Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 18, 1999
Angelica Goodden The Sweetness of Life: A Biography of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun London: André Deutsch in association with Trafalgar Square Publishing, 1999. 384 pp.; 8 color ills.; 23 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (0233990216)

Poststructuralist theory has taught us to distrust a language that purports to represent its subject transparently and innocently, for words do not just present a value-neutral world for our consideration and use. Rather, such words as “woman artist,” for example, give us both the thing and its meaning. If we accept this theory as correct, all language is suspect, but some forms of writing, such as biography, are capable of more mischief than others. Although biography claims to be nothing more than an account of a person’s life supported by facts and dates, the choice and arrangement of those facts point to a certain meaning, as does the language the biographer uses to formulate them into a narrative. Take, for example, a biographer’s choice to call her subject by her first name. Between pages one and four of The Sweetness of Life, Angelica Goodden calls French portraitist Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun “Vigee Le Brun,” but on page five Goodden announces her intention to refer to her only as “Louise,” and Louise she remains for three hundred ensuing pages of text.

As feminist scholars have repeatedly observed, the use of the first name is a rhetorical device that infantilizes women and trivializes their achievements. Goodden, who is a fellow and tutor in French at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, seems unconcerned by the asymmetrical relation her language establishes when, for example, she compares “Louise” to Jacques-Louis David. “Louise was no David, it is true . . . ,” she writes. (p. 6) This language is disturbing, because we are not in the habit of comparing an artist named Matisse to someone called Pablo. Goodden’s language covertly constitutes Louise in the discourse of the private and intimate. In consequence, the reader begins to understand that this Louise cannot be taken seriously as a contender in the legitimate realm of fine arts culture, which is, of course, produced in the public sphere.

The facts that form the nuts-and-bolts account of Vigee-Lebrun’s life in this biography are also problematic, and for similar reasons. Goodden’s facts and dates are drawn largely from Vigee-Lebrun’s memoirs. Vigee-Lebrun was eighty years old when she began to write her memoirs in 1835. Her recollections of pre-Revolutionary France are thus those of an old woman retrieving events from memory that occurred more than fifty years earlier; yet Goodden’s chapter about the artist’s life in the 1780s derives half of its references from the memoirs. Out of the ninety footnotes documenting this chapter, forty-five cite the Souvenirs as their source. What is troubling about such an immoderate reliance on the memoirs is that autobiography, which is what the memoirs are, becomes confused with biography, which is what this book is supposed to be. Biography and autobiography are two different things. As Picasso once said (in a different context), “Nature and art, being two different things, cannot be the same thing.” Though neither biography nor autobiography are “nature,” autobiography is closer to art than biography: it allows a subject to construct a life as it suits her fancy, compressing, repressing, even inventing facts. Memoirs, moreover, form a particular subset of autobiography in which emphasis is placed on notable personalities the author remembers having met, places of interest she has visited, and events she has witnessed.

If memoirs masquerade as biography, as they do in Goodden’s book, the subject is likely to come off as a person of shallow character (a developing self is of no consequence in a memoir) whose life is a sum of the famous people she has met during her travels. And, in fact, this is exactly the “Louise” constructed for the reader by Goodden in The Sweetness of Life: A Biography of Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun. Vigee-Lebrun’s extirpated anecdotes about people and places drive Goodden’s narrative, and they are sometimes derogated by the biographer in a fashion that is unintentionally but comically naive. After quoting a long passage, for example, from the Souvenirs in which the artist relates her extreme terror of highway robbery in England on the road between Calais and London in 1803, Goodden assures us that “English highwaymen enjoyed a reputation for courtesy and lack of greed” and “their trade was usually provisional, and might be abandoned for months or years once they had made a successful haul” (p. 232).

Any student with an interest in Vigee-Lebrun would be better served to consult an English translation of the actual Souvenirs—at least three have been published in the twentieth century—or, better yet, the inexpensive two-volume French paperback edition published by Des Femmes in 1986. Read as autobiography, which is how the memoirs should be read, a rather different construction of the woman artist emerges. Forewarned about robbers on the road between Calais and London, Vigee-Lebrun, who is accompanied by only a maid, takes the precaution of concealing her diamonds in her stockings—and when she sees two horseman galloping toward her on each side of the carriage, she imagines they will besiege the coach at both doors. They did not, as it turns out, but the reader warms to the impression of the not-so-bold female traveler, her jewels stuffed in her socks, nearly dying of fright she was trembling so hard. The self-constructed “moi” in the Souvenirs, in short, is a much more human character than the woman artist in Goodden’s biography.

The portions of Goodden’s biography that do not depend on the memoirs for their authority offer neither new information nor fresh discoveries about the life and times of Vigee-Lebrun. Instead The Sweetness of Life provides a life reckoning formed out of secondary sources, especially memoirs, and presented in the gossipy style of writers like the Goncourts. Similarly, when Goodden discusses artworks, she does it so crudely that one supposes she has ignored most of the art-historical scholarship dealing with eighteenth-century art produced in the last generation. Although Mary D. Sheriff’s landmark analysis of Vigee-Lebrun’s art, The Exceptional Woman; Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun and the Cultural Politics of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) appears on Goodden’s bibliography, Goodden does not seem to have read it. If she had, she would not have been able to deliver in good faith such unsophisticated pronouncements as, “Louise was no David, it is true, and does not deserve his celebrity: her draughtsmanship (like Kauffman’s) is often inferior, and she was not an artistic revolutionary” (p. 6).

Had Goodden consulted Part Three (“Staging Allegory”) of Sheriff’s book, just to cite one example, she would have learned that Vigee-Lebrun’s portrait of Germaine de Stael is no simple likeness but an allegorical portrait in which the subject is represented as Corinne. Goodden, unaware of such fine distinctions in the practice of portraiture, sees only the subject’s “cow-like expression” (p. 272), judged as unflattering. That portraiture is not nature but art—or as a poststructuralist would put it, a system of representation (like biography)—seems to elude the author. This truth never eluded Vigee-Lebrun, who grounded her spectacular talent on it.

Paula Rea Radisich
Professor of Art History, Department of Art and Art History, Whittier College