Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun
Élisabeth Louise Vigée
16 April 1755
|Died||30 March 1842 (aged 86)|
|Movement||High Rococo |
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (French: [elizabɛt lwiz viʒe ləbʁœ̃]; 16 April 1755 – 30 March 1842), also known as Madame Le Brun and Louise élisabeth vigee Le Brun, was a French painter who mostly specialized in portrait painting, 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. 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. Some famous contemporary artists, such as Joshua Reynolds, viewed her as one of the greatest portraitists of her time, comparing her with the old Dutch masters.
Vigée Le Brun created 660 portraits and 200 landscapes. 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. Her personal habitus was characterized by a high sensitivity to sound, sight and smell.
Between 1835 and 1837, when Vigée Le Brun was in her eighties, with the help of her nieces Caroline Rivière and Eugénie Tripier-Le Franc, she published her memoirs in three volumes (Souvenirs), some of which are in epistolary format. They also contain many pen portraits as well as advice for young portraitists.
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, and Louis Vigée, a portraitist, pastellist and member of the Académie de Saint-Luc, who mostly specialized in painting with oils. Le Brun exhibited artistic inclinations from her childhood, making the sketch of a bearded man at the age of seven or eight; her father was jubilant and exclaimed that "You will be a painter my child, if there ever was one" when he first saw her sketches, and started to give her lessons in art In 1760, at the age of five, she had entered a convent, where she remained until 1766. She then worked as an assistant to her father's friend, the painter and poet Pierre Davesne, with whom she learned more about painting. Her father died when she was 12 years old, from infections after several surgical operations. In 1768, her mother married a wealthy but mean jeweller, Jacques-François Le Sèvre, and shortly after, the family moved to the Rue Saint-Honoré, close to the Palais Royal. 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." 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. After her father's death, her mother sought to raise her spirits by taking her to the Palais de Luxembourg's art gallery; seeing the works of Peter Paul Rubens and other old masters left a great impression on her. She also visited numerous private galleries, including those of Rendon de Boisset, the Duc de Praslin and the Marquis de Levis; the artist took notes and copied the works of old masters such as Van Dyke, Rubens and Rembrandt to improve her art.
At an early age, she reversed the order of her given names, and was known among her inner circle as 'Louise'. For most of her life, she signed her paintings, documents and letters as "Louise élisabeth Vigee Le Brun", although she acknowledged later in life that the correct baptismal order would be Élisabeth Louise.
By the time she was in her early teens, Élisabeth was painting portraits professionally. She greatly disliked the contemporary High Rococo fashion, and often solicited her sitters to allow her to alter their apparel. Inspired by Raphael and Domenichino, she often draped her subjects in shawls and long scarves; these styles would later become ubiquitous in her portraiture. 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 its Salon. In 1774, she was made a member of the Académie. Her studio's reputation saw a meteoric rise, and her renown spread outside France. By 1774, she had painted portraits which included those of the Comte Orloff, Comte Pierre Chouvaloff (one of Empress Elizabeth's favorites), the Comtesse de Brionne, the Duchess of Orléans (future mother of King Louis Philippe), the Marquis de Choiseul, and the Chancellor de Aguesseau, among many others. In 1776, she received her first royal commission, to paint the portrait of the Comte de Provence (the future King Louis XVIII).
After her father retired from his business, he moved his family to the Hôtel de Lubert in Paris where she met Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, a painter and art dealer, on the Rue de Cléry, where they lodged. Élisabeth visited M. Le Brun's apartments frequently to view his private collection of paintings, which included examples from many different schools. He agreed to her request to borrow some of the paintings in order to copy them and improve her skills, which she saw as one of the greatest boons of artistic instruction she had received. After residing in the Hôtel de Lubert for six months, M. Le Brun asked for the artist's hand in marriage. Élisabeth was in a dilemma as to whether to agree or refuse the offer; she had a steady source of income from her rising career as an artist and her future was secure; as such, she wrote, she had never contemplated marriage. On her mother's urging and goaded by her desire to be separated from her stepfather's worsening temperament, Élisabeth agreed, though her doubts were such that she was still hesitant on her wedding day on 11 January 1776; she was twenty years old. The marriage was kept secret for some time at the request of her newlywed husband, who was officially engaged to another woman at a time in an attempt to secure a lucrative art deal with a Dutch art dealer. Élisabeth acceded his request as she was reluctant to give up her now famous maiden name. In 1778, she and her husband contracted to purchase the Hôtel de Lubert.
During the two weeks after the wedding had taken place in secret, the artist was visited by a stream of people giving her ominous news regarding her husband, these people believing that she had still not agreed to his proposal. These visitors started with the court jeweller, followed by the Duchesse de Arenberg and Mme. de Souza, the Portuguese ambassadress, who passed stories of M. Le Brun's habits as a spendthrift and womanizer. Élisabeth would later regret this match as she found these rumors to be true, though she wrote that in spite of his faults he was still an agreeable and obliging man with a sweet nature. However, she frequently condemned his gambling and adulterous habits in her memoirs, as these left her in a financially critical position at the time of her flight from France. Her relationship with him deteriorated later so much that she demanded the refund of her dowry from M. le Brun in 1802. Vigée Le Brun began exhibiting her work at their home, and the salons she held there supplied her with many new and important contacts. Her husband's great-great-uncle was Charles Le Brun, the first director of the French Academy under Louis XIV. Her husband would appropriate most of her income and impressed her to also take on the role of a private tutor to increase his income from her. The artist found tutoring to be frustrating due to her lack of ability to assert authority on her pupils, most of whom were older than her, and found the distraction from her work irritating; she renounced tutoring soon after she had started.
