Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, also known as Élisabeth Vigée, Élisabeth Le Brun or Élisabeth Lebrun, born Louise-Élisabeth Vigée on April 16, 1755 in Paris, and died in the same city on March 30, 1842, was a French painter, considered a great portrait painter of her time.
It has been compared to Quentin de La Tour or Jean-Baptiste Greuze.
Her art and her exceptional career make her a privileged witness of the upheavals of the end of the 18th century, the French Revolution and the Restoration. A fervent royalist, she was successively painter of the French court, of Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI, of the Kingdom of Naples, of the Court of the Emperor of Vienna, of the Emperor of Russia and of the Restoration. He is also known for several self-portraits, including two with his daughter.
Her parents, Louis Vigée, a pastelist and member of the Académie de Saint-Luc, and Jeanne Maissin, a peasant, married in 1750. Élisabeth-Louise was born in 1755; a younger brother, Étienne Vigée, who was to become a successful playwright, was born two years later.
Born on the rue Coquillière in Paris, Elisabeth was baptized in the church of Saint-Eustache in Paris and then put in the care of a nurse. In the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, it was not yet customary to raise one”s own children, so the child was entrusted to peasants in the vicinity of Épernon.
Her father came to find her six years later and brought her back to Paris to the family apartment on rue de Cléry.
Elisabeth-Louise entered the school of the Trinité convent, rue de Charonne in the faubourg Saint-Antoine, as a boarder in order to receive the best education possible. From this age, her precocious talent for drawing is expressed: in her notebooks, on the walls of her school.
It was at this time that Louis Vigée was ecstatic one day in front of a drawing of his little prodigy daughter, a drawing of a bearded man. He then prophesied that she would be a painter.
In 1766, Elisabeth-Louise left the convent and came to live with her parents.
Her father died accidentally of septicemia after swallowing a fish bone on May 9, 1767. Elisabeth-Louise, who was only twelve years old, took a long time to mourn and then decided to devote herself to her passions, painting, drawing and pastels.
Her mother remarried on December 26, 1767 to a wealthy but miserly jeweler, Jacques-François Le Sèvre (Elisabeth-Louise”s relationship with her stepfather was difficult.
Elisabeth”s first teacher was her father, Louis Vigée. After his death, it was another painter, Gabriel-François Doyen, best friend of the family and famous in his time as a history painter, who encouraged her to persevere in pastel and oil painting; an advice that she followed.
It is certainly advised by Doyen, that in 1769 Élisabeth Vigée goes to the painter Gabriel Briard, an acquaintance of the latter (having had the same master, Carl van Loo).Briard is a member of the Royal Academy of Painting, and willingly gives lessons, although he is not yet a professor. A mediocre painter, he had the reputation of being a good draughtsman and had a studio in the Louvre palace; Elisabeth made rapid progress and was already beginning to be talked about.
It was at the Louvre that she met Joseph Vernet, an artist famous throughout Europe. He was one of the most sought-after painters in Paris, his advice was authoritative and he did not fail to give her advice.
“I constantly followed his advice; for I never had a master proper,” she writes in her memoirs.
In any case, Vernet, who will devote his time to the training of “Miss Vigée”, and Jean-Baptiste Greuze notice her and advise her.
The young girl painted many copies after the masters. She will admire the masterpieces of the Luxembourg Palace; moreover, the fame of these painters opens to her all the doors of the princely and aristocratic private art collections in Paris where she can study at leisure the great masters, copy heads of Rembrandt, Van Dyck or Greuze, study the semi-tones as well as the degradations on the salient parts of a head. She writes:
“I could be compared to a bee, so much knowledge was gathered…”.
All her life, this need to learn will not leave her, because she understood that a gift is worked. Already, she was commissioned to paint portraits and began to earn a living.
She painted her first recognized painting in 1770, a portrait of her mother (Madame Le Sèvre, née Jeanne Maissin, private collection). With little hope at her age of entering the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, a prestigious but conservative institution, she presented several of her paintings to the Academy of Saint-Luc, of which she officially became a member on October 25, 1774.
