Oak Park artist/activist resurrects a kindred spirit

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By Doug Deuchler

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She is so much like me," explains Oak Park activist, sociologist, and artist Bobbie Raymond. "The more I read and absorbed about French artist Vigee Le Brun, it was uncanny. It was like I was meeting a long-lost relative. I feel a distinct kinship with her. We're both artists and survivors who always look adversity in the face and keep going."

Raymond is talking about the subject of her one-act play, An Imaginary Interview with Elizabeth Louise Vigee LeBrun, which will be presented at the 19th Century Charitable Association, 178 N. Forest Avenue, next Monday afternoon, April 8. The new drama depicts the playwright traveling back in time to interview the artist in 1835 at her country residence in Louvenciennes.

But the play was inspired by a very captivating local mystery.

Three years ago, the Oak Park Art League, of which Raymond is a very active member, got a phone call from a couple who had moved into a Galewood bungalow and discovered an old painting in their basement. 220 years old.

"It was blistering, cracking — in rather poor condition," remembers Raymond. "They almost put the painting in a garage sale! But once we saw it, immediately Oak Park networking kicked in. New York art specialists ultimately identified the work and verified its authenticity. It was painted by LeBrun in the late 18th century but had been considered lost since the early 1800s. I got hooked immediately and began doing extensive research."

The painting was sold at Sotheby's in New York in 2010 and now, completely restored, it will be exhibited in a new museum in Asia established by a billionaire art collector with a vast chemical empire in Taiwan. He purchased 70 other "old master" paintings for this collection, too.

The subject of the long-missing LeBrun portrait was Russian Princess Tyufyakina. Her husband kept it for many years but then mysteriously the painting seems to have vanished. How it ended up in a bungalow basement in northern Illinois 175 years later is still pretty much an unsolved mystery.

LeBrun (1755-1842) painted over 700 portraits of European nobility in her 87 years, during a period when women artists were a distinct rarity. She was especially well known for her portraits of Marie Antoinette. There are LeBrun paintings in over 100 museums in 21 countries. A dozen of her portraits are in the Louvre and 20-some at Versailles.

At least 10 books have been written about the artist and Raymond read all of them — many in French — as she prepared to write her play.

"Vigee LeBrun was quite resourceful and supported her family from her early teens. She became the close friend and confidante of Marie Antoinette and did over 30 portraits just of her," Raymond notes. "She was part of the French Royal Court and met Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who were the darlings of Paris. LeBrun was creative and courageous. If she had stayed with her husband in her townhouse in Paris at the time of the French Revolution, she too would have been guillotined."

Actress Sara Nichols, an Oak Park Festival Theatre regular, wife of actor and author Kevin Theis, will be playing the role of artist Vigee LeBrun.

Raymond clarifies that even though her play is an imaginary interview, everything is factual.

"Nothing is fictional," she says, "except my being there. I go back in time to interview her. We just talk and share like two women artists, getting together at her country house close to Versailles. LeBrun's husband and others had really been draining all her resources. I think people will find her story very captivating. She was the finest woman artist of her time."

The play, "An Imaginary Interview with Elizabeth Louise Vigee LeBrun," will be presented at the 19th Century Charitable Association on Monday, April 8, at 1:15. $10 is the suggested donation. If one is interested in eating lunch and then staying for the program, the charge is $27. For reservations: 708-386-2729.

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