After two years of marriage, Le Brun was pregnant, and on 12 February 1780, Vigée Le Brun gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne Lucie Louise, whom she called Julie and nicknamed "Brunette". In 1784, she gave birth to a second child who died in infancy.
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 in a Straw Hat (1782) was a "free imitation" of Peter Paul Rubens' Le Chapeau de Paille. Dutch and Flemish influences have also been noted in The Comte d'Espagnac (1786) and Madame Perregaux (1789).
In yet another of the series of scandals that marked her early career, her 1785 portrait of Louis XVI's minister of finance, M. de Calonne, was the target of a public scandal after it was exhibited in the salon of 1785. Rumors circulated that the minister had paid the artist a very large sum of money, while other rumors circulated that she had had an affair with de Calonne. The famous Paris Opera Soprano Mlle. de de Arnould commented on the portrait "Madame Le Brun had cut off his legs so he could not escape". More rumors and scandals followed soon after as, to the painter's dismay, M. Le Brun began building a mansion on the Rue de-Gros-Chenet, with the public claiming that de Calonne was financing the new home - although her husband did not finish the task of constructing the house until 1801, shortly before her return to France after her long exile. These rumors grew into an extensive defamation campaign targeting the painter throughout the year of 1785.
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." 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."
In 1788, Vigée Le Brun was impressed with the faces of the Mysorean ambassadors of Tipu-Sultan, and solicited their approval to take their portraits. The ambassador responded by saying he would only agree if the request came from the king, which Vigée Le Brun procured, and proceeded to paint the portrait of Dervish Khan, followed by a group portrait of the ambassador and his son. After finishing the portraits and leaving them with the ambassadors to dry, Vigée Le Brun sought their return in order to exhibit them in the salon; one of the ambassadors refused the request, stating that a painting 'needs a soul', and hid the paintings behind his bed. Vigée Le Brun managed to secure the portraits through the ambassador's valet, which enraged the ambassador to the point that he wished to kill his valet, but he was dissuaded from doing so as 'it was not custom in Paris to kill one's valet'. She falsely convinced the ambassador that the King wanted the portraits and they were exhibited in the salon of 1789. Unbeknownst to the artist, these ambassadors were later executed upon their return to Mysore for failing in their mission to forge a military alliance with Louis XVI. After her husband's death, the paintings were sold along with the remnants of his estate, and Vigée Le Brun did not know who possessed them at the time she wrote her memoirs.
As her career blossomed, Vigée Le Brun was granted patronage by Marie Antoinette. She painted more than 30 portraits of the queen and her family, 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. The resulting scandal was prompted by both the informality of the attire and the queen's decision to be shown in that way. Le Brun immediately had the portrait removed from the Salon and quickly repainted it, this time with the queen in more formal attire.
Marie Antoinette and Her Children 1787
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. 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. 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. Vigée Le Brun was initially afraid of displaying this portrait due to the queen's unpopularity and fear of another negative reaction to it, to such a degree that she locked herself in at home and prayed incessantly for its success. However, she was soon greatly pleased at the positive reception for this group portrait, which was presented to the king by M. de Angevilliers, Louis XVI's minister of arts. Le Brun herself was also presented to the king, who praised the painting and told her "I know nothing about painting, but I grow to love it through you". The portrait was hung in the halls of Versailles, so that Marie Antoinette passed it on her way to mass, but it was later taken down after the Dauphin's death in 1789.
Later on, during the First Empire, she painted a posthumous portrait of the queen ascending to heaven with two angels, alluding to the two children she had lost, and Louis XVI seated on two clouds. This painting was titled The apotheosis of the Queen. It was displayed in the chapel of the Infirmerie Marie-Thérèse, rue Denfert-Rochereau, but vanished at some point in the 20th century. She also painted numerous other posthumous portraits of the queen, and of King Louis XVI.
Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture
On 31 May 1783, Vigée Le Brun was received as a member of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. She was one of only 15 women to be granted full membership in the Académie between 1648 and 1793. Her rival, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, was admitted on the same day. 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. As her reception piece, Vigée Le Brun submitted an allegorical painting, Peace Bringing Back Abundance (La Paix ramenant l'Abondance), instead of a portrait. As a consequence, the Académie did not place her work within a standard category of painting—either history or portraiture. Vigée Le Brun's membership in the Académie dissolved after the French Revolution because female academicians were abolished.
Flight from France
Vigée Le Brun witnessed many of the events that accelerated the already rapid deterioration of the Ancien Régime. While travelling to Romainville to visit the Maréchal de Ségur in July 1788, the artist experienced the massive hailstorm that swept the country, and observed the resultant devestation of crops. As the turmoil of the French revolution grew, the artist's house on the Rue de-Gros-Chenet was harassed by Sans-Culottes, due to her association with Marie Antoinette. Stricken with an intense anxiety, Vigée Le Brun's health deteriorated. M. and Mme. Brongniart pleaded her to go live with them to convalesce and recover her health, to which she agreed and spent several days in their apartment at Les Invalides. Later in her life, in a letter to the princess Kourakin, the artist wrote;
"Society seemed to be in a state of complete chaos, and honest people were left to fend for themselves, for the National Guard was made up of a strange crew, a mixture of bizarre and even frightening types. Everyone seemed to be suffering from fear; I grieved for the pregnant women who passed; the faces of most of them were sallow with worry. I noticed besides that the generation born during the Revolution was, in general, a lot less healthy than the previous one; indeed most of the children born in this sad time were weak and suffering!"
