Le Brun Self-PortraitThe painting flashed across my Twitter timeline like a breath of fresh air, startling in its realism and immediacy and lightness of being.

I wasn’t familiar with the artist, Vigée Le Brun (the piece is a self-portrait), who’s now featured in a new exhibition that opened this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Subtitled Woman Artist in Revolutionary France, it’s the first retrospective of Le Brun’s work in modern times, and she’ll also be celebrated as one of the lesser known trailblazers in the annals of art as part of Women’s History Month in March. Portraitist at the court of Marie Antoinette, Le Brun’s “success as a young female painter in a male-dominated profession made her an object of envy and the target of vitriolic, often misogynistic libels in the anti-establishment press during the years leading up to the French Revolution,” wrote the New York Times last year… “and her association with the anciens régimes of Europe was a source of lingering prejudice against a remarkable artist and independent woman.”

The technical mastery of the painting can’t be overstated. The portrait, evocative of Rubens (a lifelong influence), nearly jumps from the canvas in soft lucidity, its facial expression harboring the tiniest hint of discovery: you somehow sense that she’s recognized you across the span of the centuries (it was painted in 1790).

It’s a feeling that only great art has the capacity to impart.

Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France runs through May 15 at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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