Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

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Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun
Self-portrait in a Straw Hat by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun.jpg
Self-portrait in a Straw Hat, 1782
Élisabeth Louise Vigée

(1755-04-16)16 April 1755
Died30 March 1842(1842-03-30) (aged 86)
Paris, France
Notable workMarie Antoinette with a Rose, Marie Antoinette en gaule
MovementRococo, Neoclassicism
ChildrenJulie Le Brun

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (French: [elizabɛt lwiz viʒe ləbʁœ̃]; 16 April 1755 – 30 March 1842),[1] also known as Madame Le Brun, was a French portrait painter, especially of women, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Her artistic style is generally considered part of the aftermath of Rococo with elements of an adopted Neoclassical style.[2] Her subject matter and color palette can be classified as Rococo, but her style is aligned with the emergence of Neoclassicism. Vigée Le Brun created a name for herself in Ancien Régime society by serving as the portrait painter to Marie Antoinette. She enjoyed the patronage of European aristocrats, actors, and writers, and was elected to art academies in ten cities.[3]

Vigée Le Brun created 660 portraits and 200 landscapes.[4] In addition to many works in private collections, her paintings are owned by major museums, such as the Louvre in Paris, Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, National Gallery in London, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and many other collections in Europe and the United States.

Between 1835 and 1837, when Vigée Le Brun was in her 80s, she published her memoirs in three volumes (Souvenirs).[5]


Self-portrait with her daughter Julie, 1786. Louvre Museum.

Early life[edit]

Born in Paris on 16 April 1755, Élisabeth Louise Vigée was the daughter of Jeanne (née Maisin; 1728–1800), a hairdresser from a peasant background,[1] and Louis Vigée, a portraitist, pastellist and member of the Académie de Saint-Luc, from whom she received her first instruction.[1] In 1760, at the age of five, she entered a convent, where she remained until 1766.[1] Her father died when she was 12 years old. In 1768, her mother married a wealthy jeweller, Jacques-François Le Sèvre, and shortly after, the family moved to the Rue Saint-Honoré, close to the Palais Royal.[6] In her memoir, Vigée Le Brun directly stated her feelings about her step-father: "I hated this man; even more so since he made use of my father's personal possessions. He wore his clothes, just as they were, without altering them to fit his figure.”[5] During this period, Élisabeth benefited from the advice of Gabriel François Doyen, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, and Joseph Vernet, whose influence is evident in her portrait of her younger brother, playwright and poet Étienne Vigée.[6]

By the time she was in her early teens, Élisabeth was painting portraits professionally.[7] After her studio was seized for her practicing without a license, she applied to the Académie de Saint-Luc, which unwittingly exhibited her works in their Salon. In 1774, she was made a member of the Académie.[7] On 11 January 1776, she married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, a painter and art dealer. Vigée Le Brun began exhibiting her work at their home in Paris, the Hôtel de Lubert, and the Salons she held here supplied her with many new and important contacts.[7] Her husband's great-great-uncle was Charles Le Brun, the first director of the French Academy under Louis XIV.

On 12 February 1780, Vigée Le Brun gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne Lucie Louise, whom she called Julie and nicknamed "Brunette".[5]

Madame Perregaux, 1789. Wallace Collection.

In 1781, she and her husband toured Flanders and the Netherlands, where seeing the works of the Flemish masters inspired her to try new techniques. Her Self-portrait with Straw Hat (1782) was a "free imitation" of Peter Paul Rubens' Le Chapeau de Paille.[8][9] Dutch and Flemish influences have also been noted in The Comte d'Espagnac (1786) and Madame Perregaux (1789).[10]

