Elisabeth-Louise Vigee le Brun

Life Dates:
1755 – 1842
Artist Biography:
Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun was born on April 16th 1755 in Paris, France, to Louis Vigée a portraitist and fan painter. Her father died when she was 12 years old from an infection acquired during a surgery to remove a fishbone from his throat. One year later her mother remarried, a wealthy jeweler named Jacques-Francois Le Sèvre. Her first instruction in painting she received from her father, but she also studied with P. Davesne and Gabriel Briard, and by copying Old Masters. As well as received encouragement and advice from Joseph Vernet, a decorative painter known for historic scenes and landscapes. By the age of 15 she had already developed a modest clientele for her portraits and on October 25th, 1774 she became a member of the Académie de St Luc, after her studio was seized for practicing without a license. On January 11th 1776 she was married to Jean-Baptiste Le Brun, an art dealer and on February 12th 1780, Vigée-Le Brun gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne Julie Louise, whom she called "Julie". Her style is generally considered Rococo and shows interest in the subject of neoclassical painting. Though she was incredibly influenced by Peter Paul Rubens, a Baroque painter, especially after a trip to the Netherlands in 1781. She began to emulate his practices by switching from canvas supports to panel and experimenting with a warmer range of colors and the use of multiple, thin layers of transparent or translucent paint. Her Self-portrait in a Straw Hat was based directly on Rubens’s portrait of Susanna Fourment. In this work Vigée Le Brun introduced a note of informality that she later used to advantage in portraying fashionable aristocratic demeanor, particularly of women. She employed delicately animated poses, expressive faces and fashionable dress to convey the refinement and grace of Ancien Régime society. Even some of the exoticism of her female sitters derives from the original costumes and headdresses that she herself often designed or concocted. In 1787, she caused a minor public scandal with a self-portrait, exhibited the same year, in which she was shown smiling open-mouthed – in contravention of painting conventions going back to antiquity. Louise Élisabeth was recognized as one of the most important female painters of the 18th century and as a portraitist, painted some of the most noble and honorable people of her society. Such as the wealthy heiress Louise Marie Adelaide de Bourbon and the Prince of Nassau. In 1788 she was invited to the Palace of Versailles to paint Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France. She was granted favor and patronage by the Queen and continued to paint portraits for her, for the next six years. Louise Élisabeth applied to the Académie Royale but was at first rejected on because her husband was an art dealer, but was later admitted after Marie Antoinette pressured her husband, King Louis XVI, to intervene. She was admitted on May 31st, 1783, on the same day as her rival Adélaïde Labille-Guiard. Louise Élisabeth painted some 30 portraits of Marie-Antoinette, varying in attire and bearing. One of 1783 that portrayed the Queen in a simple gauzy dress was criticized as indecorous, and was replaced during the 1783 Salon by another portrait that featured a more formal gown. In 1785 Vigée Le Brun received an official commission for a portrait of Marie Antoinette and her children, which was intended to counter the increasing criticism of the Queen as frivolous and wayward; by depicting her surrounded by her affectionate children. Vigée Le Brun portrayed Marie-Antoinette as a devoted, virtuous mother and wife. The painting’s overall pomp and splendor presented a dignified image of Marie-Antoinette as sovereign, in direct contrast to Adolf Ulric Wertmüller’s vacuous image of the Queen strolling with her children in the gardens of Versailles. Unfortunately because of her association to the royal family and her friendship with the Queen, she became the victim of a slanderous press campaign. Because of this and the growing revolution, decided to leave France in October of 1789 and was succeeded as court painter by Alexander Kucharsky. Traveling with her only daughter Julie, she made her way to Italy, where she stayed until 1793. In Rome, her paintings met with great critical acclaim and she was elected to the Roman Accademia di San Luca. There followed invitations to Vienna and then Prague, Dresden and Berlin. In each city Vigée Le Brun received numerous commissions from a noble clientele such as the last King of Poland Stainislaw August Poniatowski and members of the family of Catherine the Great. From 1795 to 1801 she lived in St Petersburg except for a five-month stay in Moscow beginning in October 1800. In that same year she became an honorary associate of the St Petersburg Academy. During that period she modernized her repertory to include portraits set in romantic landscape, suggesting the pleasure of solitude in natural settings, popularized by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. After Vigée Le Brun’s departure from France her name had been placed on the list of émigrés, whose citizenship was thereby revoked and property confiscated. Her husband tried to defend her, publishing a pamphlet entitled Précis historique de la vie de la Citoyenne Le Brun, but he was forced to divorce her in 1794, on pain of forfeiting their possessions. In 1799 fellow artists circulated a petition, which was granted the following year, requesting that her name be removed from the list of émigrés. Once her citizenship had been restored, Vigée Le Brun returned to France, initially for a brief period preceded by a six-month stay in Berlin. She spent 1802 in France, working on paintings begun during her Russian period. Saddened by the post-revolutionary atmosphere, she then moved to London, where her list of clients for portraits included the poet Lord Byron and the Prince of Wales (later George IV). In the summer of 1805 she returned to France for good, except for brief trips in 1807 and 1808 to Switzerland, where she visited Mme de Staël, whose portrait she painted. After 1809 Vigée Le Brun divided her time between Paris and a country house in Louveciennes, and once more began to hold popular salons. Her husband died in 1813 and her daughter in 1819. She continued to paint, though sporadically, sending works to the Salons of 1817 and 1824. In 1829 she produced a short manuscript autobiography for a friend, Princess Natalie Kourakin, and in 1834–5, with the aid of her nieces and friends, she expanded her recollections into Souvenirs.