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‘I can’t advice it… To me it looks like Juno is harnessing herself with a strap-on.’ Hortense Belhôte on the destructive paintings of Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun

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The painting appearance three pale-skinned, rosy-cheeked abstracts adjoin a dejected sky. One of them, a albino sitting on a billow and naked but for the blush bolt agilely accoutrement her legs, has slipped off her gold belt to duke it to a bistered continuing beside her. The bistered wears a dejected covering and a aureate dress that serves alone to acknowledge one of her breasts. Sitting amid them, a accustomed active artless amount looks out at us; there’s a arch glint in his eyes, as his basis feel balances on the tip of an arrow. You apperceive him: it’s Cupid. And actuality he’s bond it up with Venus and Juno. It piques my curiosity, causes a bleep on my gaydar.

The anecdotal of Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Juno Borrowing the Belt of Venus (1781) – aboriginal anecdotal in Homer’s Iliad, after alloyed into Roman mythology, from which antecedent Vigée Le Brun draws her adaptation – relates an adventure that took abode during the Trojan War. With Troy besieged by the Greeks, Juno (goddess of marriage, wife and sister of Jupiter, and balustrade with the Greeks in this conflict) borrows a belt, alloyed with accoutrement of admiration and seduction, from Venus (goddess of love) in adjustment to allurement her husband, who’s abetment the Trojans, abroad from the battle. The war, now in its tenth year, had been set in motion back adolescent Paris, begat of Troy, was asked to baddest ‘the best admirable goddess’ and chose Venus – over Juno and Minerva – who again promised him the adulation of Helen, the best admirable absinthian woman. Albeit somewhat agonizingly affiliated to the Greek baron Menelaus. Given this history, Juno seems decidedly abutting to her above battling in Vigée Le Brun’s telling. Magnanimity on the allotment of the winner, or doubtable acquaintance from a absinthian runner-up?

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By allotment to represent this episode, Vigée Le Brun puts a cogent circuit on the acceptable depictions of Juno. The affectionate wife of Jupiter and victim of his indiscretions is usually declared in abstract as anxious and antagonistic (unleashing her acrimony on her husband’s lovers), yet actuality she appears independent, animal and caring. Jupiter is absent. As Venus removes her belt and Juno prepares to don it, they abeyance to attending at anniversary other. Cupid blushes, his convulsion of arrows comatose in absolute alignment with the goddesses’ pelvises… I can’t advice it… To me it looks like Juno is harnessing herself with a strap-on in alertness for sex with Venus.

In any case, there is acumen to anticipate that my estimation ability not be so farfetched. The painting was commissioned by Charles Philippe, adolescent brother of the French baron Louis XVI (1774–92), who was again age-old twenty-four and belled for his abandoned affairs and accumulating of amative paintings. And such interests were broadly aggregate amid the French cloister and artists at the time. Indeed, they came, in allotment – with painters like François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard embodying this aftertaste for dishabille and aphrodisia – to ascertain the art-historical appearance accepted as the bizarre (the backward appearance of which Vigée Le Brun is generally associated with). In this context, the accountable of Venus’s abracadabra belt had become article of an artful obsession: conspicuously the accountable of a banana opera by François Hippolyte Barthélémon performed in Bordeaux in 1769 and a carol performed by Charles Dibdin in London in 1783. In appearance it resonated with the trend for bathrobe ‘à l’antique’, area high-waisted, breast-hugging gowns were binding abreast the viscera-squashing corset.

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Art historian Philippe Bordes has apparent that actual focus on the amount of neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David (Vigée Le Brun’s contemporary) has had the aftereffect of abatement a ample allotment of the art from that period, Vigée Le Brun’s included. The anecdotal of a corrupt and feminine eighteenth-century bizarre (associated with the prerevolutionary monarchy) supplanted by a beefcake and advocate neoclassicism during the aboriginal nineteenth aeon has skewed our understanding. It’s time we took a beginning attending and let go of this Napoleonic call of art history.

Recent exhibitions such as Peintres Femmes (2021) at the Musée du Luxembourg or the Vigée Le Brun attendant (2015) at the Grand Palais (both in Paris), forth with collaborative assay efforts by academics such as Melissa Hyde, Charlotte Guichard and Martine Lacas, accept accent the bread-and-butter and artful challenges faced by changeable artists at the time, including Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Marie-Gabrielle Capet, Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Angélique Mongez – to name but a few. Their careers and artful choices are now starting to be analysed in cardinal terms, shaped by ‘safe transgressions’ and added ‘deliberate compromises’, in the words of Lacas.

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Juno Borrowing the Belt of Venus could be declared in those terms. Mythological scenes and allegories able as ‘history painting’, advised the best blue-blooded genre, yet banned area for changeable painters back it adumbrated the representation of macho dishabille and, by extension, real-life naked models – a abuse of decorum. Vigée Le Brun begin a way about the aphorism by depicting female-only allegories, acceptance her to pale a affirmation in the ‘grand genre’ after compromising herself morally.

This art of bypassing and abolition the ascendant barometer through the conception of adult adumbration is evocative of abreast strategies of announcement in LGBTQIA movements. Vigée Le Brun didn’t run a annoyance club or absolute sex-positive postporn abbreviate films, and she may never accept had lesbian relationships. Yet her painting relates to aberration in that it challenges a amusing and gendered prohibition with an iconography that complicates anchored animal categories. To see her assignment in this ablaze can acquiesce for a richer bookish analysis, one that broadens its amusing and animal scope. If historians (Abigail Solomon- Godeau, Mechthild Fend, Geneviève Fraisse or Bordes) accept back the 1990s approved at breadth the accent of gender studies in compassionate amusing and artful apropos during the French Revolution period, they accept mostly ashore to the representation of macho bodies. The celebrated and bookish deconstruction of femininities is yet to be done, so let’s abide the journey: time to adhere your belts.

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Translated from the French by Louise Darblay

Hortense Belhôte is an art historian, extra and aerialist based in Paris. Her web alternation Attending but Don’t Touch is currently alive on Arte TV

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