In 1787, she caused a minor public scandal when her Self-portrait with Her Daughter Julie (1787) was exhibited at the Salon of 1787 showing her smiling and open-mouthed, which was in direct contravention of traditional painting conventions going back to antiquity. The court gossip-sheet Mémoires secrets commented: "An affectation which artists, art-lovers and persons of taste have been united in condemning, and which finds no precedent among the Ancients, is that in smiling, [Madame Vigée LeBrun] shows her teeth."[11] In light of this and her other Self-portrait with Her Daughter Julie (1789), Simone de Beauvoir dismissed Vigée Le Brun as narcissistic in The Second Sex (1949): "Madame Vigée-Lebrun never wearied of putting her smiling maternity on her canvases.”[12]

Marie Antoinette[edit]

As her career blossomed, Vigée Le Brun was granted patronage by Marie Antoinette.[7] She painted more than 30 portraits of the queen and her family,[7] leading to the common perception that she was the official portraitist of Marie Antoinette. At the Salon of 1783, Vigée Le Brun exhibited Marie-Antoinette in a Muslin Dress (1783), sometimes called Marie-Antoinette en gaulle, in which the queen chose to be shown in a simple, informal white cotton garment.[13] The resulting scandal was prompted by both the informality of the attire and the queen's decision to be shown in that way.[13] Vigée Le Brun's later Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787) was evidently an attempt to improve the queen's image by making her more relatable to the public, in the hopes of countering the bad press and negative judgments that the queen had recently received.[14] The portrait shows the queen at home in the Palace of Versailles, engaged in her official function as the mother of the king's children, but also suggests Marie Antoinette's uneasy identity as a foreign-born queen whose maternal role was her only true function under Salic law.[15] The child, Louis Joseph, on the right is pointing to an empty cradle, which signified her recent loss of a child, further emphasizing Marie Antoinette's role as a mother.

Peace bringing back abundance, 1783. Louvre.

Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture[edit]

On 31 May 1783, Vigée Le Brun was received as a member of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture.[16] She was one of only 15 women to be granted full membership in the Académie between 1648 and 1793.[16] Her rival, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, was admitted on the same day.[17] Vigée Le Brun was initially refused on the grounds that her husband was an art dealer, but eventually the Académie was overruled by an order from Louis XVI because Marie Antoinette put considerable pressure on her husband on behalf of her portraitist.[18] As her reception piece, Vigée Le Brun submitted an allegorical painting, Peace Bringing Back Abundance (La Paix ramenant l'Abondance), instead of a portrait.[18] As a consequence, the Académie did not place her work within a standard category of painting—either history or portraiture.[18] Vigée Le Brun's membership in the Académie dissolved after the French Revolution because female academicians were abolished.[2]


In October 1789, after the arrest of the royal family during the French Revolution, Vigée Le Brun fled France with her young daughter, Julie.[19] Her husband, who remained in Paris, claimed that Vigée Le Brun went to Italy "to instruct and improve herself",[18] but she certainly feared for her own safety.[5][19][20] In her 12-year absence from France, she lived and worked in Italy (1789–1792), Austria (1792–1795), Russia (1795–1801) and Germany (1801).[20]

Head of Emma Hamilton as the Comaean Sibyl, 1792. Metropolitan Museum of Art


While in Italy, Vigée Le Brun was elected to the Academy in Parma (1789) and the Accademia di San Luca in Rome (1790).[20] In Naples, she painted portraits of Maria Carolina of Austria (sister of Marie Antoinette) and her eldest four living children: Maria Teresa, Francesco, Luisa and Maria Cristina.[20] She later recalled that Luisa "was extremely ugly, and pulled such faces that I was most reluctant to finish her portrait."[5] Vigée Le Brun also painted allegorical portraits of the notorious Emma Hamilton as Ariadne (1790) and as a Bacchante (1792). Lady Hamilton was similarly the model for Vigée Le Brun's Sibyl (1792), which was inspired by the painted sibyls of Domenichino.[18][21] The painting represents the Cumaean Sibyl, as indicated by the Greek inscription on the figure's scroll, which is taken from Virgil's fourth Eclogue.[22] The Sibyl was Vigée Le Brun's favorite work.[20] It is mentioned in her memoir more than any other work.[18][20] She displayed it while in Venice (1792), Vienna (1792), Dresden (1794) and Saint Petersburg (1795); she also sent it to be shown at the Salon of 1798.[5][21] It was perhaps her most successful painting, and had always garnered the most praise and attracted many viewers wherever it was displayed. Like her reception piece, Peace Bringing Back Abundance, Vigée Le Brun regarded her Sibyl as a history painting, the most elevated category in the Académie's hierarchy.[22]

