Self Portrait In A Straw Hat
On my infrequent visits to London whenever I can steal a few moments for my private pleasure, I pay a fleeting visit to the National Gallery and head immediately for the same room. There on the left, just as you enter is a small canvas painted by Elizabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun a French female artist who lived from 1755 – 1842 in Paris. I know very little of her life or of her other paintings. The National Gallery possesses one other painting by her but it does not compare in merit with her self portrait wearing a straw hat.
She stares straight out of her portrait at the viewer. Her expression is challenging. There is a half smile about her lips and her eyes are clear, almost calculating as she gazes into what I presume is a mirror. She holds the palette in her left hand protruding through the hole and the bulk of the palette resting on her arm.
But the painting is not being done at the moment depicted. No woman would risk spoiling her clothes without a smock to protect them. She so obviously enjoys being a woman and wearing her finery. He depicts herself in a dusky pink low cut dress with a gathered bodice and trimmed with a white satin ruff with an engaging ribbon in a bow between her breasts, the outlines of which are just visible beneath the folds of her dress. From her appearance I would guess she was about 20 years old when she painted the portrait but it has the style and professionalism of someone twice that age.
But the glory of the painting is the hat. It is a wide brimmed straw hat turned up slightly on the right to give a debonair appearance to the wearer.
What so captures my appearance is the triumphant femininity of Elizabeth Louise. She lived at a time when it must have been exceedingly difficult for any woman to make a living independently in a man’s world but her she is , full of self confidence in her powers and skills as a painter, challenging the world with a painting of superlative merit and sure technique and at the same time depicting herself as a beautiful and desirable woman. If I has been a man I might have fallen in love with her.
But I am not. What I can do instead is to think of her when I dress. To assume some of her self confidence and see myself as her looking out of that painting into the world with confidence and unafraid.
I once cherished the dream of finding clothes similar to those she wears in the portrait so that I could look in the mirror as she did and hopefully see the same woman returning my scrutiny with that half amused smile. Perhaps one day I will.
Meanwhile she inspires me and fills me with a feminine confidence that I would not otherwise enjoy and so on every visit to London I pay homage to my predecessor and silently commune with her spirit.