Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun – French 1755-1842

Marie-Louise-Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun
Self Portrait
Marie-Louise-Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun was born on April 16, 1755 in Paris, the daughter of a painter, from whom she received her first instruction, though she benefited more by the advice of Gabriel François Doyen, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Joseph Vernet and other masters of the period. By the time she was in her early teens, she was already painting portraits professionally. After her studio was seized for practicing without a license, she applied to the Académie de Saint Luc who willingly exhibited her works in their Salon. On 25 October 1774, she was made a member of the Académie.

In 1776, she married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Lebrun, a painter and art dealer. She painted portraits of many of the nobility of the day and as her career blossomed, she was invited to the Palace of Versailles to paint Queen Marie-Antoinette. So pleased was the Queen that over the next several years, Vigée-Lebrun was commissioned to do numerous portraits of the Queen, her children, and other members of the Royal family and household.

In 1781 she and her husband toured Flanders and the Netherlands where the works of the Flemish masters inspired her to try new techniques. There, she painted portraits of some of the nobility, including the Prince of Nassau.

On May 31, 1783, Vigée-Lebrun was accepted as a member of France's Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture as a painter of historical allegory. Adelaide Labille-Guiard was also admitted on the same day. The admission of Vigée-Lebrun was opposed by the men in charge on the grounds that her husband was an art dealer, but eventually they were overruled by an order from Louis XVI after Marie-Antoinette put considerable pressure on her husband on behalf of her painter. The admission of more than one woman on the same day encouraged comparisons between the women instead of between one woman and the men members.

Marie-Louise-Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun After the arrest of the royal family during the French Revolution Vigée-Lebrun fled France and lived and worked for some years in Italy, Austria, and Russia, where her experience in dealing with an aristocratic clientele was still useful. In Rome, her paintings met with great critical acclaim and she was elected to the Roman Accademia di San Luca. In Russia, she was received by the nobility and painted numerous members of Catherine the Great's family. While there, Vigée-Lebrun was made a member of the Academy of Fine Arts of St. Petersburg.

She was welcomed back to France during the reign of Emperor Napoleon I. Much in demand by the elite of Europe, she visited England at the beginning of the 19th century and painted the portrait of several British notables including Lord Byron. In 1807 she traveled to Switzerland and was made an honorary member of the Societe pour l'Avancement des Beaux-Arts of Geneva.

She published her memoirs in 1835 and 1837, which provide an interesting view of the training of artists at the end of the period dominated by royal academies.

Still very active with her painting, in her fifties, she purchased a house in Louveciennes, Île-de-France, and lived there until the house was seized by the Prussian Army during the war in 1814. She stayed in Paris until her death on March 30, 1842 when her body was taken back to Louveciennes and buried in the cemetery near her old home.

Her tombstone epitaph states "Ici, enfin, je repose…" (Here, at last, I rest…).

Vigée-Lebrun is considered the most important female artist of the 18th century. She left behind 660 portraits and 200 landscapes. In addition to private collections, her works can be found at major museums in Europe and the United States.


(also see Women Artists)

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Vigée Le Brun by Katharine Baetjer (Author), Joseph Baillio (Author), Paul Lang (Author), Ekaterina Deryabina (Contributor), Gwenola Moulin Firmin (Contributor), Stéphane Guégan (Contributor), Anabelle Kienle Ponka (Contributor), Xavier Salmon (Contributor), Anna Sulimova (Contributor) – Hardcover: 288 pages Publisher: Metropolitan Museum of Art (March 8, 2016)

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) was one of the greatest 18th-century French painters and among the most important women artists of all time. Celebrated for her expressive portraits of French royalty and aristocracy, especially of her patron and friend Marie Antoinette, she exemplified artistic success and personal resourcefulness in an age when women were rarely allowed either. Forced to flee France during the Revolution, Le Brun traveled throughout Europe for sixteen years, painting royal and noble sitters in the courts of Naples, Russia, Austria, Poland, and Germany.

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun: The Odyssey of an Artist in an Age of Revolution by Gita May – Hardcover: 256 pages Publisher: Yale University Press (October 6, 2005)

In a biography as entrancing as its impressive subject, May chronicles the life story of a French woman artist who overcame the entrenched misogyny and bloody upheavals of her time to become the portraitist of choice for Europe's most powerful rulers. Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) was blessed not only with talent but also with beauty, poise, and pragmatism. Already earning a good living with her luminous portraits--she was particularly adept at capturing the radiance of women and girls—Vigée Le Brun was reluctant to marry, and sure enough, her husband squandered her fortune. Vigée Le Brun was forced to flee Paris after the French Revolution, but she turned exile into a grand tour of Italy, Germany, Austria, Russia, and England as she was warmly welcomed everywhere she went and given plum commissions. Fearless, inquisitive, and clear-eyed, Vigée Le Brun climbed Mount Vesuvius, painted Catherine the Great, and hid her diamonds in her stockings, eventually returning to France in triumph. Like her irresistible subject, May is a superb portraitist, rendering with a rich palette and a light touch the exhilarating life of a remarkable artist and human being. —Donna Seaman Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

