Happy Birthday Elisabeth Le Brun, born April 16, 1755! Elisabeth Le Brun, also known as
Madame Le Brun, was a French Rococo Neoclassical painter at the turn of the the 19th century. She painted the portraits of several members of nobility (mostly women) from around the world and lived through the French Revolution.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée was born April 16, 1755 in Paris, France. Her father, Louis Vigee, was also a portrait artist and her mother was a hairdresser. She had a younger brother, Etienne Vigee, who later became a playwright and poet.
Elisabeth spent her early childhood with relatives in the countryside in Epernon, France and then attended a residential convent school where she learned reading, writing, etiquette, and embroidery skills. While in school she got in trouble multiple times for drawing on the dormitory walls.
“I scrawled on everything at all seasons; my copy-books, and even those of my schoolmates had their margins crammed with tiny drawings of heads and profiles.” (Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun)
Elisabeth’s father was a portraitist working mostly in pastels and a member of the artist guild Academy of Saint Luc. He was thrilled with his daughter’s interest in art and started to train her in the arts, giving her free use of his studio and materials prior to his death. Elisabeth was close to her father and it affected her deeply when he passed away when she was only twelve.
Within a year, her mother remarried to a jeweler and the family moved close to the Palais Royal. Due to the financial strain, Elisabeth soon began to take on portrait commissions to help support the family. Many of her first subjects were friends and family.
Elisabeth Le Brun the Artist
As a woman, Vigee Le Brun didn’t have access to formal training. She depended on contacts that she made in the art world from her father – such as Gabriel Francois Doyen, Pierre Davesne, and Jean-Baptiste Greuze – as well as friendships she made on her own with Herbert Robert and Joseph Vernet. She also studied on her own through copying drawings and sculptures. Her mother would often accompany her so she could study the royal collections of the Palais du Luxembourg and Palais Royal.
By the age of 17, Vigee Le Brun was a professional painter taking on clients besides her immediate friends and family. Officials seized her studio in 1774 for practicing without being a member of a guild. Le Brun then applied and became a member of the Academy of Saint Luc (the same guild that her father was a member) at the age of 19. With membership she was able to start exhibiting her work in their salon.
Elisabeth soon met prominent art dealer Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun who she married in 1776 and the two later had a daughter Jeanne Lucie Louise who they called Julie. Julie appeared in many of Vigee Le Brun’s paintings. Elisabeth and Jean Baptiste’s marriage began on good terms with Jean Baptiste introducing Elisabeth to important contacts in the art world, but the marriage ended up strained by his affairs and gambling.
In 1778 at the age of 23, Vigee Le Brun was called to the Palace of Versailles to paint a state portrait of the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, for the Queen’s mother. Vigee Le Brun went on to paint more than 30 different portraits of the queen and her family over the next decade. The portraits varied from very formal paintings in official regal attire to more casual portraits that caused some scandal in high society.
Marie Antoinette provided royal intervention so that Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun could be fully admitted as a member to The French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1783, which she had previously been denied due to their limits on admitting women and her marriage to an art dealer. Over the next five years, Vigee Le Brun exhibited 50 paintings to the yearly Royal Salons. She enjoyed the benefits of being part of the French Royal Court, living a lavish lifestyle and making connections with high-class clientele. Her own salon in her home became a popular spot for other artists and members of the aristocratic class.
Escape From France
As the French Revolution began, society became split between those who were loyal to the monarchy and those who supported the revolution. As the official portraitist of the queen and a loyalist, Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun was no longer safe in France. She fled from France to Italy in October 1789 with her young daughter and governess dressed as commoners.
In Italy she set up a studio and began again to paint portraits of the aristocratic and ruling families in Italy. She considered her trip to Italy as the Grand Tour, where she studied the works of the great masters. Because of her connections through Marie Antoinette, Vigee Le Brun had no difficulty in finding patrons for commissions and maintaining her high society lifestyle wherever she went. The queen’s sister, Queen Maria Caroline of Naples, was one of her new patrons. After Italy, Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun lived in Austria for three years before moving to Russia. In Russia, she painted portraits for Catherine the Great and spent six years in the Russian Court.
Back in France, Vigee Le Brun’s estranged husband petitioned to allow his wife to return to France in 1793. The petition was denied by authorities and both her husband and her brother were imprisoned for several months. Her husband divorced Vigee Le Brun in 1794 for his own safety and to recover his assets.
Vigee Le Brun returned to Paris in 1802 during the reign of Napoleon I after her name was finally removed from the list of emigres, though she did not stay long before taking a two year trip to London and Berlin. She bought a country house in Louveciennes, France where she lived until the Prussian army pillaged the town during the War of 1814. She fled to Paris, where she lived until her death on March 30, 1842 at the age of 86.
Style & Themes
Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun’s style was considered part of the Rococo art movement, but she blended elements of different styles that appealed to her such as incorporating aspects of the Neoclassical style that was emerging, and even some traits of Naturalism and Romanticism. She used the graceful lines and curves, and a warm pastel color palette of the Rococo style in her paintings. She would often have her sitters sit in idealized poses inspired by Greek and Roman Classical art. Her earlier pieces showed Naturalism by including representations of everyday life and relaxed poses such as Marie Antoinette pictured with her children in the nursery. In later pieces, she incorporated Romanticism through adding picturesque nature scenes as backgrounds in her portraits.
Although Vigee LeBrun also painted the portraits of men, she is most known for her portraits of women – specifically those of Marie Antoinette and self-portraits. Her paintings are a good representation of women’s fashion and how it changed throughout the late 18th and early 19th century. She was especially skilled at capturing the luminescence of silks and satin and other textures in clothing in her portraits.
Elisabeth Le Brun was a talented conversationalist and welcoming person; she was good at making her sitters feel at ease as they posed for their portraits. The end result was that her portraits captured the subject as more relaxed, candid, animated, and even seductive sometimes. While her portraits look very traditional compared to today’s standards, at the time she was showing the aristocracy in a new relatable light. Sometimes this caused controversy, such as early in her career in a self-portrait with her young daughter where she dared to have her lips parted and show her teeth. Or when she painted the queen in a white muslin dress which was seen as below her station in society.
Death & Legacy
Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun painted over 660 portraits and 200 landscapes in her lifetime. She immortalized the image of generations of aristocrats, actors, and writers throughout Europe through her work; was elected to art academies in ten different cities; and is considered to be the most famous woman painter of the 18th century.
A lot is known about her life due to her memoirs which she published in three volumes from 1835 to 1837 in her old age. Souvenirs de ma vie (Remembrances of my Life) detailed her life in the French Royal Court and through exile from France. It also included pen sketches and shared advice for young portraitists.
An effort has been made to bring Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun’s art back into the public eye since the 1980’s. Her work can be found around the world in museums such as the Louvre in France, the National Gallery in London, the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Resources & Further Learning
If you enjoyed learning more about this artist, I encourage you to check out more of her paintings and research more in-depth articles about her life and work.
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About the Artist
Laura Jaen Smith is an artist who lives and works out of Horseheads, New York. Her inspiration comes from observing the beauty she sees around her. After a decade living out west, she returned back to New York State and started seeing the same old places with new eyes. She is most interested in capturing small moments in nature that might otherwise be overlooked.
Visit her shop or ask about available works.