As the situation in Paris and France continued to deteriorate with the rising tide of the revolution, the artist decided to leave Paris, and obtained passports for herself, her daughter and their governess. The very next day a large band of national guards entered her house and ordered her not to leave or else face punishment. Two sympathetic national guards from her neighborhood later returned to her house, and advised her to leave the city as fast as possible, but to take the stagecoach instead of her carriage. Vigée Le Brun then ordered three places on the stagecoach out of Paris, but had to wait two weeks to obtain seats as there were many people departing the city. Vigée Le Brun visited her mother before leaving. On October 5, the king and queen were driven from Versailles to the Tuilleries by a large crowd of Parisians – Mostly women. Vigée Le Brun's stagecoach departed at midnight of the same day, with her brother and husband accompanying them to the Barrière du Trône, she, her daughter and governess dressed shabbily to avoid attracting attention. Le Brun travelled to Lyon where she stayed for 3 days with acquaintances (Mme. and M. de Artaut), where she was barely recognized due to her changed features and shabby clothes, and then continued her journey across the Beauvoisin bridge, she was relieved to be finally out of France, though throughout her journey she was accompanied by Jacobin spies who tracked her movement. Her husband, who remained in Paris, claimed that Vigée Le Brun went to Italy "to instruct and improve herself", but she feared for her own safety. In her 12-year absence from France, she lived and worked in Italy (1789–1792), Austria (1792–1795), Russia (1795–1801) and Germany (1801), and remained a committed royalist throughout her life.
The artist arrived in Turin after crossing the Savoyard alps. In Turin she met the famous engraver Porporati, who was now a professor in the city's academy. Porporati and his daughter received the artist for five or six days until she resumed her journey southwards to Parma, where she met the Comte de Flaginy (then minister of Louis XVI) who generously accommodated her during her stay there. While in Italy, Vigée Le Brun was elected to the Academy in Parma (1789) and the Accademia di San Luca in Rome (1790). 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. She later recalled that Luisa "was extremely ugly, and pulled such faces that I was most reluctant to finish her portrait." 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. 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. The Sibyl was Vigée Le Brun's favorite work. It is mentioned in her memoir more than any other work. 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. 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. As was customary for those visiting Italy in the time, particularly the artistically inclined, Vigée Le Brun visited many cathedrals, chapels, galleries, ancient ruins, historical sites and natural attractions across Italy.
While in Vienna, Vigée Le Brun was commissioned to paint Princess Maria Josepha Hermengilde Esterházy as Ariadne and Princess Karoline von Liechtenstein as Iris among many others, the latter portrait caused a minor scandal among the princess' relatives. 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. The artist met for the second time in Vienna one of her greatest friends, the Prince de Ligne, whom she had first met in Brussels. It was at his urging that Vigée Le Brun wished so much to meet the Russian sovereign Catherine the Great and to visit Russia. The Prince de Ligne urged her to stay at his former convent atop Kahlenberg, with its commanding view of the countryside, to which she agreed. During Vigée Le Brun's stay in Kahlenberg, de Ligne wrote a passionate poem about her. After two and half years in Vienna, the artist departed for St. Petersburg on 19 April 1795, via Prague. She also visited Dresden on her way, and the Königsberg fortress, where she made the acquaintance of Prince Henry, who was very hospitable to the artist. While visiting Dresden on her way to Russia, Le Brun visited the famous Dresden gallery, writing that it was without doubt the most extensive 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
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, whom she became well acquainted with, and other members of the family of Catherine the Great. 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".
Vigée Le Brun painted many other people during her stay in Russia, including the emperor Paul and his consort.
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. While in Russia, Vigée Le Brun was made a member of the Academy of Fine Arts of Saint Petersburg. 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. Le Brun attempted everything in her power to upend this match, and viewed it as a scheme concocted by her enemies and her governess to separate her from her daughter, but as Julie's remonstrations and pressure on her mother grew, Le Brun relented and gave her approval for the wedding, though she was greatly distressed at the prospect, and soon found her stay in Russia, hitherto so enjoyable, had become suffocating, and decided to return to Paris. The artist wrote;
As for myself, all the charm of my life seemed to have disappeared forever. I could not find the same pleasure in loving my daughter, and yet God knows how much I still love her, despite her faults. Only mothers will understand me when I say this. Shortly after her marriage she caught smallpox. Although I had never had this dreadful illness, no-one could stop me from running to her bedside. I found her face so swollen that I was seized with fright; but I was only frightened for her sake; as long as the malady lasted, I did not think of myself for one moment. To my joy she recovered without the least disfigurement. I needed to travel. I needed to leave Saint Petersburg, where I had suffered so much that my health had deteriorated. However those cruel remarks that had arisen as a result of this affair were soon retracted after the marriage. The men who had offended me the most were sorry indeed at the injustice.— Souvenirs De Madame Vigée Le Brun, Page 213
Before departing leaving for France, Vigée Le Brun decided to visit Moscow, halfway through her journey to the city, news of the assassination of Paul I reached her. The journey was extremely difficult due to the melting snow, and the carriage often got stuck in the infamous Russian mud, and her journey was further delayed when most horses were taken by couriers spreading the news of the death of Paul and coronation of Alexander. Vigée Le Brun enjoyed her stay in Moscow, and painted many portraits during her stay. Upon her return to St. Petersburg she met the newly crowned Emperor Alexander I and Empress Louise, who urged her to stay in St. Petersburg. Upon telling the Emperor of her poor health and prescription by a physician to take the waters near Karlsbad to cure her internal obstruction, the Emperor replied "Do not go there, there is no need to go so far to find a remedy; I shall give you the Empress' horse, a few rides will have you cured". Vigée Le Brun was touched by this, but replied to the Emperor that she did not know how to ride, to which the Emperor said "Well, I will give you a riding instructor, he will teach you". The artist was still adamant to leave Russia, despite her closest friends, the Count Stroganoff, M. de Rivière and the princesses Dologruky and Kourakin and others attempting all they can to make her stay in St. Petersburg, she left after residing there for 6 years. Julie later predeceased her mother in 1819, at which time both had reconciled.
