Artist profile: Vigée Le Brun – France

Every month, I profile an artist who inspires my own art, in several segments.
All images were sourced from The Art of Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun.

Self portrait in 1782, based on Rubens's portrait of his sister-in-law, Susanna Lunden.
Self portrait based on Rubens’s portrait of his sister-in-law, Susanna Lunden (1782)

Usually I present my Artist of the Month’s works in categories, but I’m going to do something a little different this month. Unlike virtually everyone in the 1700s and 1800s, Vigée Le Brun lived in several different places, and I’m going to tell her story country by country. I’m able to do this because her memoirs, which she wrote from 1835 to 1837, have survived.
Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun was born in Paris in 1755. She is widely considered the most important female painter of the 1700s and was never forgotten, like so many of her female predecessors and contemporaries. She was so admired that there have been 59 paintings that were mistakenly attributed to her – usually it’s the other way around.

Vigée Le Brun learned how to paint from her father, Louis Vigée, as a child; he died when she was 12. Her mother took the heartbroken Élisabeth to art galleries to distract her from her grief. Soon the young artist was painting enough portraits to support her mother and younger brother, and was accepted to the Académie de Saint Luc, a guild that had 130 female members. She also acquired the patronage of the Duchess of Orléans. The family moved near the royal palace when her mother remarried; her new stepfather was not nearly as rich as he had made them to believe and supported himself with Vigée Le Brun’s earnings.

If she was painting a man, her mother would always be in the room to chaperone. Vigée Le Brun was quite a beautiful and spirited young woman, and many men sat for portraits in the hope of making a romantic connection. However, she writes that “I was so absorbed in my art that nothing could distract me from it.”

Vigée Le Brun’s style is very interesting. It’s a blend of the fluffy Rococo style, which was on its way out, and Neoclassical style, which was on its way in. She tended to idealize the features of her sitters (Rococo), but used deep, rich colors (Neoclassical). Her relative realism and darker colors were, at the time, deemed on the masculine side.

Duchesse de Caderousse in the costume of a country woman, 1784.
Duchesse de Caderousse in the costume of a country woman (1784)
detail - the Duchesse wore her hair unpowdered for the portrait.
detail – the Duchesse wore her hair unpowdered for the portrait

She married art dealer Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun when she was twenty to please her mother and escape her miserly stepfather. Like other female artists I’ve discussed (namely Artemisia Gentileschi), her husband was a jerk and frittered a good deal of her money away. In her memoirs, she remembers the day they married: “…even on the way to church I kept saying to myself: ‘Shall I say yes, or shall I say no?’ Alas, I said yes, and thereby merely exchanged present troubles for others.” Her art and many friendships helped keep her spirits up.
Vigée Le Brun also delighted in her only child, Julie, who was born in 1780. “The day my daughter was born,” she says in her memoirs, “I was still in the studio, trying to work on my Venus Binding the Wings of Cupid in the intervals between labour pains.”

Self portrait with Julie, 1786.
Self portrait with Julie (1786)

One self-portrait, in which Vigée Le Brun is holding Julie, caused a commotion because her teeth are visible. Showing one’s teeth was apparently not respectable; there are other reasons for this convention, namely that most people had hideous teeth and even healthy teeth are hard to paint. Additionally, other painters, like Judith Leyster, didn’t have a problem with it.

Portrait of Madame Mole-Raymond, comedic actress, 1787.
Portrait of Madame Mole-Raymond, comedic actress (1787) – also didn’t have a problem with teeth.

Queen Marie Antoinette took notice of the young artist and invited Vigée Le Brun to paint her. Marie Antoinette and the royal family sat for Vigée Le Brun over thirty times in the next six years. Incidentally, she painted the very first yo-yo in a portrait of the young Dauphin. Her painting of the queen in what looks like her underclothes caused quite a stir at the time. In actuality, Marie Antoinette had drastically simplified her wardrobe by 1783, wearing muslin dresses most of the time, except when she needed to look the part of queen.

Marie Antoinette in chemise and fully clothed, both from 1783.
Marie Antoinette in muslin dress and “properly” dressed (both 1783)

Along with three other women (including Adélaïde Labille-Guiard), Vigée Le Brun was accepted into the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1783. Her induction was contested, since she was married to an art dealer, but Marie Antoinette intervened. Vigée Le Brun submitted several paintings for consideration; one of them was the allegorical Peace Bringing Back Abundance.

Peace Bringing Back Abundance, 1780.
Peace Bringing Back Abundance (1780)

Vigée Le Brun was a glamorous and well-respected woman who traveled in aristocratic circles. This came to a screeching halt with the French Revolution. Within five years, nearly all of Vigée Le Brun’s friends were arrested, executed, or had left the country. She fled with Julie to Italy, which is where next week’s post begins.

Other parts in the Vigée Le Brun artist profile series
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