Princess von Esterhazy as Ariadne, 1793. Princely Collections, House of Liechtenstein.


While in Vienna, Vigée Le Brun was commissioned to paint Princess Maria Josefa Hermengilde von Esterhazy as Ariadne Princess Maria Josefa and its pendant Princess Karoline von Liechtenstein as Iris Princess Karoline.[23] The portraits depict the Liechtenstein sisters-in-law in unornamented Roman-inspired garments that show the influence of Neoclassicism, and which may have been a reference to the virtuous republican Roman matron Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi.[23] While visiting Dresden on her way to Russia, Le Brun visited the famous Dresden gallery, writing that it was without doubt the most beautiful one in all of Europe. It was there that she saw Raphael's Madonna di San Sisto. She was completely enamored by the painting, and wrote;

Suffice to say I came to the conclusion that Raphael is the greatest master of them all. I had just visited several rooms within the gallery when I found myself standing in front of a painting which aroused in me an admiration far more intense than that normally inspired by the art of painting. It showed the Virgin, sitting among the clouds. holding the infant Jesus in her arms. Her face is so beautiful and so noble that it is worthy of the divine brush that painted it. The face of the child, which is charming, bears an expression both innocent and celestial; the robes are accurately drawn and painted in the most magnificent colours. To the right of the Virgin stands a saint who seems quite real; his hands in particular merit admiration. To the left stands a young saint, her head bowed, watching two angels at the base of the painting. Her figure is full of beauty, candour and modesty. The two small angels lean upon their hands, their eyes lifted to the characters above them, and their heads bear an ingenuity and sensitivity that words alone cannot express.' Having stood for some time gazing in awe at this painting, I had to pass it yet again on my way out, returning by the same route. The best paintings by the great masters had lost some of their perfection in my eyes, for I carried the image of that wonderful composition and that divine figure of the Virgin about with me! In Art nothing can compete with noble simplicity, and all the faces I viewed subsequently seemed to wear a sort of grimace.

— Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, Memoirs


Alexandra and Elena Pavlovna, 1795-1797. Hermitage Museum.

In Russia, where she stayed from 1795 until 1801, she was well-received by the nobility and painted numerous aristocrats, including the former king of Poland, Stanisław August Poniatowski, and members of the family of Catherine the Great.[24] Le Brun painted Catherine's granddaughters (daughters of Paul), Elena and Alexandra Pavlovna, in Grecian tunics with exposed arms. To this end, the Empress' favourite, Platon Zubov, commented to Le Brun that the painting had scandalized the empress due to the amount of bare skin the short sleeves revealed. Le Brun was greatly worried by this and considered it a hurtful remark and replaced the tunics with the Muslin dresses the princesses wore, and added long sleeves (called Amadis in Russia). Le Brun would later be reassured in a conversation with Catherine that she made no such remark, but by then the damage had already been done. When Paul later became emperor, he expressed being upset with the alterations Le Brun made to the painting. When Le Brun told him what Zubov told her, he shrugged and said "They played a joke on you".

Catherine herself also agreed to sit for Le Brun, but she died on the very next day, which was when she had promised to sit for Le Brun.[19] While in Russia, Vigée Le Brun was made a member of the Academy of Fine Arts of Saint Petersburg.[7] Much to Vigée Le Brun's dismay, her daughter Julie married Gaétan Bernard Nigris, secretary to the Director of the Imperial Theaters of Saint Petersburg.[20] Julie predeceased her mother in 1819. Le Brun painted many other people during her stay in Russia, including the emperor Paul and his consort.