It would be in Russia where Vienna, Vigée Le Brun would form several of her longest lasting and most intimate friendships, with the Princesses Dologruky and Kourakin, and the Count Stroganoff.
After her departure from St. Petersburg, Le Brun travelled – with some difficulty – through Prussia, visiting Berlin after an exhausting journey. The Queen of Prussia invited Vigée Le Brun to Potsdam to meet her, the queen then commissioned a portrait of herself by the artist. The queen invited the artist to reside in the Potsdam palace until she finished her portrait, but Vigée Le Brun, not wishing to intrude on the queen's ladies-in-waiting, chose to reside in a nearby hotel, where her stay was uncomfortable.
The pair soon became friends. During a conversation, Vigée Le Brun complemented the queen on her bracelets with an antique design, which the queen then took off and put around Vigée Le Brun's arms. Vigée Le Brun considered this gift one of her most valued possessions for the rest of her life, and wore it almost everywhere. Vigée Le Brun soon visited the queen's Peacock Island, at the queen's urging, where the artist enjoyed the countryside.
Aside from two pastel portraits commissioned by the queen, Vigée Le Brun also painted other pastel portraits of Prince Ferdinand's family.
During her stay in Berlin, she met with the General Plenipotentiary Bournonville, hoping to procure a passport to return to France. The general encouraged Vigée Le Brun to return and assured her that order and safety had been restored. Her brother and husband had already, with ease, struck her name from the list of émigrés, and had her French status restored. Shortly before her departure from Berlin, the General Director of the Academy of Painting visited her, bringing her the diploma for her admission to that academy. After her departure from Berlin, the artist visited Dresden and painted several copies of Emperor Alexander, which she had promised earlier, and visited Brunswick as well where she resided for 6 days with the Rivière family, and was sought out by the Duke of Brunswick who wished to make her acquaintance. She passed Weimar and Frankfurt on her way as well.
Return to France and stay at Paris
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. The artist received a rapturous welcome in her home at Rue de-Gros-Chenet and was greatly hailed by the press. Three days after her arrival, a letter arrived for her from the Comédie-Française, containing a decree reinstating her as a member of the theater. The leading members of the theater also wished to enact a comedy at her house to celebrate her return, which the artist politely refused. Soon afterwards, the artist was taken to witness the first consul's routine military ceremony at the Tuileries where she saw Napoleon Bonaparte for the first time, from a window inside the Louvre. The artist found it difficult to recognize the short figure as the man she had heard so much about; as with Catherine the Great, she had imagined a tall figure. A few days later, Bonaparte's brothers visited her gallery to view her works, with Lucien greatly complimenting her famous Sibyl. During her stay, Vigée Le Brun was surprised and dismayed by the greatly changed social customs of Parisian society upon her return there. She soon visited the famous painter M. Vien, who was the former Premier peintre du Roi; then 82 years old and a senator, he gave Le Brun an enthusiastic welcome and showed her some of his newest sketches. Le Brun met her friend from St. Petersburg, Princess Dolgorouky, and saw her almost daily. In 1802, she demanded the refund of her dowry from her husband, whose gambling habits had dissipated a significant portion of the wealth she had accumulated in her early career as a portraitist. The artist soon felt mentally tormented in Paris, mainly due to memories of the early days of the revolution, and decided to move to a secluded house in Meudon forest. She was visited there by her neighbors, the famous dissident pair and Directory period Merveilleuses the Duchesse de Fleury and Adèle de Bellegarde; time spent with the pair restored her spirits. Shortly thereafter, Vigée Le Brun decided to travel to England, and departed Paris on 15 April 1802.
Vigée Le Brun arrived at Dover, where she took the stagecoach to London, accompanied by the woman who would become her lifetime friend and chambermaid, Mme. Adélaïde, who later married M. Contat, Vigée Le Brun's accountant. Vigée Le Brun was confused by the large crowd at the quays, but was reassured that it was common for crowds of curious people to observe disembarking travelers in England. She had been told that highwaymen were common in England, and so hid her diamonds in her stocking. During her ride to London she was greatly frightened by two riders who approached the stagecoach whom she thought were bandits, but nothing came of it.
Upon her arrival at London she lodged at the Brunet hotel in Leicester Square. She could not sleep during her first night due to noise from her upstairs neighbor[a], who she found next morning was none other than the poet M. François-Auguste Parseval-Grandmaison, whom she had known from Paris. He always paced while reading or reciting his poetry. He promised her to take care not to interrupt her sleep, and she was able to rest well for the next night.
