Vigée-Le Brun, Elisabeth (1755–1842)
Vigée-Le Brun, Elisabeth (1755–1842)
Celebrated French painter during the late 18th and early 19th centuries who is best known for her portraits of Marie Antoinette and other members of the French court and aristocracy prior to the French Revolution . Name variations: Elisabeth Vigee; Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun; Mme Le Brun, le Brun, or Lebrun. Born Marie Anne Élisabeth Louise Vigée on April 16, 1755, in Paris, France; died in 1842 in Paris; daughter of Louis Vigée and Jeanne (Maissin) Vigée; had little formal education; attended convent school until age11, then self-taught; married Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, in 1776; children: Jeanne Lucie Louise Le Brun Nigris (1780–1819).
Left convent school (1767); death of father (1768); elected to the Royal Academy of Painting (1783); fled France during French Revolution and traveled throughout Europe (1789–1801); elected to the Academy and Institute of Bologna (1789); elected to the St. Petersburg Academy (1795); traveled to London (1802–05); returned to Paris (1805).
Over 660 portraits and other paintings, some of the most famous of which are Madame Vigée-Le Brun and Her Daughter, Mother Love, The Girl With the Muff, Venus Tying the Wings of Love, several self-portraits, portraits of Marie Antoinette and the Royal Family, and portraits of members of the French and European aristocracy during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Memoirs of Mme. Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun (c. 1834).
Elisabeth Louise Vigée was born on April 16, 1755, in Paris. Her father Louis Vigée was a pastel and oil painter who produced landscapes and portraits. Her mother Jeanne Maissin Vigée was a beautiful, austere woman known for her piety. Elisabeth was sent to a convent to study at the age of six, where she remained until she was eleven. She later recalled developing a fascination with drawing from these early years. She had been "born with a passion to paint."
Vigée-Le Brun remembered her father very fondly as a jovial and warm man. During her frequent visits home from the convent school, he allowed her to use the paints and crayons in his studio. When she was seven or eight, she showed him a sketch she had made of a man with a beard, at which he exclaimed, "You will be a painter, my child, if ever there was one." As a painter, Louis was considered adequate but not outstanding. Vigée-Le Brun admitted in her Memoirs that many prominent members of society came to have their portraits painted by him "on account of his delightful conversation."
In 1767, 11-year-old Elisabeth left the convent for good and joyfully returned home to her family. She began to study oil painting with Davesne, a friend of her father's. But her happiness was shattered the following year with the passing of her father, who suffered an exceptionally painful death, even by 18th-century standards. He swallowed a fish bone, which lodged in his stomach, and was made to undergo numerous exploratory surgeries to try to remove it. The wounds became infected, and he died on May 9, 1768. She recalled that her mother "wept day and night." Vigée-Le Brun was so devastated that she found it impossible to paint for many months. She eventually returned to her easel as the only way of "assuaging my sorrow and reclaiming me from my sad thoughts."
By the time Elisabeth turned 14, she was gaining some notoriety in Paris for her work. She was introduced to the painter Joseph Vernet, who advised her, "don't follow any system or school." Instead, he encouraged her to study the great Italian and Flemish masters and to paint from nature, which he called "the first of all masters." Vigée-Le Brun and her mother visited the art galleries frequently, and gained admission to the best private art collections in Paris as well. Especially entranced by the works of Rubens, Rembrandt, Raphael, and Van Dyck, Elisabeth pored over their works excitedly, for hours at a time, in order to gain a better understanding of their representation of light and delicate flesh tones.
Because her father had left little money behind when he died, Jeanne soon felt obliged to marry again, in order to provide for the maintenance of the household and the college expenses for her brother. She married a rich jeweler, Le Sèvre, who turned out to be a horrible miser. Although Elisabeth turned over all the money she received for painting portraits, which by that time comprised a considerable sum, Le Sèvre refused to give them even a minimal allowance for necessities. To Elisabeth's horror, he also took all of her late father's clothing, which he wore without bothering to have them altered to fit his own frame. Joseph Vernet urged Vigée-Le Brun to give her stepfather a set amount of money for room and board and keep the remainder of the profits from her own work, but she refused, in fear of further impoverishing her mother.