A dazzling career
In 1770, the dauphin Louis-Auguste, future Louis XVI, grandson of King Louis XV, married Marie-Antoinette of Austria in Versailles, daughter of Empress Maria Theresa.
At the same time, the Le Sèvre-Vigée family moved into the Hôtel de Lubert on the rue Saint-Honoré, opposite the Palais-Royal. Louise-Élisabeth Vigée began to make commissioned portraits, but her father-in-law monopolized her income. She gets into the habit of making a list of the portraits she has painted during the year. Thus, it is possible to know that in 1773, she painted twenty seven. She began to paint many self-portraits.
She was a member of the Académie de Saint-Luc from 1774. In 1775, she offered two portraits to the Royal Academy; as a reward, she received a letter signed by d”Alembert informing her that she was admitted to participate in the public sessions of the Academy.
When his father-in-law retired from business in 1775, the family moved to the rue de Cléry, in the Hôtel Lubert, whose main tenant was Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Lebrun, who was a dealer and restorer of paintings, an antique dealer and painter. He was a specialist in Dutch painting and published catalogs. She visited Lebrun”s gallery with great interest and perfected her pictorial knowledge. He became her agent and took care of her business. Already married once in Holland, he asked her to marry him. Libertine and gambler, he has a bad reputation, and the marriage is formally advised against the young artist. However, wishing to escape from her family, she married him on January 11, 1776 in the church of Saint-Eustache, with the dispensation of two banns. Élisabeth Vigée became Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.
That same year, she received her first commission from the Court of the Count of Provence, the King”s brother. On November 30, 1776, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun was admitted to work for the Court of Louis XVI.
In 1778, she became the queen”s official painter and was therefore called upon to paint the first life portrait of Queen Marie-Antoinette.
It was also at this time that she painted the portrait of Antoine-Jean Gros as a seven year old child and opened an academy and taught.
Her private mansion became a fashionable place, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun had a successful period and her husband opened an auction room in which he sold antiques and paintings by Greuze, Fragonard, etc. She sold her portraits for 12,000 francs on which she received 6 francs, her husband pocketing the rest, as she says in her Memoirs: “I had such a carefree attitude to money, I was not afraid of it. She sold her portraits for 12,000 francs on which she received only 6 francs, her husband pocketing the rest, as she says in her Memoirs: “I had such a carelessness about money, that I hardly knew its value.”
On February 12, 1780, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun gave birth to her daughter Jeanne-Julie-Louise. She continued to paint during the first contractions and, it is said, hardly let go of her brushes during the birth. Her daughter Julie was the subject of many portraits. A second pregnancy a few years later resulted in a child who died in infancy.
In 1781, she travels to Brussels with her husband to attend and buy at the sale of the collection of the late governor Charles-Alexandre de Lorraine; there she meets the Prince de Ligne.
Inspired by Rubens whom she admired, she painted her Self-portrait with a straw hat in 1782 (London, National Gallery).her portraits of women attracted the sympathy of the Duchess of Chartres, princess of the blood, who introduced her to the queen, her exact contemporary, the latter making her her official and favorite painter in 1778. She multiplied the originals and copies. Some paintings remained the property of the king, others were offered to relatives, ambassadors and foreign courts.
Although she could not be admitted, she was admitted to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture on May 31, 1783, at the same time as her competitor Adélaïde Labille-Guiard and against the wishes of Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre, the King”s first painter. Her sex and the profession of her husband, a painting merchant, were however strong oppositions to her entry, but the protective intervention of Marie-Antoinette allowed her to obtain this privilege from Louis XVI.
Vigée Le Brun presented a reception painting (although she was not asked to do so), La Paix ramenant l”Abondance (Peace bringing back Abundance), painted in 1783 (Paris, Louvre Museum), to be admitted as a history painter. With the support of the Queen, she allowed herself the impertinence of showing an uncovered breast, whereas academic nudes were reserved for men. She was accepted without any category being specified.
