Thursday, May 5, 2016

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Painter

Self portrait, 1790
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun was an 18th century French painter who achieved fame and success during one of the most turbulent periods in European history. 

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (also known as Marie Élisabeth Louise and Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun) was born in Paris on April 16th, 1755.

Her father was Louis Vigée, a pastel painter of average talent who encouraged Élisabeth to paint, giving her his brushes and paints to play with. Élisabeth was sent to a convent school where her love of painting surfaced by the age of six, and she was often in trouble with teachers due to her tendency to fill every spare part of her books and even her walls with pastel chalk or charcoal drawings.

When she was seven or eight, one night as she sketched by lamplight her father looked at her work and proclaimed with some excitement, "You will be a painter my child, if ever there was one." She would never forget these words and kept that drawing for the rest of her life; so meaningful to her was that statement.

At the age of 11 she was considered fully schooled, to her great joy, and she was left to paint for hours in her father's studio, accompanied by her mother. While her father heaped great praise upon her, her mother was not so free with her affections. Rather, it was to Élisabeth's younger brother that her mother gave praise and indulgence, and she was quite strict with Élisabeth herself.

In May 1768 Élisabeth's father died quite suddenly, leaving them with little money from his paintings. Amid her sorrow Élisabeth began painting to support the family, and though almost entirely self-taught, she was successful enough by the age of 15 that she was supporting the entire family.

Her reputation as a portrait artist spread quickly, as did her reputation for being a great beauty. She became known to the great painters of that day, such as Joseph Vernet, who advised the young artist. He gave her encouragement and advised that she needed no formal training, but that she should study the works of the great Italian and Flemish masters and above all, turn to nature, "the first and best of all teachers." Élisabeth followed this advice and thus was never formally trained by any one person.

Though she was earning a good deal of money through her portrait painting, Élisabeth struggled to cover all of the expenses of the family, which extended to the schooling of her brother. Her mother remarried in the meantime, a move interpreted by some historians as being an attempt to help Élisabeth with the finances, but it really had the opposite effect, as her new stepfather took all of her earnings and spent little on the family, and even went to far as to start wearing the clothes of her father.

Élisabeth continued to paint in the meantime, always with her mother nearby. As her looks had begun to attract as much attention as her talent, would-be-suitors began to overwhelm her with requests for a sitting. She talked about this in her journals:
"It may readily be supposed that some admirers of my face gave me commissions to paint theirs in the fond hope that they might in this way win my good graces; but I was so absorbed in my art that nothing could distract me from it, and as soon as I detected any inclination on the part of the gentlemen who sat for me to make sheep's eyes at me, I used to paint them looking in another direction, and then at the least movement of their pupils towards me I would cry, 'Now I am doing the eyes!' This was, of course, rather trying to them, and my mother, who was always present, used to laugh quietly to herself."
From the age of 15 Élisabeth was in much demand as a painter, but also as a guest at social events. Princes, dukes, men and women of celebrity was all among those who requested her presence. For all the social gatherings, however, she was never as happy as when she was painting, and she would not let anything get in the way of it.


In autumn of 1774 when she was 19 she was elected a member of the Academy of St. Luke, a French guild for painters and sculptures of high caliber. Soon after she met Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, a well-known art dealer, who showered attention on her and after six months, asked for her hand in marriage.

Though she did not like him enough to marry him and her friends advised her otherwise, going so far as to tell her "you would do better to tie a stone around your neck and throw yourself in the river," she accepted his proposal.

As she recorded in her journal, she was questioning the decision all the way to the church, but ultimately they were married: "But so little did I feel inclined to sacrifice my liberty," she wrote, "that even on the way to church I kept saying to myself: 'Shall I say yes, or shall I say "no"?' Alas," she adds, "I said 'yes,' and thereby merely exchanged present troubles for others."

Unsurprisingly, Élisabeth and Le Braun did not have a happy marriage, due at least in part to his penchant for taking her earnings and spending them on frivolity or gambling (assuming those are two different things). To distract herself from her unfullfilling marriage she threw herself into her art and even took up teaching when her husband prodded her to generate still more income, but she stopped upon realizing that it took away from her own time painting.