During this period, Vigée-Le Brun became increasingly in demand as a portrait painter, which gave her an entrance into Parisian high society. She was invited by Louise Marie of Bourbon , duchess of Chartres, to paint her picture, soon after which she was besieged by requests from other fashionable members of the aristocracy. Vigée-Le Brun's services were also enthusiastically sought by several male admirers, who hoped to use the excuse of a sitting to woo her with their charms. Elisabeth was completely engrossed in her art, and so she recalled that "as soon as I realized they wished to make eyes at me, I painted them with their gaze averted; which prevents the sitter from looking at the painter. At the least movement of their pupils in my direction,
I would say: 'I'm doing the eyes.' That would annoy them a little, as you can imagine."
Vigée-Le Brun's Memoirs depict the vibrant and sophisticated Parisian society that existed before the French Revolution. Walking in the many public parks was a popular pastime among women, and frequent dinners and suppers, often lasting for many hours, were given by those who were part of the upper-class social circle. Social engagements at the time were not limited to the hereditary aristocracy; many of the participants were musicians, poets, actors, and artists. Vigée-Le Brun's great talent, beauty and pleasant manner secured opportunities that few of her contemporaries could boast.
In 1776, her stepfather retired from business and the family went to live at a house owned by Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, a painter and picture dealer who readily loaned her pictures from his collection to copy. Six months after their arrival, he asked Elisabeth to marry him. She was torn: "I was twenty years old and leading a life free from any anxiety as to my future, for I was earning a good deal of money and felt no desire whatever to get married." She was persuaded to accept Le Brun's proposal by her mother, who argued that the wealthy Le Brun would be a "profitable match" for her daughter. Elisabeth grudgingly agreed to the marriage, only to be told by her new husband that the wedding would have to be kept secret, because he had previously agreed to marry the daughter of a Dutch dealer with whom he did business, and wanted to conclude his business with him before his marriage to Elisabeth became public.
If the victims of that execrable time had not had the noble pride to die courageously, the Terror would have been ended much sooner. Men of undeveloped intelligence have too little imagination to be moved by an inward suffering, and the people's pity is much more easily excited than its admiration.
—Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun
Within days of the marriage, Elisabeth began to regret her decision. Several friends, under the impression that the wedding had not yet taken place, came to her to warn her not to marry Le Brun, who already had a reputation for gambling. When the marriage was finally announced, Elisabeth threw herself back into her painting and tried to make the best of the situation. Pierre turned out to be an obliging man, with a "mixture of gentleness and vivacity" which made him popular in society, but he eventually squandered his own fortune, as well as his wife's commissions from painting, by "his unbridled passion for women of bad morals, joined to his fondness for gambling." Pierre spent the money from Elisabeth's portraits without apology. Although she would earn over 1 million francs by the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789, she would flee France that same year with less than 20 francs.
The only happiness that Vigée-Le Brun received from her marriage was the birth of her daughter, Jeanne Lucie Louise, in 1780. Elisabeth had not allowed her pregnancy to interfere with her profession, and even in the throes of labor pains, she continued her work on Venus Tying the Wings of Love. Vigée-Le Brun doted on her daughter, who became the subject of many of her paintings, including the famous portraits of the two of them which still hang in the Louvre.