In September of the same year, she participated in the Salon for the first time and presented Marie-Antoinette, known as “à la Rose”: initially, she had the audacity to present the queen in a gaule dress, a cotton muslin that was generally used for body linen or interior decoration, but the critics were scandalized by the fact that the queen was painted in a shirt, so that after a few days Vigée Le Brun had to withdraw it and replace it with an identical portrait but with a more conventional dress. From then on, the prices of her paintings soared.
On October 19, 1785, her younger brother Étienne married Suzanne Rivière, whose brother would be Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun”s companion in exile between 1792 and 1801. She painted the portrait of the Minister of Finance Charles Alexandre de Calonne for which she was paid 800 000 francs.
As a member of the Court”s intimates, she was, like the King and the Queen, the object of criticism and slander. Rumors, more or less well-founded, accuse Vigée Le Brun of having an affair with the minister Calonne, but also with the Count de Vaudreuil (whose correspondence with her is published) and the painter Ménageot.
An eighteenth-century art of portraiture
Before 1789, the work of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun consisted of portraits, a fashionable genre in the second half of the 18th century, for the wealthy and aristocratic clients who made up her clientele. Vigée Le Brun was, according to her biographer Geneviève Haroche-Bouzinac: “a beautiful woman, with a pleasant approach, a cheerful conversation, she played an instrument, was a good actress, had social skills that facilitated her integration into social circles and a great talent as a portraitist who possessed the art of flattering her models…”. For Marc Fumaroli, Vigée Le Brun”s portraiture is an extension of the art of salon conversation, where one presents oneself in one”s best light, listens and socializes in a feminine world away from the noise of the world. Vigée Le Brun”s paintings are one of the summits of the art of painting “au naturel”.
She wrote a short text, Tips for Painting Portraits, for her niece.
Among her portraits of women, we can mention in particular the portraits of Marie-Antoinette (Catherine Noël Worlee (the future princess of Talleyrand) which she painted in 1783 and which was exhibited at the Salon de peinture de Paris of the same year 1783; the sister of Louis XVI, Mme Élisabeth; the wife of the Count of Artois; two friends of the queen: the princess of Lamballe and the countess of Polignac. In 1786 she painted (simultaneously?) her first self-portrait with her daughter (see below) and the portrait of Marie-Antoinette and her children. Both paintings were exhibited at the Paris Salon of the same year and it was the self-portrait with her daughter that was praised by the public.
In 1788, she painted what she considered her masterpiece: The Portrait of the Painter Hubert Robert.
At the height of her fame, in her Parisian mansion on rue de Cléry, where she entertained high society once a week, she gave a “Greek supper”, which became the talk of the town because of the ostentation that was displayed and for which she was suspected of having spent a fortune.
Letters and libels circulated in Paris, to prove his relationship with Calonne. He was accused of having gold panelling, of lighting his fire with banknotes, of burning aloe wood in his fireplace.The cost of the dinner of 20,000 francs was reported to King Louis XVI, who was angry with the artist.
In the summer of 1789, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun was in Louveciennes at the home of the Countess du Barry, the last mistress of Louis XV, whose portrait she had begun, when both women heard the cannon thundering in Paris. The former favorite would have cried: “If Louis XV was alive, surely all this would not have been so”.
Her mansion was ransacked, sans-culottes poured sulfur into her cellars and tried to set them on fire. She took refuge in the house of the architect Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart.
On the night of October 5 to 6, 1789, when the royal family was forcibly brought back to Paris, Elisabeth left the capital with her daughter, Julie, her governess and a hundred louis, leaving behind her husband who encouraged her to flee, her paintings and the million francs she had earned from her husband, taking only 20 francs with her, she wrote in her Memoirs
She later said of the end of the Ancien Régime: “Women reigned then, the Revolution dethroned them.
