Vigée-Lebrun, Elisabeth (1755–1842)

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VIGÉE-LEBRUN, ELISABETH (17551842), French painter. Known primarily for her portraits, Vigée-Lebrun was a favorite artist of aristocratic patrons throughout Europe at the end of the eighteenth century, the most famous of whom was Queen Marie Antoinette of France (17551793). Vigée-Lebrun was born in Paris, the daughter of a hairdresser from the province of Luxembourg, Jeanne Maissin, and a minor portraitist, Louis Vigée, who was a member of the Académie de Saint-Luc. Her father gave her drawing lessons in his studio when she was twelve, although he died shortly after they began. She then studied drawing with two minor artists, Blaise Bocquet and Gabriel Briard. By her own account, she was largely self-taught, copying Old Master paintings in private collections she visited in the company of her mother. By the age of fifteen, she had established herself as a professional portraitist but practiced without a license. In 1774, after her studio had been seized by officers of the Châtelet (royal tribunal in Paris), she applied for membership in the Académie de Saint-Luc, exhibiting several works in the Salon de Saint-Luc that same year. Her ambition, however, was to be received as a history painter by the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture.

During the late 1770s, Vigée-Lebrun completed several history paintings but remained barred from acceptance into the Académie Royale because of the commercial dealings of husband, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Lebrun, an art dealer. Upon Marie Antoinette's intervention, however, the honor of full membership was granted on 31 May 1783. (Her reception piece, Peace Bringing Back Abundance (1780), is now in the collection of the Louvre Museum). The minutes of the meeting at which Vigée-Lebrun was accepted for membership state that the academicians acted to execute "with profound respect the orders of its Sovereign." However, her painting was assigned no category.

Although Vigée-Lebrun was never apprenticed to a master painter and was prohibited by her sex from becoming a student at the Académie Royale, she nevertheless profited from her study of leading artists from the French school. She was greatly influenced by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (17251805), particularly in terms of her technique, which uses a buildup of transparent glazes to generate highly polished surface textures in areas of flesh and drapery. As with Greuze, her lack of academic training contributed to this reliance on the use of color, rather than line, to define form. Her approach to composition in many of her large state commissions, such as the Portrait of Marie Antoinette (1778; Musée national du Château de Versailles) follows the illustrious examples of portraits by Hyacinthe Rigaud and Jean Marc Nattier, favorite court artists during the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV, respectively.

Vigée-Lebrun's debt to the Old Masters is evident in her highly sought-after maternités (mother and daughter images), which register a direct lineage back to the Madonnas of Raphael, and in her Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat (1783; National Gallery of Art, London), which deliberately quotes a portrait by Peter Paul Rubens. While some scholars consider this work to be a straightforward tribute to the celebrated courtier-artist, others regard it as a clever assertion on the part of Vigée-Lebrun of her ability to assume a similar place in history. Indeed, her aspirations to enjoy the elevated status of a history painter would be satisfied not by following the usual paths of academic progress, but through her novel conceptions in the realm of portraiture that challenged notions of conventional subject hierarchies and divisions between genres.


Vigée-Lebrun received her first royal commission in 1776, executing several portraits of the king's brother, the comte de Provence (whereabouts unknown). Two years later, she was called upon to paint the queen. Marie Antoinette had been searching for an artist who would best capture her likeness, and she responded to Vigée-Lebrun's singular ability to lend an informal air to the requirements of royal portraiture. Her Portrait of Marie-Antoinette with Her Children (1787; Musée national du Château de Versailles) is a brilliant combination of tradition and innovation. In this painting, Vigée-Lebrun follows the conventions of state portraiture by looking back to Nattier's portraits of Queen Marie-Leczinska and Madame Adélaïde (the wife and daughter of Louis XV) in the construction of her composition; however, she adds a contemporary reference to the popular idea of the "good mother" by merging the ceremony of state with the intimacy of family. This painting also transcends the limitations of a single genre by treating the portrait as both a history painting and a scene of everyday life.