By the late 1770s, Vigée-Le Brun was painting for an increasingly select clientele. In 1776, she painted Monsieur (later Louis XVIII), king Louis XVI's brother, who regaled her endlessly with light chatter and off-key (and somewhat off-color) singing. When he asked her "How do you think I sing, Madame Le Brun?," she cleverly replied, "Like a Prince, Monseigneur!" Eventually, Vigée-Le Brun painted every member of the royal family except for the youngest brother, the count of Artois (later Charles X). Her favorite model among the royal family was the queen, Marie Antoinette , whom she first painted in 1779. Elisabeth described Marie Antoinette's complexion as "brilliant" and "transparent." She also admired the queen's carriage, recalling that "she walked better than any other woman in France, holding her head well up with a majesty that stamped her as sovereign in the midst of all her Court, without, however, detracting in any way from what was kind and gentle in her aspect." Although awed by the queen at first, Vigée-Le Brun soon became impressed with her kindness, remarking, "I do not believe Queen Marie-Antoinette ever failed to say something pleasant to those who had the honor of approaching her, while the kindness she always showed to me is one of my sweetest memories."
In 1783, Vigée-Le Brun was proposed by Joseph Vernet to become a member of the Royal Academy. Her acceptance was opposed by the chief painter to the king, who questioned the reception of women into the society (although one woman, Anne Vallayer-Coster , had already been accepted). Elisabeth was eventually admitted to the Royal Academy, possibly in part because of the influence of Marie Antoinette.
Although she painted through most of the daylight hours, Vigée-Le Brun often attended sumptuous dinners, and even entertained in her own small apartment a dazzling assortment of "grand ladies, grand gentlemen, outstanding men of letters and art … where the crowd was often so big that the marshals of France sat on the floor for want of a seat." Her soirees boasted "the best music in Paris," and later she recalled, "In the days when I gave my concerts, one had both taste
and leisure for amusement." She served simple suppers of "a fowl, a fish, a plate of vegetables and a salad," at about ten o'clock, after which the guests would play charades, perform music, read poetry, act out plays, or engage in other intellectual pursuits until midnight. When she attended the suppers of others, she much preferred musical evenings to balls, "never having any fondness for dancing." Theaters, concert halls, and galleries were the frequent meeting places of Parisian society, punctuated by retreats to sumptuously furnished country homes.
Pre-revolutionary France was not without its darker side, however. As far back as the 1760s, Elisabeth's father had returned home one night from a dinner of "Intellectuals," including Denis Diderot, Claude Helvétius, and Jean d'Alembert, to note grimly, "all that I've just heard, my dear friend, makes me think that the world will soon be upside down." By the 1780s, it was impossible for Vigée-Le Brun to ignore that unrest and dissatisfaction were manifesting themselves among the French lower class. In 1788, she traveled into the countryside to Romainville, to spend a few days at the home of some friends, and recalled: "On our way we noticed that the peasants no longer doffed their hats to us. On the contrary, they looked at us insolently, while some even threatened us with their sticks." After one of her supper parties, which she had spent 15 francs in arranging, rumor inflated the cost of the party to 20,000 francs. When she painted a portrait of the finance minister, Calonne, for which she received 4,000 francs, rumor had it that she had been given a sum sufficient to ruin the royal treasury.
In June 1789, while Vigée-Le Brun was staying at the royal residence at Marly with a friend who was in service to Marie Antoinette, she witnessed an incident which convinced her that destructive events were on the horizon. When the women saw a drunken trespasser enter the courtyard, they sent a manservant out after him. The manservant returned with some papers that had fallen out of the man's pocket which read, "Down with the Royal Family! Down with the nobles! Down with the priests!" and contained "a lot of dreadful predictions, written in a way that made one's hair stand on end." They sent for the military guards to take him away and question him. The manservant quietly followed the guards outside after they arrived, and saw them join arms with the man as soon as they were out of sight, singing and making merry. The incident struck fear in Vigée-Le Brun's heart: "What were we coming to, my God! when the public authority made common cause with the guilty?" Elisabeth showed the papers to the queen, who insisted, "These things are impossible. I will never believe they are planning such atrocities."