Wishing to find a more permanent lodging, a compatriot named Charmilly directed her to a house in Beck street, which overlooked the Royal Guards barracks. Vigée Le Brun terminated her residence there as the noise from the barracks, in her words, "...every morning between three and four o'clock there was a trumpet blast so loud that it could have served for the day of judgement. The noise of the trumpet, together with that of the horses whose stables lay directly beneath my window, prevented me from catching any sleep at all. In the daytime there was a constant din made by the neighbour's children...". Vigée Le Brun then moved to a beautiful house in Portman Square. Upon closely scrutinizing the house's surroundings for any acoustic nuisance, she took up lodging there, only to be awakened at daybreak by a great screeching from a large bird owned by her neighbor. Later on, she also came to know that the former residents had buried two of their slaves in the cellar, where their bodies remained, and once again she decided to move, this time to a very damp building in Maddox Street. Although this was far from perfect, the artist was exhausted from constant moving, and decided to remain there, though the dampness of the house, combined with London's humid weather – greatly disliked by the artist – hindered her painting process. Vigée Le Brun found London lacking in inspiration for an artist due to its lack of public galleries at the time. She visited monuments, including Westminster Abbey, where she was greatly affected by the tomb of Mary, Queen of Scots, and visited the sarcophagi of the poets Shakespeare, Chatterton and Pope. She also visited St. Paul's Cathedral, the Tower of London and the London Museum. She greatly disliked the austere social customs of the English, particularly how quiet and empty the city was on Sundays, when all shops were closed and no social gatherings took place; the only pastime was the city's long walks. The artist also did not enjoy the local soiree equivalent – known as Routs (or rout-parties), describing them as stuffy and dour. The artist sought out the tree under which the famous poet Milton was said to have composed Paradise Lost, but was surprised to find that it had been cut down.
The artist visited the galleries of several prominent artists while in London, starting with the studio of artist Benjamin West. She also perused some works by Joshua Reynolds. Vigée Le Brun was surprised to find that it was customary in England for visitors to the studios of artists to pay a small fee to the artist. Vigée Le Brun did not adhere to this local custom, and allowed her servant to pocket this toll. She was greatly pleased to meet one of the most famous actress and tragediennes of her era, Sarah Siddons, who visited Vigée Le Brun's studio in Maddox Street. During her stay in London, the English portraitist John Hoppner published a speech that viciously criticised her, her art and French artists in general, to which she made a scathing reply by letter which she published later in her life as part of her memoirs.
Vigée Le Brun continued to hold soirées and receptions in her house, which although damp, was beautiful. She received many people, including the Prince of Wales, Lady Hertford and Lord Borington and the famous actress Mme. Grassini among others. Le Brun sought out other compatriots during her stay in England, and cultivated a social circle of émigrés that included the Comte d'Artois (future king Charles) and his son the Duc de Berri, the Duc de Serant and the Duc de Rivière.
Shortly after her arrival in London, the Treaty of Amiens was abrogated, and hostilities between France and the UK resumed. The British Government ordered all French people who had not resided more than a year in the UK to depart immediately. The Prince of Wales reassured Vigée Le Brun that this would not affect her, and she might reside in England however long she pleased. This permit from the king was difficult to procure, but the Prince of Wales even personally delivered the permit to Vigée Le Brun.
Vigée Le Brun toured the countryside during her stay in England. She started with a visit to Margaret Chinnery at Gilwell Hall, where she received a "charming welcome" and met the famous musician Viotti, who composed a song for her which was sung by Mrs. Chinnery's daughter. She painted Mrs. Chinnery and her children whilst there, departing for Windsor after staying at Gilwell for a fortnight. She also visited Windsor Park and Hampton Court on the outskirts of London before leaving to visit Bath, where she greatly enjoyed the picturesque architecture of the city, its rolling hills and the countryside; but much like London, she found its society and weather dreary. She found some of her Russian friends from St. Petersburg there, and went to visit the astronomer siblings William Herschel and Caroline Herschel. William Herschel showed Le Brun detailed maps of the moon, among other things.
The artist greatly enjoyed the English countryside, describing Matlock as being as picturesque as the Swiss countryside. Le Brun also visited the Duchess of Dorset at Knole House in Kent, which had once been owned by Elizabeth I. She returned to London, where she found the Comte de Vaudreuil, and then went to Twickenham where she visited Mme. la Comtesse de Vaudreuil and the Duc de Montpensier, whom Le Brun became well acquainted with; they enjoyed painting the countryside together. She was subsequently received by the Duc d'Orléans (future king Louis Philippe). She then visited the Margravine of Brandenburg-Ansbach, the Baroness Craven, whom she painted and came to greatly enjoy her company, spending three weeks at her estate. Together, they visited the Isle of Wight, where Le Brun was mesmerized by the beauty of the countryside and the amiability of its inhabitants, writing later that along with the Isle of Ischia (near Naples), these were the only two places where she would happily spend her entire life.
