The French portraitist Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) was one of the most successful painters of her era. Bridging the Rococo and Neoclassical genres, her style seems to encapsulate the whimsical atmosphere of the Ancien Régime in pre-revolutionary France – a time of peaceful foreboding.
Vigée Le Brun's most important patron was the Austrian-born Queen of France, Marie Antoinette (1755–1793), who famously came to a sticky end. Her downfall, alas, had nothing to do with French desserts she loved, resulting in the popularised and misattributed catchphrase, 'Let them eat cake!' (she would have at least said 'brioche').
Keep reading to find out how Vigée Le Brun narrowly avoided losing her head (pun intended) in a time of radical political, social and cultural upheaval, leading to the demise of the French monarchy.
Vigée Le Brun was born in Paris, in Rue Coq-Heron on 16th April 1755, and raised in a modest yet creative family.
Her father, Louis Vigée, was a well-known painter who nurtured her artistic talent. Her mother, Jeanne, was a devoutly religious hairdresser who advocated sending her daughter to a convent when she was only five. Her brother, Louis-Jean-Baptiste-Étienne Vigée, later became a successful playwright and is believed to be the subject of this painting.
Barred from joining the Académie des Beaux-Arts (later renamed the École des Beaux-Arts) because of her gender, she attended the drawing school of Marie-Rosalie Hallé, but she also received tutorship from distinguished painters of the time, such as Joseph Vernet, Hubert Robert and Jean-Baptiste Greuze.
Her father died when she was twelve, meaning she was left in the care of her mother, who eventually remarried a wealthy jeweller. According to Vigée's memoirs, she loathed her step-father, who pocketed her income when she started earning money as a portraitist.
By her teens, Vigée Le Brun was attracting an affluent clientele and was known for her sophisticated and graceful portraits, which usually flattered her sitters and showed off their wealth. Receiving the patronage of Parisian men, her mother would accompany her beautiful daughter during sittings to discourage any sexual advances.
In 1774, her studio was seized and put under lock. It was illegal for an artist to make an income without belonging to the Academy, though naturally as a woman she was excluded from membership. To resolve this problem, she applied to the Académie de Saint-Luc, which eventually accepted her (perhaps more accommodating towards Vigée Le Brun, because her father had been a member).
In 1776, she married the painter Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun (1748–1813) – a distant relative of Charles Le Brun (1619–1690) – who was one of the most established picture dealers in Paris. Through her husband's vast art collection, Vigée Le Brun was able to study the work of the masters. She also began exhibiting her own paintings in their Parisian home, Hôtel de Lubert.
The favourite painter of Marie Antoinette
In 1778, Vigée Le Brun was invited to Versailles by Marie Antoinette to create her first oil-on-canvas portrait of the Queen, Marie Antoinette in Court Dress, a painting which had been requested by the Queen's mother, Empress Maria Theresa.
Vigée Le Brun quickly became the Queen's favourite painter and a friend – the two women were the same age. In total, she would go on to paint Antoinette 30 times during her lifetime, unwittingly immortalizing the Queen through her brush as an idle and frivolous monarch, yet at the same capturing the female intimacy between painter and sitter.
In comparison, Marie Antoinette was fundamental in advancing the young artist's career. Because she was married to a dealer, Vigée Le Brun had not initially been given admission to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. However, after the Queen spoke personally to the King about the matter, she was accepted – much to the displeasure of other academicians.
Vigée Le Brun was clearly very fond of the Queen, once describing the way she walked as being 'better than any other woman in France, holding her head very high with a majesty that singled her out in the midst of the entire court.'
Neoclassical painter and revolutionary Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) would later sketch the outline of Marie Antoinette's profile on her way to the guillotine, her regal posture no longer discernible.
An auto-didact navigating through a male-dominated field, Vigée Le Brun nevertheless managed to flourish artistically. Her talent and signature style propelled her success from a young age.