When the French Revolution did begin in 1789, Vigée-Le Brun quickly decided to make plans to take her daughter and leave the country: "Society seemed to be breaking up altogether, honest folk being without any protection whatever, for the Garde Nationale was so oddly made up that it revealed a mixture as weird as it was frightful." She became thin and pale, and found it impossible to eat or to paint: "My imagination was darkened and wilted by so many horrors, and ceased to find satisfaction in my art." She left several portraits unfinished; "For me there was no longer any question of success and fortune. The only question was how to save one's head." The final straw for Elisabeth was when a dirty group of national guardsmen forced their way into her drawing-room and forbade her to leave. When they left, two other national guardsmen, who were her neighbors, came to her house and urged to her leave immediately, by public stage rather than her private carriage. In the midst of the torrent of emigration taking place at the time, it took two weeks for her to get a place on a coach. She finally left Paris on October 5, the same day that the king and queen were forced to leave Versailles for Paris by bread rioters.
During the harrowing trip to the French border, Vigée-Le Brun sat across from a filthy man who bragged of having stolen several watches and of hanging people from lampposts. On the seat next to her was a Jacobin, who addressed crowds of curious onlookers at every stop with assurances that the king and queen had been forced into Paris, and now would be made to accept a Constitution. Elisabeth had taken the added precaution of wearing a working woman's dress and a kerchief over part of her face, to avoid being recognized on the trip, as she had recently exhibited one of her portraits of herself with her daughter in her arms. Vigée-Le Brun was terrified that she would be recognized when the Jacobin began talking about the exhibition and even praised her portrait. She endeavored to keep her face averted, and "thanks to that and my costume," she later recalled, "I came through with nothing worse than a little fear."
During the years that the Terror raged in France, Vigée-Le Brun and her daughter traveled from city to city, beginning in Italy, and settling for a time in Naples, Rome, Berlin, Vienna, and St. Petersburg. Wherever she went, she was a welcome guest, even in Bologna, where a city ordinance forbade French travelers to remain overnight. An exception was made for Vigée-Le Brun, and she was even made a member of their Academy and Institute in November 1789. As she traveled, she made her living by painting. Her dissolute husband, back in France, spent everything she had left behind, and even wrote her repeatedly asking for more, which she sent. She never lacked for eager clients, as her fame had spread far beyond her native land. Her brother, who had also remained behind, sent her frequent letters detailing the horrors of the Terror, including, in 1793, the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Another of her old friends, Madame du Barry , was also condemned to death by the Revolutionary Tribunal, and, unlike most of the victims, cried out to the crowd in terror and begged for mercy as she was being taken to the scaffold. Moved by her incessant pleas, the crowd quieted and the executioner disposed of her quickly. Elisabeth later surmised: "If the victims of that execrable time had not had the noble pride to die courageously, the Terror would have been ended much sooner. Men of undeveloped intelligence have too little imagination to be moved by an inward suffering, and the people's pity is much more easily excited than its admiration."
In April 1795, Vigée-Le Brun left Austria for Russia. In the later years of Empress Catherine II the Great , St. Petersburg had a great reputation as a mecca for artists. Elisabeth, who was introduced to Catherine by the French ambassador, described the empress as small and very stout, "but she still had a fine face." Catherine welcomed her warmly to St. Petersburg, and agreed to sit for a portrait. Unfortunately, a few days before the sitting was to have taken place, Catherine became ill and soon died. Vigée-Le Brun watched the funeral from her window and was amazed by its splendor. She was dazzled by the gold-armor-clad guardsman (who dropped dead of fatigue after the ceremony) and by the ladies enveloped in long trains and black veils, who walked through the snow in the long procession.
Vigée-Le Brun was elected as a member of the St. Petersburg Academy, much to her delight. She described the costume worn by the women members as "a riding-habit, a little violet vest, a yellow petticoat, and a black-feathered hat." During her stay, she attracted some of the wealthiest clients in Russia. Her enjoyment of the artistic circle in St. Petersburg was blighted, however, when her daughter Jeanne, who had grown into a young woman during their travels, fell in love with a penniless Russian named Nigris. Although Elisabeth refused to give her blessing to what she considered an ill-fated match, Jeanne eventually obtained permission from her father in Paris, and Vigée-Le Brun was powerless to prevent the marriage. The wedding and the dowry swallowed up all the money she had been able to save in Russia, and soured relations between her and her daughter for the rest of their lives.
