This spring the Metropolitan Museum of Art presents a retrospective of the paintings of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842). One of the outstanding portraitists of the eighteenth century, Le Brun had a long and wide-ranging career, working both in her native France and in cultural capitals throughout Europe (moving across Italy, Austria, the Russian Empire, and Switzerland). She is best known for her association with the Bourbon court—and in particular, her close friendship with the queen, Marie Antoinette. In the decades leading up to the French Revolution, Vigée Le Brun served as the quasi-official painter of the monarch and became a fixture in her inner circle at Versailles. 
The exhibition at the Met provides a window into the world of the French court, vividly encapsulating the shifting tastes (both fashionable and musical) of the leisured aristocracy in the waning years of the old regime. The most celebrated (or, perhaps, notorious) portrait on display is “Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress,” which provoked a scandal when it was unveiled at the Paris Salon of 1783. The painting depicts the queen not in formal regalia but “en gaulle,” in a loosely fitted muslin gown and straw hat. Critics accused Vigée Le Brun of degrading the royal image by portraying Marie Antoinette in such an unconventional manner. As Caroline Weber relates in her study of the queen, even progressive commentators were offended to see Marie Antoinette exchange her traditional court dress for “the gown and apron of a country wench.” 
|“Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress” (1783), Hessische Hausstiftung, Kronberg.|
These interrelated trends in music and theater are aptly captured in the oeuvre of Vigée Le Brun presented at the Met. In the portrait of the baronne de Crussol Florensac (1785), the sitter grasps a score of Gluck’s Echo et Narcisse, a pastoral opera that premiered in Paris in 1779. The exhibition also features a striking painting of Paisiello, whose comic works headlined an Italian season at Versailles (a noted departure from the expected French-language fare) in the summer of 1778. Perhaps most remarkable is “Madame Dugazon in the Role of Nina” (1787), which depicts a leading actress of opéra-comique in one of her most famous roles. Nina was composed by Nicholas-Marie Dalayrac, a musician in the employ of Marie Antoinette’s brother-in-law, the comte d’Artois. With its contemporary setting, popularly-infused lyric idiom, and sentimental plot (centering on a lovesick heroine driven to madness and sequestered on her country estate), the opera represented a stark contrast to the serious and grandly allegorical theatrical aesthetic long associated with the Bourbon monarchs.
|“Madame Dugazon in the Role of Nina” (1787), Private collection.|
More Information here: https://soundcloud.com/metmuseum/014-cut-2
|“Duchesse de Guiche” (1784), Private collection.|
Such an aria exemplifies the blatant paradoxes inherent in both musical and artistic paysannerie of pre-revolutionary France. The radical simplicity of the romance, along with its rustic topos, were fashionable markers of operatic modernity. They also signaled (and confoundingly so, for critics of the Bourbon regime), a vehement rejection of the court culture from which they directly emanated.
 For further information on the painter and the exhibition, see the catalogue: Joseph Baillio, Katharine Baetjer, and Paul Lang, Vigée Le Brun (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016).