Equally novel was the Portrait of Marie-Antoinette (1783; private collection, Germany) en chemise in which the sitter wears a simple, sheer white muslin dress and straw hat. This remarkably casual portrait caused a sensation at the salon, where it was said that the queen appeared in her underwear. While many critics commented on the impropriety of such a representation, which was not formal enough to suit contemporary standards, this painting and others like it influenced the course of costume development in France. Such portraits popularized a new look of loosely constructed garments, unpowdered hair, and natural curlsas opposed to the conventional French dress that required corsets and ornate wigs.

In addition to her activities as a painter, Vigée-Lebrun hosted one of the most fashionable salons in Paris, where music, literature, and the arts were topics of conversation. Her famous souper grec (Greek supper) took place in 1788, an impromptu event inspired by literary recitations at which guests donned Greek attire and dined on a menu prepared from ancient recipes, served on a collection of archaic pottery. The entire affair was orchestrated by Vigée-Lebrun and took on the character of a tableau vivant (living painting). The expense of the event was greatly exaggerated by rumors, resulting in her vilification in scandal sheets. In the late 1780s, she increasingly became a figure of controversy.

A staunch royalist throughout her life, Vigée-Lebrun profited from her service to the French court, but this allegiance also forced her into exile during the Revolution of 1789, accompanied by her only child, Jeanne Julie Louise (born 12 February 1780). Her prestigious reputation did not fail her, and she continued to work in aristocratic circles, traveling first to Italy, then Austria, Germany, and Russia. She enjoyed great success at these foreign courts, securing her fortune before she was repatriated in 1801. While she continued to paint late in life, the energies of her last years were devoted to composing her memoirs, the first installment of which was published by Hippolyte Fournier in 1835. Vigée-Lebrun died in Paris at the age of eighty-seven.

See also Art: Artistic Patronage ; France, Art in ; Marie Antoinette ; Women and Art .


Primary Source

The Memoirs of Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun. Translated by Siân Evans. Bloomington, Ind., 1989.

Secondary Sources

Baillio, Joseph. Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun 17551842. Exh. cat. Fort Worth, 1982.

. "Le dossier d'une oeuvre d'actualité politique: Marie-Antoinette et ses enfants par Mme Vigée Lebrun." L'oeil 308 (March 1981): 3441 and 7475; and L'oeil 310 (May 1981): 5360; 9091.

Goodden, Angelica. The Sweetness of Life: A Biography of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. London, 1997.

Radisich, Paula. "Qui peut definer les femmes? Vigée-Lebrun's Portraits of an Artist." Eighteenth-Century Studies 25 (Summer 1992): 441468.

Sheriff, Mary D. "The Cradle Is Empty: Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Marie-Antoinette, and the Problem of Intention." In Women, Art and the Politics of Identity in Eighteenth-Century Europe. London, 2003.

. The Exceptional Woman: Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and the Cultural Politics of Art. Chicago and London, 1996.

Jennifer D. Milam

Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun

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Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun

A favorite of the French queen, Marie Antoinette, Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun (1755-1842) began to support her mother and brother by painting portraits when she was only 15. She was one of the few women admitted to the Academie Royale in France. Perhaps best known for her portraits of members of Europe's royal families, many critics have called her "a woman before her time."

Vigee LeBrun's most famous client was Marie Antoinette, France's much maligned queen. When the two met in 1778, Vigee LeBrun's art-dealer husband had gambled away his wife's earnings. Still, she was dauntless and set out to establish her own salon where she would court royal clients. In a November 1982 article for Art in America, Brooks Adams noted that in her memoirs, Vigee LeBrun said that her much sought-after salon was, "a place where art and society mixed, where noblemen and ministers were content to sit on the floor, to avoid the stiff, formal court entertainments at Versailles." In time, her portraits and memoirs alike painted a portrait of Vigee LeBrun as a woman born to contend with anyone.

Unfortunate Circumstances

Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun was born in 1755 in Paris. Her father was Louis Vigee, a little-known portrait artist who worked in pastels. From the time she was small, he taught his daughter the skills of the trade. She proved to be somewhat of a prodigy. Her parents placed Vigee LeBrun in the convent of La Trinite, directly behind the Bastille. Her earliest memories were of drawing so frantically on the walls of her dormitory that the sisters regularly punished her.

