Elizabeth Vigee LeBrun

Portrait Painter to the Rich and Royals of France

Vigee-LeBrun Self Portrait, 1782
Vigee-LeBrun Self Portrait, 1782, in the collection of the State A Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. Fine ARt Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

Elizabeth Vigee LeBrun Facts

Known for: paintings of French notables, especially Queen Marie Antoinette; she depicted French royal lifestyles just at the end of the era for such lives
Occupation: painter
Dates: April 15, 1755 – March 30, 1842
Also known as: Marie Louise Elizabeth Vigee LeBrun, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Louise Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun, Madame Vigee-Lebrun, other variations

Family

  • Mother: Jeanne Maissin, hairdresser from Luxembourg
  • Father: Louis Vigee, portrait artist, working in pastels; member of the Academie de Saint Luc

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: Pierre LeBrun (married 1776, divorced; art dealer)
  • children:
    • Julie (born 1780)

Elizabeth Vigee LeBrun Biography

Elizabeth Vigee was born in Paris. Her father was a minor painter and her mother had been a hairdresser, born in Luxembourg. She was educated at a convent located near the Bastille. She drew early, getting in some trouble with the nuns at the convent.

Her father died when she was 12, and her mother remarried. Her father had encouraged her to learn to draw, and she used her skills to set herself up as a portrait painter by the time she was 15, supporting her mother and brother.  When her studio had been seized by authorities because she did not belong to any guild, she applied to and was admitted to the Academie de Saint Luc, a painters’ guild which was not as important as the Academie Royale, patronized by more wealthy potential clients.

  When her stepfather began spending her earnings, and after her she married an art dealer, Pierre LeBrun.  His profession, and her lack of important connections, may have been the main factors keeping her out of the Academie Royale.

Her first royal commission was in 1776, commissioned to paint portraits of the king’s brother.

In 1778, she was summoned to meet the queen, Marie Antoinette, and paint an official portrait of her. She painted the queen, sometimes with her children, so often that she became known as the official painter of Marie Antoinette.  As the opposition to the royal family grew, Elizabeth Vigee LeBrun’s less formal, more everyday, portrayals of the queen served a propaganda purpose, attempting to win over the French people to Marie Antoinette as devoted mother with a more middle-class style of living.

Vigee LeBrun’s daughter, Julie, was born in 1780, and her mother’s self-portraits with her daughter also fell into the category of “maternity” portraits which Vigee LeBrun’s paintings helped make popular.

In 1783, with the help of her royal connections, Vigee LeBrun was admitted to full membership to the Academie Royale, and critics were vicious in spreading rumors about her.  On the same day Vigee LeBrun was admitted to the Academie Royale, Madame Labille Guiard was also admitted; the two were bitter rivals.

The next year, Vigee LeBrun suffered a miscarriage, and painted few portraits.  But she returned to her business of painting portraits of the wealthy and the royals.

During these years of success, Vigee LeBrun also hosted salons, with conversations often focused on the arts.

She was the subject of criticism for the expenses of some of the events that she hosted.

The French Revolution

Elizabeth Vigee LeBrun’s royal connections became, suddenly, dangerous, as the French Revolution broke out.  On the night, October 6, 1789, that mobs stormed the Versailles palace, Vigee LeBrun fled Paris with her daughter and a governess, making their way to Italy over the Alps.  Vigee LeBrun disguised herself for the escape, fearing that the public displays of her self-portraits would make her easy to identify.

Vigee LeBrun spent the next twelve years self-exiled from France.  She lived in Italy from 1789 – 1792, then Vienna, 1792 – 1795, then Russia, 1795 – 1801.  Her fame preceded her, and she was much in demand for painting portraits during all of her travels, sometimes of French nobility in exile.

  Her husband divorced her, so that he could retain his French citizenship, and she saw considerable financial success from her painting.

Return to France

In 1801, her French citizenship restored, she returned to France briefly, then lived in England 1803 – 1804, where among her portrait subjects was Lord Byron. In 1804 she returned to France to live for her last forty years, still in demand as a painter and still a royalist.

She spent her very last years writing her memoirs, with the first volume published in 1835.

Elizabeth Vigee LeBrun died in Paris in March of 1842.

The rise of feminism in the 1970s led to a revival of interest in Vigee LeBrun, her art and her contributions to the history of art.

Some paintings by Elizabeth Vigee LeBrun

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