Madame de Staël as Corinne at Cape Miseno, 1807-1809. Musée d'Art et d'Histoire (Geneva).

Return to France and later life[edit]

Vigée Le Brun’s grave in Louveciennes

After a sustained campaign by her ex-husband and other family members to have her name removed from the list of counter-revolutionary émigrés, Vigée Le Brun was finally able to return to France in January 1802.[1] She travelled to London in 1803, to Switzerland in 1807, and to Switzerland again in 1808.[1] In Geneva, she was made an honorary member of the Société pour l'Avancement des Beaux-Arts. She stayed at Coppet with Madame de Staël, who she painted as Corinne, ou l'Italie (1807).[6]

In her later years, Vigée Le Brun purchased a house in Louveciennes, Île-de-France and divided her time between Louveciennes and Paris. She died in Paris on 30 March 1842, aged 86. She was buried at the Cimetière de Louveciennes near her old home. Her tombstone epitaph says "Ici, enfin, je repose..." (Here, at last, I rest...).[25]


During her lifetime, Vigée Le Brun's work was publicly exhibited in Paris at the Académie de Saint-Luc (1774), Salon de la Correspondance (1779, 1781, 1782, 1783) and Salon of the Académie in Paris (1783, 1785, 1787, 1789, 1791, 1798, 1802, 1817, 1824).[20]

The first retrospective exhibition of Vigée Le Brun's work was held in 1982 at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. The first major international retrospective exhibition of her art premiered at the Galeries nationales du Grand Palais in Paris (2015—2016) and was subsequently shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (2016) and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa (2016).[26][27]

Portrayal in popular culture[edit]

The 2014 docudrama made for French television, Le fabuleux destin d’Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, directed by Arnaud Xainte,[28] is available in English as The Fabulous Life of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun.

In the episode "The Portrait" from the BBC series Let Them Eat Cake (1999) written by Peter Learmouth, starring Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, Madame Vigée Le Brun (Maggie Steed) paints a portrait of the Comtesse de Vache (Jennifer Saunders) weeping over a dead canary.[citation needed]

Vigée Le Brun is one of only three characters in Joel Gross's Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh (premiered in 2007), a fictionalized historical drama about a love triangle set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.[29]

Vigée Le Brun's portrait of Marie Antoinette is featured on the cover of the 2010 album Nobody's Daughter by Hole.[30]

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun is a dateable non-player character in the historically-based dating sim video game Ambition: A Minuet in Power published by Joy Manufacturing Co.[31]

Singer-songwriter Kelly Chase released the song "Portrait of a Queen" in 2021 to accompany the History Detective Podcast, Season 2, Episode 3 Marie Antionette's Portrait Artist: Vigée Le Brun.


Portraits painted in France[edit]

Portraits painted in Italy[edit]

Portraits painted in Austria[edit]