The Exceptional Woman: Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and the Cultural Politics of Art by Mary D. Sheriff – Paperback: 368 pages Publisher: University of Chicago Press; Reprint edition (October 24, 1997)

Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842) was an enormously successful painter, a favorite portraitist of Marie-Antoinette, and one of the few women accepted into the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. In accounts of her role as an artist, she was simultaneously flattered as a charming woman and vilified as monstrously unfeminine. In The Exceptional Woman, Mary D. Sheriff uses Vigée-Lebrun's career to explore the contradictory position of "woman-artist" in the moral, philosophical, professional, and medical debates about women in eighteenth-century France. Paying particular attention to painted and textual self-portraits, Sheriff shows how Vigée-Lebrun's images and memoirs undermined the assumptions about "woman" and the strictures imposed on women.

Engaging ancient-régime philosophy, as well as modern feminism, psychoanalysis, literary theory, and art criticism, Sheriff's interpretations of Vigée-Lebrun's paintings challenge us to rethink the work and the world of this controversial woman artist.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1755-1842 by Joseph Baillio – Paperback: 143 pages Publisher: Kimbell Art Museum (1982)


Best of Vigee Lebrun Hardcover: 200 pages; Publisher: Parkstone Press (October 15, 2015)

Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842) was not only the rare woman of her time who integrated herself into the French Royal Academy of Painting, but also beloved portraitist to the aristocracy.

Biographie de Madame Vigée-Lebrun by F. Pitt-Rivers – Paperback Publisher: Gallimard (April 25, 2001)


The Sweetness of Life - A Biography of Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun by Angelica Goodden – Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Andre Deutsch (October 1, 1998)

A scholarly, illuminating biography of one of the 18th century's most successful female portraitists. Although her paintings appear in museums the world over, critics and historians have often given Vigée Le Brun short shrift, faulting her for the complaisant quality of her art. Here Goodden, a fellow in French at Oxford University, duly notes this tendency but also makes plain the aesthetic and economic constraints within which the artist had to work. For although she was the daughter of a minor portrait painter and precociously talented as a child, Vigée Le Brun was denied any formal art training on the basis of her sex. ``Such institutional prejudice mattered insamuch as life drawing was the basis of historical painting, the highest genre in the pictorial hierarchy, and one to which ambitious women aspired,'' notes Goodden. And so, from the time she first set up her own studiowhen she was just an adolescentVigée Le Brun became a painter of portraits, primarily those of French royalty, power brokers, courtiers, and courtesans. For better or worse, she also gained unparalleled access to the royal court and became the chosen portraitist of Marie-Antoinette. Fortunately, her close affiliation with the queen did not doom her to suffer the same grisly fate; she fled Paris in disguise even as the royal family was being forcibly removed from Versailles. Although Le Brun continued to earn a handsome living from the royal migrs who scattered throughout Europe in the wake of the French Revolution, the world she had known disintegrated, and with it her hopes of becoming a painter of history. What she did, though, she did exceptionally well and earned her place as one of only a handful of women admitted to the Acadmie Royale in Paris. Without overemphasizing the rarity of her subject, Goodden balances Vigée Le Brun's personal adventurousness and her political conservatism with cool objectivity. (8 pages color, 16 pages b&w illustrations) —Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun by Lionel Strachey (Translator), John Russell – Hardcover: 233 pages Publisher: George Braziller (March 1989)

This spellbinding first-person narrative, a reissue of the 1903 edition, has all the elements of a successful novel: its charismatic heroine (1756-1842) is an eminent and exceptionally productive portrait painter on intimate terms with the French royal family at the dawn of the Revolution; leaving behind a ne'er-do-well husband (whom she had romantically and foolishly married in secret) as well as a coterie of artists, she flees the Terror and supports her daughter and herself by painting the nobility in the capitals of Europe. Vigée Lebrun's painterly talent for observation results in an irresistible (and nearly always admiring) account of historic figures at an epochal moment. A gifted gossip, she does not stint on anecdotes ("Louis XVIII sang more out of tune than anyone in the whole world. 'How do you think I sing?' he asked me one day. 'Like a prince, Your Highness' "). Although few will share her politics--"The common people of Russia are in general ugly, but . . . they are the best creatures in the world . . . they often reminded me of what someone said about the beginning of the Revolution: 'If their bonds are taken off they will be much more unhappy!' "— fewer still will want to put this book down. Illustrations not seen by PW. —Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc.


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