When her father died, Vigee LeBrun was only 12. He had been her biggest supporter. For an article in Antiques, magazine in November 1967, Ilse Bischoff quoted Vigee LeBrun's father after he saw a drawing she had done as a small child. It was the head of a bearded man with the light of a lamp falling on his face. She took care to observe light and shade, and showed skill beyond her years. Her father had exclaimed, "You will be a painter if I ever saw one."

By the time she was 15, Vigee LeBrun had established a business as a painter that provided major financial support for her family. Her mother was a hairdresser from Luxembourg, who remarried not long after her first husband's death. Her stepfather soon began to squander her earnings. When she was only 21, she married an art dealer named Pierre LeBrun. It was clearly a marriage more of convenience, than of love. They had one daughter, Julie, born in 1780.

Vigee LeBrun's marriage helped her gain access to a world normally restricted to men. Although she was denied access to a male apprentice system, and was unable to participate in classes at the major art academies around the city, she gained admission to the lesser salon of the Academie de Saint Luc. However, the Academie Royale was closed to her without proper connections. In those days, being shown in lesser salons kept a painter away from the financial benefits to be gained from wealthier clients who frequented the prestigious Academie Royale.

When Vigee LeBrun was finally admitted to the Royale in 1783, her critics were not kind. She was accused of using her husband and the palace, most particularly her friendship with Queen Marie Antoinette. Another unfortunate rumor was that she had a long-standing sexual affair with the finance minister, Calonne. Her accusers contended that he aided her in squandering much of the Royal Treasury. That was never proven. Still, it was clear that she capitalized on her associations with the queen and the rest of the royal family. The aristocracy longed to be seen as simple, especially as unrest grew among the people outside of the palace confines. One portrait of Marie Antoinette was considered so scandalously informal, that it was withdrawn from the salon in the midst of her debut at the Academie Royale.

Vigee LeBrun's arch-rival was a woman painter named Madame Labille Guiard. They were admitted to the Academie Royale on the same day. For the rest of the decade, before the French Revolution erupted in 1789, the two women maintained their rivalry. At the time of the academy's biennial exhibitions, the bitterness they felt toward each other had reached the height of its intensity.

Vigee LeBrun painted one of her most acclaimed works in 1784. It was the portrait of Marie-Gabrielle de Gramont, Duchess of Caderousse. That was the same year she suffered a miscarriage, and painted only five portraits. Her usual output far exceeded that. The portrait was shown at the Salon of 1785 to much acclaim and became one of the artist's most celebrated works. In her memoirs, written fifty years later, Vigee LeBrun recalled the painting. "As I detested the female style of dress then in fashion, I bent all my efforts upon rendering it a little more picturesque, and was delighted when, after getting the confidence of my models, I was able to drape them according to my fancy. Shawls were not yet worn, but I made an arrangement with broad scarfs lightly intertwined around the body and on the arms, which was an attempt to imitate the beautiful drapings of Raphael and Domenichino … I could not endure powder … persuaded the Duchess to put none on for her sittings."

Thrived in Exile

Vigee LeBrun was not immune to the anxious rumbling that became the French Revolution. What had begun on that fateful night of July 14, 1789, erupted further when mobs stormed the palace at Versailles on the following October 6. Vigee LeBrun had been in disfavor for her association with Marie Antoinette for some time and was considered to be a royal sympathizer. In her article in Antiques, Bischoff described the dramatic escape the artist made that night. "Vigee LeBrun escaped with her daughter, Julie, and a governess by public coach from Paris to Lyons and over the Alps to Italy. She left Paris disguised as a working woman, terrified of being recognized, since her self-portrait had been exhibited at the Academie Royale salon only two months earlier." During the next twelve years in exile, Vigee LeBrun traveled to Italy, Austria, and then to St. Petersburg, Russia, where she stayed six years, before going to England. The fame that came to her during the previous decade had preceded her. She was best-known as a painter of French women, one who had even managed to make Marie Antoinette look stunningly beautiful and loving.