As for success, she continued to attain it, became renowned across France for her talent and charm. Indeed, it was not just her skill as a painter that made her successful, but her manner - she had a way of getting even the stuffiest aristocrat to drop his or her guard, and they allowed her to paint them in costumes that hid their high social rank.

She even set new fashion trends, by encouraging a more natural look for hair, instead of having them highly powdered. Élisabeth had a way of seeing the natural beauty of a person, and bringing that side out in her paintings.

In 1778 at the age of 23 she met Marie Antoinette, after the queen insisted that she become an official court painter. The queen struck up a warm relationship with Élisabeth and would sit for her for over 20 portraits, in many different scenes and costumes.

Marie Antoinette and her  children, 1787
In 1780 Élisabeth was joined by one who would be the love of her life, her daughter. She named her Jeanne Julie Louise, and is seen in numerous paintings clasping her.

Self-portrait of the artist with her daughter, 1789
As the royal family became less popular in France, so did Élisabeth, and tales spread of her high fees and extravagance. By her own reports, these stories were fictional or else greatly exaggerated - for example, one gathering that became notorious for the number of people crammed into her establishment; all singing and enjoying the most lavish of services, simply never happened - when she did have too many people in one place, it was just because they all wanted to be there, and none of them would agree to leave.

Reports of what she spent on food and wine was also highly overblown; rather than spending the reported sum of 40,000 - 80,000 francs in one evening on dinner, in reality she spent about 15 francs.

But the rumors were more exciting than the truth and they spread far faster, and by 1789 when the French Revolution began and Marie Antoinette and her family were murdered, Élisabeth was horrified and ran for her life.

Outside France

Knowing she could be targeted for her obvious links with royalty, Élisabeth fled with her daughter to Italy. She would spend the next 12 years outside of France, her home.

She travelled across Europe, visiting Italy, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Switzerland, England, and Russia. In each of these countries she generated money by painting the royal families and other celebrated individuals. As always, her paintings were known for their freshness and charm yet they were not without drama - when painting Catherine the Great through a series of sittings, Élisabeth had to stop before the work was complete because Catherine was murdered by her own son, Paul.

Working on her own and supporting her daughter, Élisabeth finally wrote home and bid her husband goodbye. Unsatisfied with leaving certain things unsaid (like his womanizing and gambling), she wrote the following:
"What would I have done without my work? If I had been ill, you would have let me starve; since instead of saving money you have spent it on a woman who deceived you, you have gambled and lost, Monsieur... I will neither let my fortune fall into the hands of strangers, since it has been too hard to earn... nor will I take advice from anyone." 
There were certainly many single mothers who became so out of necessity, but it was a relatively uncommon path. Having known the alternative; what it was like to live with someone she was not suited to, however, Élisabeth embarked upon it willingly. After all, she had been supporting her family since she was 15 years old. Working for herself was not new to her.
Julie LeBrun as Flora, 1799
Élisabeth returned to Paris in 1800 then traveled further to England, where she spent several more years before heading back to France to see her daughter. In the years 1813-1819 Élisabeth suffered a series of losses, namely her daughter, ex-husband, and her brother. Almost all of her important relationships had been lost by this time, and she grieved at length.

To the end of her days she enjoyed engaging in her art, and finding pleasure in social activities. She died peacefully on March 30th, 1842 in Paris at the age of eighty-seven. Over her lifetime Élisabeth painted over 900 paintings, which hang in such museums as the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Uffizi Gallery in Italy, and the National Gallery in London.

She was not always a sympathetic character, but Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun was an outstanding woman in history in her own way. When the loss of her father meant her family had no means to support themselves, she stepped up and pulled her weight and that of her family at age 15. She would take this mantle of breadwinner her entire life, carving out a name not only for herself with her natural talent, but for women as artists. She was one of the only ones recognized during her time.

  • Girls Who Rocked the World, Michelle Roehm-McCann & Amelie Weldon, Aladdin & Beyond Words, 2012
  • Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016.
  • Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun: Biography & Art , Charles Moffat, The Art History Archive, 2007

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