She leaves Paris for Lyon, disguised as a worker, then crosses Mont Cenis to Savoy (then a possession of the Kingdom of Sardinia), where she is recognized by a postman who offers her a mule:
She arrived in Rome in November 1789. In 1790, she was received at the Uffizi Gallery with her Self-Portrait, which was a great success. She sent works to Paris to the Salon. The artist made her Grand Tour and lived between Florence, Rome where she met Ménageot, and Naples with Talleyrand and Lady Hamilton, then Vivant Denon, the first director of the Louvre, in Venice. She wanted to return to France, but in 1792 she was put on the list of emigrants and lost her civil rights.
On February 14, 1792, she left Rome for Venice. While the Army of the South returned to Savoy and Piedmont, she went to Vienna in Austria, from where she did not think of leaving and where, as former painter of Queen Marie-Antoinette, she enjoyed the protection of the imperial family.
In Paris, Jean-Baptiste Pierre Lebrun sold his entire business in 1791 to avoid bankruptcy, when the art market had collapsed and lost half its value. Close to Jacques-Louis David, he asked in 1793, without success, that his wife”s name be removed from the list of emigrants. He published a booklet: Précis Historique de la Citoyenne Lebrun. Like his brother-in-law Étienne, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre was imprisoned for several months.
Invoking the desertion of his wife, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre asked for and obtained a divorce in 1794 to protect himself and preserve their property. At the same time, he appraised the collections seized by the Revolution from the aristocracy and drew up inventories of them. He published Observations sur le Muséum National (Observations on the National Museum), which prefigured the collections and organization of the Louvre Museum, of which he became the expert commissioner. Then as deputy to the arts commission, Year III (1795), he published Essai sur les moyens d”encourager la peinture, la sculpture, l”architecture et la gravure. Thus the painting of maternity of Madame Vigée Le Brun and her daughter (c.1789), commissioned by the Count d”Angivillier, director of the King”s Buildings, seized by Le Brun, became part of the Louvre collections.
As for Elisabeth-Louise, she travels Europe in triumph.
In Russia (1795-1801)
At the invitation of the Russian ambassador, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun went to Russia, a country she considered her second home. In 1795, she was in St. Petersburg where she stayed for several years thanks to commissions from the Russian high society and the support of Gabriel-François Doyen, who was close to the empress and her son. In particular, she stayed with the Countess Saltykoff in 1801.
Invited by the great courts of Europe and having to support herself, she painted constantly.
She refuses to read the news, because she learns of the execution of her friends guillotined during the Terror. She learns, among other things, of the death of her lover Doyen, cousin of Gabriel-François, born in 1759 in Versailles, who was Marie-Antoinette”s cook for ten years.
In 1799, a petition of two hundred and fifty-five artists, writers and scientists asked the Directory to remove his name from the list of emigrants.
In 1800, her return is precipitated by the death of her mother in Neuilly and the marriage, which she does not approve, of her daughter Julie to Gaëtan Bertrand Nigris, director of the Imperial Theaters in St. Petersburg. It is a heartbreak for her. Disappointed by her husband, she had based her entire emotional universe on her daughter. The two women will never fully reconcile.
After a brief stay in Moscow in 1801, then in Germany, she could return to Paris in complete safety since she had been removed from the list of emigrants in 1800. She was welcomed in Paris on January 18, 1802, where she found her husband, with whom she lived under the same roof.
Between Paris and London and Switzerland (1802 -1809)
If Elisabeth”s return was welcomed by the press, she had difficulty finding her place in the new society born of the Revolution and the Empire.
“I will not try to paint what happened to me when I touched this land of France that I had left for twelve years: the pain, the fear, the joy that agitated me in turn. I wept for the friends I had lost on the scaffold; but I was going to see again those who still remained. But what I disliked even more was to see still written on the walls: liberty, fraternity or death… “
A few months later, she left France for England, where she settled in London for three years. There she met Lord Byron, the painter Benjamin West, Lady Hamilton, the mistress of Admiral Nelson whom she had met in Naples, and admired the paintings of Joshua Reynolds.