She visited Mary Elizabeth Grenville, Marchioness of Buckingham, at Stowe. She also went to the home of Lord Moira and his sister Charlotte Adelaide Constantia Rawdon, where Vigée Le Brun sampled further the stern social milieu of English aristocracy; she spent some of the winter there. She then departed for Warwick castle, eager to see this after hearing it praised so much. Vigée Le Brun attempted to visit the area incognito to avoid any awkwardness with Lord Warwick, as he would receive foreigners only if he knew their name. When he became aware that Vigée Le Brun was visiting, he went to her in person and gave her a decorous reception. After introducing the artist to his wife, he took her on a tour around the castle, looking over the lavish art collection there. He presented her with two drawings which she had sketched in Sir William Hamilton's summerhouse during her stay in Italy, telling her that he had paid a high price to buy them from his nephew. Le Brun later wrote that she had never sold them to Sir William to begin with. He also presented to her the famous Warwick vase, which he had purchased from Sir William as well. Vigée Le Brun then ended her tour by visiting Blenheim Palace before returning to London, and preparing to depart for France after staying in England for nearly three years. Upon her imminent departure becoming known, many of her acquaintances attempted to extend her residence with them, but to no avail as Vigée Le Brun wanted to see her daughter, who was in Paris at the time. As she prepared to leave London, Mme. Grassini arrived and then accompanied her, staying with her until her ship departed for Rotterdam, ending a trip that was originally intended to last only five months.
Return to France from England
Her ship arrived in Rotterdam, where she first visited François de Beauharnais, the prefect of Rotterdam and brother in law to the empress Joséphine de Beauharnais (brother to the late Alexandre de Beauharnais, who had been executed during the terror). The artist was ordered to reside for eight to ten days in Rotterdam, as she has arrived from hostile soil, and was ordered to appear before general Oudinot, who was hospitable to her. After residing in Rotterdam for ten days, she received her passport and started for Paris. She visited Antwerp on her way to Paris and was received by its prefect, the Comte d'Hédouville[fr], and toured the city with him and his wife, and visited a sick young painter who wished to make her acquaintance.
She arrived in Paris and rejoiced to find her brother and her husband there, who was charged with recruiting artists for St. Petersburg. He departed a few months later for St. Petersburg, but Julie remained due to their failing union, though her relationship with her daughter continued to be a torment to her. She made the acquaintance of one of the most famous singers of her time, Angelica Catalani. She painted her and kept her portrait along with that of Mme. Grassini for the rest of her life, and continued to host soirées in her home as she had always did, to which Mme. Catalani was a regular.
Shortly after her arrival in Paris, Le Brun was commissioned by the court painter, Denon, to paint a portrait of the Emperor's sister Caroline Bonaparte, though she had heard that her journey to England had displeased Napoleon, who had allegedly said "Madame Le Brun has gone to England to see her friends." Le Brun accepted the commission despite the fact that she was paid 1800 Francs, less than half the customary asking price, and later also included Mme. Murat's daughter in the portrait without raising the fee. Vigée Le Brun would later describe this commission as "torture", and would write in her memoirs;
It would be impossible to describe all the vexations and torment I had to suffer while painting this portrait. First of all Mme Murat arrived with two ladies in waiting who proceeded to dress her hair as I tried to paint her. When I observed that it would be impossible to capture a likeness if I allowed them to continue, she eventually agreed to send the two women away. Added to this inconvenience, she almost always broke our appointments, which meant my staying in Paris for the whole summer waiting, usually in vain, for her to appear, for I was eager to finish the painting; I cannot tell you how this woman tried my patience. Moreover the gap between sittings was so long, that each time she did appear, her hair was dressed differently. At the beginning, for example, she had curls falling onto her cheek and I painted them accordingly; but a little later this style had gone out of fashion and she returned with a completely different one; I then had to rub out the curls as well as the pearls on her bandeau and replace them with cameos. The same thing happened with the dresses. The first dress I painted was rather open, as was the fashion then, and had a great deal of bold embroidery; when the fashion changed and the embroidery became more delicate, I had to enlarge the dress in order not to lose the detail. Eventually all these irritations reached a pitch, and I became very bad tempered as a result; one day she happened to be in my studio and I said to M. Denon, in a voice loud enough for her to overhear: 'When I painted real princesses they never gave me any trouble and never kept me waiting.' Of course Mme Murat did not know that punctuality is the politeness of kings, as Louis XIV quite rightly remarked and he, at least, was no upstart.
The portrait was exhibited in the salon of 1807, and was the only portrait the imperial government commissioned from her.
Switzerland in 1807
In July 1807, the artist crossed to Switzerland, arriving first at the town of Basel, where she was received by M. Ethinger, a local banker, who threw a banquet to welcome the artist. She proceeded to Biel on the advice of Ethinger, but the roads there were so hazardous that part of the journey had to be made on foot. After recuperating in Biel for a single day, she proceeded to the tiny Île Saint-Pierre to visit the home of Rousseau, which she found, to her great surprise and dismay, had become a tavern. Vigée Le Brun praised the picturesque countryside repeatedly in her letters to the countess Vincent Potocka. After departing the island to return to Biel, she went on to Berne, where she was received by the wife of the Landamann (magistrate), Mme. de Watteville, and the General Ambassador Honoré Vial. She also met the seven-months pregnant Mme. de Brac, who accompanied her to Thun, and then to the Lauterbrunnen Valley, which she found dark and grim due to it being hidden from sunlight on both sides by steep mountains. On her descent, she and her company encountered a group of local shepherdesses; the beauty and naivete of the local people and the wilderness where the encounter took place made her liken the experience to something out of Arabian Nights. She went on to visit the Staubbach Falls in the valley.