In 1801, after the Terror had abated and France had become more stable, Vigée-Le Brun's name was struck off the list of émigrés, and it became safe for her to go back to her native land. She returned home, after 12 years' absence, in the autumn of 1801, where she was warmly greeted by her brother, her husband, who had redecorated her apartments for her arrival, and those who remained of her friends. She was relieved to be home, but distressed by the vestiges of revolution which she saw around her: "Liberty, Fraternity and Death" was still visible on every wall, and the colorful and extravagant fashions of the pre-revolutionary days had been cast aside in favor of "black coats and black hair." At the first public play which she attended, she was recognized and applauded by the crowd, which warmed her immensely. She was invited to lunch with Josephine and Napoleon Bonaparte, while he was serving as First Consul. She renewed old friendships and made new ones, but she found it impossible to shake the feeling of depression and loss that came upon her with every reminder of the Revolution she saw in Paris.
In April 1802, during a lull in the fighting between France and England, she resolved to leave Paris again and settle in London for a time. As she did not speak a word of English, she found the transition difficult. She also found the persistent fog oppressive, and the somber dinner parties of the English aristocracy bored her. Vigée-Le Brun studied the portraits of Joshua Reynolds (who had died a decade previously) and struck up friendships with several of the French émigrés residing in England, however, and remained there for three years.
She returned to Paris in 1805 to see her daughter, who was visiting without her husband. As Elisabeth had predicted, the marriage had proved disastrous, but even Jeanne's recognition of that fact did not completely heal the old wounds; their relationship was never the same. Aside from a trip to Switzerland in 1808–09 and one to Bordeaux in 1820, Vigée-Le Brun remained in France, and she even purchased a little country house at Louveciennes, a village on the Seine, where she spent eight months out of every year. Her husband Pierre died in 1813, followed by her daughter in 1819 and her brother in 1820.
Vigée-Le Brun continued to paint, writing to a friend at the age of 68 that "painting is always for me a distraction that will only end when I die." She continued painting well into her 80s and still held social events frequented by the beautiful women and distinguished men of Paris, "to whom she never wearied in talking of Marie Antoinette." In her later years, she was cared for by her niece, Eugénie Le Brun , whom she came to regard as a daughter. Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun died in Paris, at age 88, in 1842, and was buried in the 13th-century church there.
During her lifetime, Elisabeth painted some 660 portraits, only a few of which hang in public galleries. Her most famous works are those depicting herself and her small daughter. They reveal an incredible richness of detail as well as a depth of feeling which foreshadowed the Romantic period. Vigée-Le Brun used her incredible talents and personal charm to make acquaintances among the most famous figures in Europe during the late 18th century. Through her portraits and her memoirs, she has left us with an unparalleled personal account of those turbulent times.
Brooks, Geraldine. Dames and Daughters of the French Court. NY: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1904.
Dobson, Austin. Old Kensington Palace and Other Papers. London: Oxford University Press, 1926.
Kirkland, Winifred, and Frances Kirkland. Girls Who Became Artists. NY: Harper and Brothers, 1934.
Tallentyre, S.G. The Women of the Salons and Other French Portraits. NY: Longmans, Green, 1901.
Vigée-Le Brun, Elisabeth Louise. The Memoirs of Mme. Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun, 1755–1789. NY: George H. Doran, 1927.
Sheriff, Mary D. The Exceptional Woman: Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun and the Cultural Politics of Art. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Kimberly Estep Spangler , Vice Chair of Religion and Humanities and Assistant Professor of History, Friends University, Wichita, Kansas