Her reputation during her years abroad enabled Vigee LeBrun to amass a second fortune. Her husband divorced her in order to protect his own French citizenship. Yet, Vigee LeBrun managed to retain control of her money. In Rome she reacquainted herself with members of the French nobility who had fled into exile. In Naples she met and painted a portrait of Countess Skarvonsky, the beautiful niece and mistress of the Russian prince, Potemkin. In Russia, Vigee LeBrun was a favorite of Empress Catherine II. However, when a portrait of the Empress' granddaughters did not please her, royal patronage was withdrawn. Still, Vigee LeBrun managed to charm the rest of St. Petersburg society.

Vigee LeBrun's French citizenship was restored in 1802. She was then able to return for a brief visit to Paris, but soon moved to London. There she painted such noteworthy figures as Lord Byron and the Prince of Wales. Vigee LeBrun reportedly disliked London, yet found such support there she decided to stay. Among the circle of French exiles, Vigee LeBrun continued to enjoy the exclusive privileges of a wealthy lifestyle. In 1805, at the age of 50, she returned permanently to France.

Memoirs were Published

Vigee LeBrun lived to the age of 87-remarkable for a woman of her era. In 1835, at the age of 80, she published her memoirs. She continued painting portraits into her later years, although none received the acclaim of her earlier work. Instead, it was her memoirs that would bring her greater notoriety. Vigee LeBrun revealed herself in her memoirs in a way her paintings never could.

When describing her exile, she was quick to comment of her displeasure at the noise and cooking smells that emerged from the households and markets of Naples. Her visit to Venice illustrated the vast differences between 18th and 19th century Europe. She presented an account of her pleasure in meeting Denon, a stylish character around town. Vigee LeBrun wrote, too, about his charming mistress, a woman named Isabella Marini, who later married Count Albrizzi. Vigee LeBrun painted her portrait, as well. Marini permitted Denon to serve as her escort, since she would have been unable to go to any cafe without one. In her memoirs, Vigee LeBrun recounted a conversation with Marini. "People will think," Marini said to her, "I have broken up with him and this will go on the whole time you are here, because you cannot go about without an escort." Even for an independent woman such as Vigee LeBrun, restrictions of behavior were often severe.

Heralded as a heroine of the modern-day women's movement, Vigee LeBrun enjoyed renewed interest at the end of the 20th century. Some argued that it was her skill as a major portrait artist that deservedly brought her fame, not her gender. French writer and feminist, Simone de Beauvoir, complained as early as 1949 that women artists and writers "very often continued to be torn between their narcissism and an inferiority complex … Vigee LeBrun never wearied of putting her smiling maternity on her canvases." Endless critiques of her work continued to argue her true merit as an artist. As with any popular artist, painting such familiar subjects, many suggested that her work did not merit such applause. Had she not been a woman of such intrigue, at such odds with her place in time, perhaps Vigee LeBrun would have been destined for obscurity. Nancy Heller wrote in Women Artists: An Illustrated History, that "Vigee LeBrun's best portraits are vibrant evocations of individual personalities and vividly preserve a way of life that was fading even as she painted it."

What Vigee LeBrun offered to the generations that followed her was an intimate glimpse into a way of life that departed soon after she painted it. Her pictures bring pleasant punctuation to the memory of an era of indulgence and luxury among the upper classes. The vigor with which she lived, and how well she was able to support herself, might have been testimony enough to her place in history. Vigee LeBrun was not a woman who dared to let anyone forget her.

Further Reading

Heller, Nancy G., Women Artists: An Illustrated History, Abbeville Press, Inc., 1997.

Vigee LeBrun, Elisabeth, Memoirs of Madame Vigee LeBrun, translated by Lionel Strachey, Braziller, 1989.

Antiques, November 1967, pp. 706-712 and January 1968, pp. 109-113.

Art in America, November 1982, pp. 75-80.

Art News, January, 1983, pp. 106-108.

Burlington Magazine, December 1981, pp. 739-740.

Library Journal, May 1, 1989, p. 86. □

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