After traversing the rugged trails of the valley, she returned to Berne via Brientz, and then arrived at Schaffhausen where she was received by the local Burgomeister, who took her to see the Rhine Falls. After departing from Schaffhausen, she visited the city of Zürich, where she enjoyed the hospitality of the General Baron de Salis.
After taking the young daughter in law of de Salis with her, she departed for the small island of Ufenau in lake Zürich, then visited Rappercheld (sic) where she continued to be mesmerized by the beauty of the countryside and the "native innocence" of the locals. After a hazardous boat ride destined to Walenstadt, the entourage turned around back to Rappercheld(sic) and then visited the valley of Glarus. The artist then continued to the village of Soleure, on the Jura mountains. She witnessed a solitary chalet perched atop Mount Wunchenstein(sic), excited by her curiosity as to who would live so far and high, she made a trek up the mountain after being assured that the conditions of the road would support her carriage. After slightly less than an hour, the road became very rugged and far too steep, prompting her to dismount and continue the journey on foot. The trek would last about five and a half hours, though she wrote in a letter to the countess Potocka that the view made it completely worth it;
to tell the truth, the view completely eliminated my fatigue. Five or six vast forests, piled one upon the other, fell away beneath my eyes; the canton of Soleure seemed no more than a plain, the town and the villages, tiny specks; the fine line of glaciers which fringed the horizon became redder and redder as the sun sank: the other mountains between them formed a complete colour spectrum; gold rays stretched across the mountain to my left, each carrying a rainbow in its arc; the sun set behind the peak; red-violet mountains grew imperceptibly fainter and fainter in the distance, stretching away to the lake of Biel and the far edge of Lake Neuchatel., they stood so far apart that you could only distinguish them by two gold lines. heavy with translucent mist; I was still overlooking the deep ravines and mountains covered with thick foliage; at my feet lay wild valleys surrounded by black pine forests. As the sun set, I watched the shadows change; different points took on a more sinister character, partly because of their shape and partly because of that long silence which slips harmoniously into the day's demise. All I can tell you is that my soul gloried in such a solemn and melancholy vision.
She returned to Soleure the next day, and then departed for Vevey, which she described as "the land of my dreams". She rented a house on the banks of lake Geneva and toured the countryside and mountains around Vevey. She hiked Mount Blonay where the Messieurs de Blonay hosted her at Blonay castle. After descending the mountain, the artist hired the innkeeper
where she was lodged to row her out to the lake at night, she was enthralled by the charming beauty and silence of the lake, and wrote of the journey later "He was not Saint Preux and I was not Julie, but I was no less happy". Vigée Le Brun then departed for Coppet, where she met the famous dissident socialite and woman of letters Madame de Staël, who was exiled by the Napoleonic regime. She stayed at Coppet with Madame de Staël, who she painted as Corinne, a character from Mme. de Staël's newest novel, Corinne, ou l'Italie (1807).
After returning from Coppet to Geneva, where she was made an honorary member of the Société pour l'Avancement des Beaux-Arts, she departed in a group with the de Brac family for Chamonix, intending to visit the Sallanches mountains, the Aiguille du Goûter, and Mont Blanc. The journey was perilous. The entourage visited the glacier de Bossons. On the way upwards, M. de Brac fell ill with catalepsy, and was slowly nursed back to health in a nearby inn, where Vigée Le Brun, the pregnant Mme. de Brac and her son were distraught and worried about his condition, but he recuperated slowly over the course of a week. After eleven days in Chamonix, the artist departed alone without the de Brac family, writing that nothing would bring her to visit the 'melancholic' Chamonix again. She then left Switzerland and returned to Paris.
Switzerland in 1808
With her desire for travel still not sated, Le Brun re-entered Switzerland in 1808 via Neuchâtel, and then visited Lucerne, where she was enchanted by the picturesque and wild town. The artist also visited Brown(sic) and the market town of Schwyz, then Zug, where she crossed the lake. She visited an inn where she wanted to visit the infamous landslide of Goldau. The artist visited the valley, once populated with several villages, now buried under rocks. The artist, heavy with sorrow, contemplated the remains of the villages for a long time before departing for Arth, Le Brun then climbed Kussnacht, intending to visit the spot where the legendary William Tell was said to have killed Gessler; at the time a chapel had been constructed on the location. There, the artist observed a shepherd and shepherdess singing to each other across the valley, a local courting custom, although the two stopped singing when they noticed her. The 'communication of love through melody' presented her with a delightful scene, which she would describe as an eclogue in action.
The artist then visited Untersee, where she was fortunate to arrive in time to witness the Shepherd's festival at Unspunnen castle, which took place once every century. The artist was hosted by M. and Mme. Konig, who hosted all notable people who came to visit the festivals. Le Brun went to the château du Bailli to witness the start of the festival, which had been postponed a few days due to incessant rain, and was captivated by the festival's solemn pastoral chants and fireworks at night. The next day, she returned to see the festival taking place at half past ten in the morning; she joined the celebrations and dancing, before sitting back and watching the contests between the shepherds and shepherdesses. Le Brun recorded that she was frequently moved to tears by the enchanting atmosphere of the festival.
Coincidentally, she found Madame de Staël at the festival, and joined her in the procession that followed the Bailli and his magistrates, which was joined by people from the neighboring valleys, dressed in their local costume and carrying flags representing each canton or valley.