In the eighteenth century, women played a key role in the Salons. By the 1780s, women were some of the most sought-after artists in Paris. Vigée Le Brun's well-known rival, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749–1803) was one of the few other female artists elected to the Académie, along with Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744–1818) and Marie-Joseph Vien (1716–1809).
The same year that Vigée Le Brun was elected to the Académie, she created this portrait of the Duchess de Polignac (1749–1793), the undisputed favourite to Marie Antoinette who had a reputation for her beauty, charm and lavish lifestyle. In the late 1780s, the French press would create rumours that Polignac and Antoinette were engaging in a lesbian love affair, as part of a smear campaign to discredit the Royal family.
The painting is similar to one of Vigée Le Brun's most famous depictions of the Queen, Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress, which scandalised the Salon in 1783 due to the simplicity of her attire. Many remarked that the artist had portrayed the Queen in her 'underwear', and it was promptly removed from the Salon. Always the trendsetter, this kind of muslin dress worn by Antoinette later became highly fashionable in France and was viewed as quintessentially English.
Around the same time, Vigée Le Brun created this similar self-portrait – a version of it can be viewed at The National Gallery.
Greatly influenced by the Flemish and Netherlandish artists, she had taken inspiration from Peter Paul Rubens' (1577–1640) Portrait of Susannah Lunden (Le Chapeau de Paille) from 1662.
Exile from revolutionary France
By the latter half of 1789, Vigée Le Brun's popularity waned in France as she became – what the revolutionaries would call – an 'enemy of the people' and an outspoken royalist.
Vigée Le Brun departed France for Italy with her daughter (according to legend, she fled France disguised as a maid), though her husband Le Brun remained in Paris. Divorcing his wife to distance himself from royalist sympathisers, he had her name removed from a list of counter-revolutionary émigrés.
Many of Vigée Le Brun's friends, sitters and patrons were executed during the French Revolution (1789–1799), in which the new political class – the Jacobins led by Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794) – established the first French Republic with the help of the Guillotine. The Revolution ended when Napoleon Bonaparte took power in 1799.
Vigée Le Brun settled in Rome before venturing to Naples (where she painted Lady Hamilton), later travelling to Vienna, St Petersburg and eventually Switzerland, Germany and England.
While in Imperial Russia in the late 1790s, Vigée Le Brun befriended Russian Countess, Varvara Nikolaevna Golovina (1766–1821), an influential aristocrat who was also an artist and musician.
During her time in London between 1802 and 1805, Vigée Le Brun painted this portrait of the Duchess of Dorset, Arabella Diana Cope (1769–1825). She received a great amount of praise and attention while in England, even earning commissions from Lord Byron, whom she painted in 1802.
Return to France
Due to her ex-husband's efforts to clear her name, after twelve years in exile (1789–1802), Vigée Le Brun returned to France. Before her return, she painted this self portrait, showing a striking stylistic departure from her previous portraits. It is likely that she was deliberately distancing herself from the Rococo style, which had become synonymous with the Ancien Régime.
Remaining sympathetic to the Royals, while in Rome, in 1791, she painted the two daughters of Louis XVI, Adélaïde and Victoire. She was most likely deeply saddened by the events of the Revolution which brought about the death of many of her friends and clients, such as Elisabeth de Bourbon, Princess of France (1764–1794), who became a Catholic martyr.
It is with historical hindsight that Vigée Le Brun's art seems to represent a blissfully ignorant time in history – the calm before the storm.
While her work has often been dismissed for its rendering of frivolous subject matters in the Rococo style (existentialist philosopher and feminist Simone de Beauvoir famously criticised her work), others have pointed out the historical significance of Vigee Le Brun's works, which were arguably products of their time.
Through her brush, Vigée Le Brun (perhaps) naively helped to cement an unpopular image of the French ruling class during the Ancien Régime, which inadvertently led to its eventual downfall.
Lydia Figes, Content Creator at Art UK