so and so.” Even as we scoff and laugh as we keep scrolling or hit delete, we’re left a bit shaken. It’s almost as if we’ve had a brush with death, despite nothing actually happening.
There’s a similar eerie feeling when we watch home videos that show family members or friends who have passed away. It’s a bizarre sensation, to watch them run, smile, or avoid the camera. It’s a private sort of time machine. It keeps our loved ones living as digital ghosts. Maybe that’s why at the beginning of the age of photography and daguerreotypes, plenty of people refused to have their picture taken, fearing their soul would be captured.
Now, lets imagine being fully aware that being photographed or filmed came with a death sentence. The only thing that would remain of you would be that image. Well, that’s exactly what happened to the models of the portraits done by Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée Lebrun.
At the age of twenty three she was invited to Versailles to paint the portrait of Marie Antoinette, who was the same age as her. The year was 1779, and the young aristocrat immediately took the artist into her inner circle.
In total, the artist made 30 paintings of Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna Habsburg-Lorraine. The popular image of the Archduchess of Austria is owed to Vigée Le Brun, now combined with the newest popular representation of the French Queen that was Kirsten Dunst in the 2006 movie Marie Antoinette.
It was among the privileged group where she met the entire Paris court and high society, eventually turning into the most sought out portrait painter of the time. She knew all the gossip –even becoming part of it– next to Marie Antoinette.
But then came the fight in the name of freedom, equality, and fraternity. The royal family was incarcerated and the aristocracy was sent to the executioner. All this while Vigée Le Brun crossed the border into Italy, then Austria, and finally Russia.
We can only imagine the brothers of the revolution scouring through each palace, looking for all its inhabitants, destroying the contents of the mansions with the rage they’d contained for years and years of enduring abuse and financial abandonment.
The faces that were carefully painted and captured into the canvas were disfigured by the terror of knowing their doomed fate. The only remembrance of their existence would be a painting exhibited at a museum hundreds of years later. Perhaps then someone would stop and truly look at the painting and think the eyes seem quite hazy, as if they were having a premonition while their portrait was taken. After 660 portraits and 200 landscapes, Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée Lebrun returned to Paris, where she died in 1842. She became known as the most important female artist of the eighteenth century.
I think of the pictures and videos that have been taken of me. Will they one day serve as the only thing keeping me from dissolving into oblivion?
Like Élisabeth Vigée Lebrun, there were plenty of artists who were part of Marie Antoinette's exclusive inner circle. One of these characters was her dressmaker and fashion consultant, who'd become the first celebrity designer. As for the queen consort of France herself, she could create controversy at every turn.
Translated by María Suárez