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.
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."
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.
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.
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.