Artist profile: Vigée Le Brun – Back Home

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.

Shortly after Julie’s sudden marriage, Vigée Le Brun heard news that it was safe for her to return home to France: 225 artists, writers, and scientists had signed a petition to take her name off the list of emigrés. Depressed about how quickly she and Julie had become estranged, Vigée Le Brun traveled through Germany back to France in 1801.

While in Berlin, she was inducted into the Academy of Painting. She also did a pastel study of a princess that she later made into a painting.

Princess Louise Radziwill Hohenzollern (1801)
Princess Louise Radziwill Hohenzollern (1801)

In Paris, Vigée Le Brun reunited with her friends that had survived the Revolution and resumed the lively social life she was used to. She had always wanted to visit England, and set out to London in 1803. She planned to stay for a few months, but it turned out to be a nearly three-year trip. English artists were jealous when she was commissioned to paint George IV. As usual, Vigée Le Brun also painted the upper crust of society, including a young Lord Byron.
Arabella Diane, Duchess of Dorset (1803)
Arabella Diane, Duchess of Dorset (1803)

Giuseppina Grassini in the role of Zaire (1805). Grassini was an opera star and later mistress to Napoleon.
Giuseppina Grassini in the role of Zaire (1805). Grassini was an opera star and later mistress to Napoleon.

In 1805, news came that Julie had returned to Paris. Vigée Le Brun immediately left London to be with her beloved daughter, but Julie was still not friendly. Vigée Le Brun painted Napoleon’s sister, Caroline, with her daughter, Letizia, in 1807; this was the only artwork of the imperial family she was ever invited to paint.
Caroline Murat and her daughter (1807)
Caroline Murat and her daughter (1807)

Later in 1807, Vigée Le Brun visited Switzerland, where she was made a member of the Societe pour I’Avancement des Beaux-Arts in Geneva. A second trip in 1808 resulted in the landscape below. Although Vigée Le Brun painted over 200 landscapes, and was good at them, it’s difficult to find them on the internet.
Festival in the Swiss Alps at Unspannen (1808)
Festival in the Swiss Alps at Unspannen (1808)

Her visit to Switzerland was her last time outside France. Vigée Le Brun purchased a summer house outside Paris, which would later be raided by Prussian soldiers. Her ex-husband died in 1813, and Julie died of an unspecified illness in 1819. The mother and daughter had never reconciled, even after Julie separated from the husband that had caused all their trouble. In her memoirs, Vigée Le Brun laments, “All the wrong-doing of the poor little one vanished – I saw her again, I still see her, in the days of her childhood. Alas! she was so young! Why did she not survive me?”

Vigée Le Brun lost her brother, Etienne, the next year. Her nieces, Caroline and Eugenie, became her constant companions and helped her compose her memoirs. She continued painting and exhibiting her artwork until 1841, when she suffered a stroke. Vigée Le Brun died a few months later, in March 1842, at the age of eighty-seven.

In the first chapter of her memoirs, Vigée Le Brun says:

At seven or eight, I remember, I made a picture by lamplight of a man with a beard, which I have kept until this very day. When my father saw it he went into transports of joy, exclaiming, “You will be a painter, child, if ever there was one!”

I mention these facts to show what an inborn passion for the art I possessed. Nor has that passion ever diminished; it seems to me that it has even gone on growing with time, for to-day I feel under the spell of it as much as ever, and shall, I hope, until the hour of death.

Other parts in the Vigée Le Brun artist profile series



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