She lived with the Court of Louis XVIII and the Count of Artois in exile between London, Bath and Dover.
After a passage through Holland, she returned to Paris in July 1805, and her daughter Julie who had left Russia in 1804. In 1805, she was commissioned to paint the portrait of Caroline Murat, wife of General Murat, one of Napoleon”s sisters who had become Queen of Naples, and this did not go down well: “I have painted real princesses who have never tormented me and have not kept me waiting”, said the fifty-year-old artist to this young queen.
On January 14, 1807, she bought her indebted husband”s Parisian mansion and auction house. But in the face of imperial power, Vigée Le Brun left France for Switzerland, where she met Madame de Staël in 1807.
The return to France
In 1809, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun returned to France and settled in Louveciennes, in a country house next to the castle that had belonged to the Countess du Barry (guillotined in 1793), of whom she had painted three portraits before the Revolution. She lived between Louveciennes and Paris, where she held salons and met famous artists. Her husband, from whom she had divorced, died in 1813.
In 1814, she rejoiced at the return of Louis XVIII, “The monarch who suited the times,” she wrote in her memoirs. After 1815 and the Restoration, her paintings, in particular the portraits of Marie-Antoinette, were restored and re-hung in the Louvre, Fontainebleau and Versailles.
Her daughter ended her life in poverty in 1819, and her brother, Étienne Vigée, died in 1820. She made a last trip to Bordeaux during which she made many drawings of ruins. She still painted some sunsets, studies of the sky or the mountains, including the Chamonix valley in pastel (Le Mont blanc, L”Aiguille du Goûter, Grenoble museum).
In Louveciennes, where she lived eight months of the year, the rest in winter in Paris, she received friends and artists on Sundays, including her friend the painter Antoine-Jean Gros, whom she had known since 1778, and she was very affected by his suicide in 1835.
In 1829, she wrote a short autobiography which she sent to Princess Nathalie Kourakine, and wrote her will. In 1835, she published her Memoirs with the help of her nieces Caroline Rivière, who had come to live with her, and Eugénie Tripier Le Franc, a portrait painter and her last student. It is the latter who wrote in her hand part of the memories of the painter, hence the doubts expressed by some historians about their authenticity.
At the end of his life, the artist, suffering from strokes, lost his sight.
She died in Paris at her home in the rue Saint-Lazare on March 30, 1842 and was buried in the parish cemetery of Louveciennes. On the tombstone, deprived of its surrounding grid, stands the white marble stele bearing the epitaph “Here, at last, I rest…”, decorated with a medallion representing a palette on a pedestal and surmounted by a cross. His tomb was transferred in 1880 to the Arches Cemetery in Louveciennes, when the old cemetery was disused.
The majority of his work, 660 out of 900 paintings, is composed of portraits. The only notable exception is her 1780 painting La Paix ramenant l”Abondance, her reception piece at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, which was severely criticized by the members of the Academy for its poor drawing and lack of idealization. She seems to give up this genre for financial reasons. She used oil, reserving the pastel only for sketches. She was inspired by the old masters. Thus the style of the Portrait of a Woman by Peter Paul Rubens (1622-1625, London, National Gallery) can be found in several of her paintings, including her Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat (1782-1783, London, National Gallery) or her Gabrielle Yolande Claude Martine de Polastron, Duchess of Polignac (1782, National Museum of the Châteaux of Versailles and Trianon). The influence of Raphael and his Madonna della seggiola (1513-1514, Florence, Palazzo Pitti) can also be seen in his Self-portrait with his daughter Julie (1789, Paris, Musée du Louvre). Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun painted about fifty self-portraits, making herself her favorite subject.