Portraits painted in Russia[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Baillio, Joseph; Salmon, Xavier, eds. (2015). Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Paris: Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux—Grand Palais.
  2. ^ a b Kleiner, Fred S., ed. (2015). Gardner's Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective. Vol. 2 (15th ed.). Boston: Cengage Learning. p. 656. ISBN 9781305645059.
  3. ^ "National Museum of Women in the Arts". Archived from the original on 2 April 2017. Retrieved 26 October 2016.
  4. ^ Christiane, Weidemann; Larass, Petra; Klier, Melanie (2008). 50 Women Artists You Should Know. Munich: Prestel. OCLC 195744889.
  5. ^ a b c d e f The Memoirs of Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun. Translated by Siân Evans. London: Camden Press. 1989.
  6. ^ a b c Goodden, Angelica (1997). The Sweetness of Life: A Biography of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. London: André Deutsch Limited.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Nicholson, Kathleen. "Vigée Le Brun, Elisabeth-Louise". Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 21 November 2014.
  8. ^ Langmuir, Erika (1997). The National Gallery Companion Guide (rev. ed.). London: National Gallery Publications Ltd. pp. 328–329.
  9. ^ "Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat". National Gallery. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  10. ^ Duffy, Stephen; Hedley, Jo (2004). The Wallace Collection's Pictures: A Complete Catalogue. London: Unicorn Press and Lindsay Fine Art Ltd. pp. 460–462.
  11. ^ Jones, Colin (2003). The Great Nation: France from Louis XIV to Napoleon. London: Penguin Books. p. 364. ISBN 9780140130935.
  12. ^ Beauvoir, Simone de (2009). Extracts from The Second Sex. Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. Vintage.
  13. ^ a b Larkin, T. Lawrence (2003). "'Je ne suis plus la Reine, je suis moi': Marie-Antoinette at the Salon of 1783". Aurora: The Journal of the History of Art. 4: 109–134.
  14. ^ Baillio, Joseph (May 1981). "Le dossier d'une oeuvre d'actualité politique: Marie-Antoinette et ses enfants par Mme Vigée Le Brun (2e partie)". L'Oeil (310): 53–60, 90–91.
  15. ^ Sheriff, Mary D. (2003). "The Cradle is Empty: Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Marie-Antoinette, and the Problem of Invention". In Hyde, Melissa; Milam, Jennifer (eds.). Women, Art and the Politics of Identity in Eighteenth-Century Europe. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company. pp. 164–187.
  16. ^ a b Fidière, Octave (1885). Les Femmes artistes à l'Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. Paris: Charavay Frères.
  17. ^ Auricchio, Laura (2009). Adélaïde Labille-Guiard: Artist in the Age of Revolution. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum.
  18. ^ a b c d e f Sheriff, Mary D. (1996). The Exceptional Woman: Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and the Cultural Politics of Art. Chicago: University of Chicago.
  19. ^ a b c May, Gita (2005). Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun: The Odyssey of an Artist in an Age of Revolution. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300108729.
  20. ^ a b c d e f g h Baillio, Joseph (1982). Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Fort Worth: Kimbell Art Museum.
  21. ^ a b Baillio, Joseph, ed. (2005). The Arts of France from François Ier to Napoléon Ier. New York: Wildenstein. pp. 325–329.
  22. ^ a b Hottle, Andrew D. (2010). "More Than 'a preposterous neo-classic rehash': Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun's Sibyl and its Virgilian Connotations". Aurora: The Journal of the History of Art. 11: 120–146.
  23. ^ a b Baumstark, Reinhold (1981). Masterpieces from the Collection of the Princes of Liechtenstein. Translated by Robert Erich Wolfe. Zürich: Artemis Verlag. pp. 312–313.
  24. ^ Nikolenko, Lada (1967). "The Russian Portraits of Madame Vigée-Lebrun". Gazette des Beaux-Arts. 70: 93–120.
  25. ^ May, Gita (2005). Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun : The Odyssey of an Artist in an Age of Revolution. Yale University Press. p. 201. ISBN 9780300108729.
  26. ^ "Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France". Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  27. ^ "Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842)". National Gallery of Canada. Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  28. ^ "Arnaud XAINTE - Producer/Director". francecanadaculture. Retrieved 31 March 2020.
  29. ^ Genzlinger, Neil (11 April 2007). "How a Queen Lost Her Heart Before She Lost Her Head". New York Times.
  30. ^ "Hole Reveal New Album Art and Tracklist". Spin. 25 March 2010. Retrieved 1 November 2019.
  31. ^ Valentine, Rebekah (9 July 2020). "Ambition: A Minuet in Power's extravagant aspirations". GamesIndustry.biz. Retrieved 11 September 2021.

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