The issue of motherhood has always been one of the most important topics in European art of all periods. Mother and child were often depicted in various religious scenes showing St. Mary with Jesus and in different civic portraits. However, each period had some special approaches to the interpretation of this theme that were also heavily influenced by the social role of the portrayed woman, the status and gender of the artist, etc. The Metropolitan Museum of Art offers a large collection of portraits that allow analyzing and comparing paintings created in different epochs. Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787) depicted by the eighteenth century female artist Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun and Renoir’s Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children (1878) are perfect examples of how the style of the portrait and artistic methods used by the painter are adjusted to the message that the work of art is supposed to communicate to the public.
The painting Marie Antoinette and Her Children was commissioned to Vigée Le Brun during a very difficult period for the French Royal Family when the reputation of the Queen Marie Antoinette was already too bad among the French people and it urgently needed restoration. Therefore, Marie Antoinette wanted to highlight her role as a mother and exhibit the portrait of herself and her children that would also draw the audience’s attention to her respectability and reliability as a representative of the royal elite. This portrait shows the queen at the center of the composition dressed in a quite simple red velvet dress and surrounded by three children. The queen wears almost no jewelry – only a pair of modest pearl earrings. The cradle next to the queen is empty as the youngest daughter of Marie Antoinette died when the painting was not yet finished. The other work of art in the contrasted pair, Renoir’s Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children, was painted about a hundred years later. This portrait shows a well-to-do woman who was a wife of a wealthy publisher in Paris. Madame Georges Charpentier is portrayed with two children – a son and a daughter. They look almost like twins as according to the traditions of those times, little boys were dressed identically to girls and parents did not cut their hair.
The main purpose of the portrait of Marie Antoinette is to change the public opinion about her for the better and show her as a trustworthy monarch who takes care of her children and symbolizes reliability and solidity. This aim stipulated the choice of design principles and artistic elements. It is mostly evident in the delicate and soft colors used by Vigée Le Brun. The whole room is painted in different shades of beige and brown with some occasional additions of blue and pink. These colors were supposed to signify the queen’s fondness for calm atmosphere that was especially important for counteracting the public’s annoyance with Marie Antoinette’s behavior. The queen and her daughter are dressed in red colors forming a solid triangular composition. This type of figure arrangement was especially popular in the Renaissance period in the scene depicting St. Mary with Jesus. It was also done to strengthen the queen’s image as a reliable person who is able to protect her subjects. Moreover, the red color of her dress looks very noble and suitable for such an important social and political figure as the Queen of France.
Auguste Renoir, being one of the most prominent impressionist painters, also paid much attention to color and light as they were considered the elements of primary importance by the representatives of this artistic movement. On his painting, Madame Georges Charpentier is dressed in a black dress with white ruches near her neck and a small part of a white underwear skirt at the bottom. These colors are also used for the fur of the dog lying near her daughter. It may be interpreted as a symbol of loyalty as dogs have always been considered some of the most faithful creatures. This parallel in colors may mean that the mother is as faithful to her children as the dog to its owners. It also adds a sense of unity to the painting making it a very harmonious and well-designed work of art. The boy and girl dressed in identical blue and white dresses form a contrasting group against their mother and a dog. They are embodiments of youth, energy and bright future, and the light colors of their clothes help to strengthen this impression. Similarly to Marie Antoinette and Her Children, Renoir chooses warm brown shades of color for the interior, but in case of this painting these colors look sunnier and more energetic. They make the atmosphere much more relaxed than in Vigée Le Brun’s painting.
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Both of these paintings depict a mother with her children positioned in the interior that is typical for the social status of the sitter and the period when they lived. However, the interiors painted by the artists do not function as certain “framing” of the figures, but rather communicate a very important message to the audience. Marie Antoinette is portrayed in a palace, but the room where she sits is not a luxurious one. The walls are rather plainly colored in a calm shade of olive brown. Behind the queen the viewer sees a simple column without any ornaments, like leaves or beautiful capitals as in ancient temples. The room has an exit to some other part of the palace separated by a dark curtain. In this part of the painting, the painter depicted a row of identical white semi columns that create a very good sense of perspective and depth. The large cabinet decorated with fleur-de-lis, a symbol of French monarchy, stands in the shadow, while the queen with her children sits in the center of the composition lightened by the rays of sun coming from the left side. Such arrangement of the interior objects is aimed at drawing the public attention to the fact that for Marie Antoinette children are much more important than material possessions that might be kept in the cabinet.
Lines also play a very significant role in these paintings as they help the artists to underline the key ideas that they wanted to show. For example, in Marie Antoinette and Her Children there are many vertical lines at the background (the columns, the cabinet, etc). They make the general composition of the painting look very “upright”. The queen looks very reserved and luxurious with such a background, and despite the fact that she sits on a plain armchair, these lines create a sense of vertical energy that are associated with a throne in particular or superiority of the French royalty in general. Renoir uses lines in a different way. Most lines are meant to expand the composition horizontally making it look rather spacious, although the artist actually depicted only a small part of the room. This impression is also intensified by the ornaments of the carpet.
A different message is communicated by the interior of Renoir’s painting. The house of Madame Georges Charpentier looks stylish and at the same time very elegant. It has different Japanese motifs on the walls and furniture. This style was very popular during the times of Renoir and this interior may signify that the owners have a very good taste and are aware of new tendencies in art and design, but know the limits and do not make their dwelling look like a museum stuffed with Japanese works of art. This interior is also very friendly for children. It is rather spacious and the children can play on the floor with their beloved dog. It means that the owners of this house respect freedom and do not impose very strict rules on their children. All these elements of the interior depicted by the artist are supposed to form the image of Madame Georges Charpentier and her family as modern and elegant people who represent the new intellectual and business elite of the French society.
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To conclude, Vigée Le Brun’s Marie Antoinette and Her Children and Renoir’s Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children have many similarities, such as the common theme of motherhood and its importance in the society, the usage of color as supporting means for constructing the composition and some others. However, at the same time these paintings communicate absolutely different messages to the audience. Vigée Le Brun’s work is aimed at improving Marie Antoinette’s public image by drawing the attention of the viewers to her reliability and modesty as a mother and her affection for her children that could have been paralleled with her support of the subjects. On the contrary, August Renoir tried to show the relaxed atmosphere of freedom and love for children that were not restricted by rules or social regulations. His painting also shows the Charpentiers as a modern and elegant family with good taste. Both paintings are good examples of how the purpose of the painting influences the choice of artistic means and principles.
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