Another of his favorite themes is the representation of the child, either as an isolated subject or in the company of the mother, trying to paint the “maternal tenderness”, a nickname given to his first self-portrait with his daughter (Self-portrait of Madame Le Brun holding her daughter Julie on her lap, 1786, Paris, Musée du Louvre). We find the same maternal tenderness and love, the same closeness between mother and daughter, in her second self-portrait with her daughter.
His work develops a first style before 1789, and a second after this date. The first part of her work is composed of female portraits in the “au naturel” style typical of the rococo. She progressively favors simple and floating fabrics, not empesés, hair not powdered and left to the natural. The second part is more severe, the style changed in the portraits, but also with the landscapes that appear then (about 200). His palette becomes darker compared to the virtuoso joy of the pre-revolutionary work. If his work executed under the Ancien Régime has been much commented, appreciated or criticized, the second part which goes from 1789 to 1842 is little known. For her biographer Nancy Heller in Women Artists: An Illustrated History, Vigée Le Brun”s best portraits are as much a vibrant evocation of personalities as they are the expression of an art of living that was disappearing, even as she was painting
The first retrospective exhibition of his work in France was held in Paris at the Grand Palais in 2015.
Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun was famous during her lifetime, but her work associated with Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI will be forgotten until the 21st century. If in 1845, she still appears in the Universal Biography of all the famous men who were noted for their writings, their actions, their talents, their virtues or their crimes as the wife of Jean-Baptiste Le Brun, in 1970 her name does not even appear in the Grand Larousse illustré. Hanging in the Louvre, her self-portrait with her daughter Julie is considered mawkish. The harshest criticism of Vigée Le Brun”s conception of motherhood (and of painting) was made by Simone de Beauvoir in Le Deuxième Sexe in 1949, who wrote: “Instead of giving herself generously to the work she undertakes, the woman considers it a mere ornament of her life; the book and the painting are only an inessential intermediary, allowing her to exhibit this essential reality: her own person. So it is her person that is the main – sometimes the only – subject that interests her: Mme Vigée-Lebrun never tires of fixing her smiling maternity on her canvases.
At the end of the 20th century, the work of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun was much commented on and studied by American feminists in an analysis of the cultural politics of the arts through the questions posed by her exceptional career, the parallelism between her relationship to Marie-Antoinette and that of Apelle and Alexander the Great, the establishment of her reputation, the relations with her male peers, the courtesan society that founded her royalist clientele, her attitude towards the Revolution, then the ban on women studying at the Beaux-Arts by the Constituante, her narcissism and motherhood as a feminine identity extending the remark of Simone de Beauvoir.
The English historian Colin Jones considers the first self-portrait of the painter Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun with her daughter (1786) to be the first real smile represented in Western art where the teeth are visible. At the time of its presentation, it was considered scandalous. Indeed, since Antiquity, representations of mouths with teeth have existed but they concern characters with negative connotations, such as the common people or subjects who are not in control of their emotions (fear, rage, ecstasy, etc.), for example on Flemish canvases of the 17th century with drunkards or children as in William Hogarth”s The Shrimp Merchant Rarely do artists make self-portraits of themselves where we see them smiling with their teeth (Rembrandt, Antoine Watteau, Georges de La Tour) but Colin Jones sees this as an homage to Democritus, where furious laughter echoes the madness of the world (as in Antoine Coypel”s painting of the ancient philosopher). It is also worth noting that the poor hygiene of the time spoils the teeth and often makes them lose before the age of 40: keeping the mouth closed and controlling the smile therefore answers a certain practical necessity. Nevertheless, under the leadership of Pierre Fauchard, dentistry progressed in the 18th century. Vigée Le Brun”s painting is shocking because it transgresses the social conventions of her time, which demanded a mastery of one”s body, art being only the reflection of it. Later, the democratization of medicine and the possibility of keeping teeth healthy and white allowed the smile to be displayed.
The first retrospective of her work in France takes place from September 2015 to January 11, 2016 at the Grand Palais in Paris. Accompanied by films, documentaries, the painter of Marie Antoinette appears then in all her complexity.