Return to Paris and later life
New home at Louveciennes, the abdications of Napoleon and Bourbon restorations
After returning to Paris from her second visit to Switzerland, Vigée Le Brun purchased a house in Louveciennes, Île-de-France near the Seine, and invited her niece (daughter of her brother Etienne) Caroline Rivière and her husband to live with her. She doted on the newlywed couple greatly and formed a close bond with them, and occasionally visited Paris. She had Mme. Pourat and the talented actress Comtesse de Hocquart as neighbors. She visited Madame du Barry's home, the Pavillon de Louveciennes, which she found had been looted and stripped clean of its furniture and contents. On March 31, 1814, her house was raided by Prussian troops who were advancing towards Paris in the final stages of the war of the Sixth Coalition. As she prepared to go to bed past eleven o'clock, with no knowledge of the proximity of the allied troops, they entered her home, while she lay in her bed. They entered her bedchamber and proceeded to loot her home. Her German-speaking Swiss servant Joseph screamed at the soldiers to spare her person until his voice was hoarse. After the looting, the soldiers left her home. She left as well, initially intending to head to St. Germain before learning that the road there was unsafe. Instead she decided to take refuge in a room above the pumping machine at Marly aqueduct, near Du Barry's pavilion, with many other people, having entrusted her house to Joseph. As fighting nearby intensified, Vigée Le Brun attempted to take refuge in cave, but gave up after injuring her leg. There, Le Brun observed how most of the merchants taking refuge were, like her, pining for the restoration of the Bourbons.
She departed for Paris as soon as she received the news, and communicated by letter to Joseph about the condition of her Louveciennes home, which had been ransacked and its garden destroyed by the Prussian troops. Her servant wrote to her: "I beg them to be less greedy, to content themselves with whatever I give them, they reply: "The French have done far worse things in our country". Vigée Le Brun wrote in her memoirs "The Prussians are right; poor Joseph and I had to answer for that."
Vigée Le Brun was exultant at the entry of the Comte d'Artois to Paris on April 12, shortly after Napoleon had agreed to abdicate. She wrote to him about the king, to which he replied: "His legs are still bad, but his mind is in excellent form. We will march for him, and he will think for us". She attended the euphoric reception of the king in Paris on 3 May 1814, and the restoration of the monarchy. The king personally gave her his regards while on his way to attend the Sunday services when he spotted her in a crowd.
Upon Napoleon's return from Elba, Vigée Le Brun noted the contrast between the rapturous reception the Bourbons had received last year and Napoleon's tepid welcome upon his return to France from his exile in Elba, after which he initiated the Hundred Days war. Le Brun exhibited her staunch royalist sympathies in her memoirs, writing:
Without wishing to insult the memory of a great captain and many brave generals and soldiers who helped win such resounding victories, I would like nevertheless to ask where these victories led us, and whether we still own any of the land which cost us so dear? For my part, the bulletins from the Russian campaign both distressed and revolted me; one of the later ones spoke of the loss of thousands of French soldiers and added that the Emperor had never looked so well! We read this bulletin at the home of the Bellegarde ladies, and felt so angry that we threw it on to the fire. The fact that the people were tired of these interminable wars is easily attested by their lack of enthusiasm during the Hundred Days. More than once I saw Bonaparte appear at his window and then retire immediately, furious no doubt, for the acclamation of the crowd was limited to the shouts of a hundred or so boys, paid, I believe, as an act of derision to chant long live the Emperor! There is a sharp contrast between this indifference and the joyful enthusiasm which greeted the King on his entry into Paris on the 8th of July 1815; this joy was almost universal, for after the many misfortunes incurred by Bonaparte, Louis XVIII brought only peace.
Her Louveciennes home was once again looted in the Hundred Days, this time by British troops. Among the possessions lost during this incident was a lacquer box gifted to her by the Count Stroganoff during her stay at St. Petersburg, which she had prized immensely.
Her estranged husband died in August 1813, in their old home built on the Rue de-Gros-Chenet. Though they had drifted apart for several years, she was nonetheless sorely affected by his death.
In 1819 she sold her portrait of Lady Hamilton as the Comaean Sibyl to the Duc de Berri, despite it being her favorite, because she wished to satisfy the duke. She also painted two portraits of the Duchesse de Berri, initially in the Tuileries, but then finishing their sittings in her home. In the same year, her daughter Julie died of syphilis, which devastated her. The next year, her brother Etienne died an alcoholic, leaving her niece Caroline her principal heir. Her friends advised the grief-stricken artist to travel to Bordeaux to occupy her mind with something else. She traveled first to Orléans, where she resided in the Château de Méréville, where she was mesmerized by its elegance, beauty and architecture, designed in the English Garden style; she wrote that it 'surpassed anything of its kind in England'. She toured the city and sampled its architecture and landmarks, including the cathedral and the ruins surrounding the city. She then traveled to Blois where she visited the Château de Chambord, which she described it as "a romantic, fairy tale place". She then visited the Château de Chanteloup, residence of the late Duc de Choiseul. Afterwards, she traveled to Tours, where the impure air forced her to quit the city after only two days. In Tours, she was received by the director of the academy, who offered to be her guide in the city. She also visited the ruins of the Marmoutier monastery. She then passed Poitiers and Angoulême on her way to Bordeaux. After arriving in Bordeaux, she stayed in the Fumel Hospice and was received there by the prefect, the Comte de Tournon-Simiane. She toured the countryside and visited the cemetery, which she praised for its sepulchral beauty and symmetrical layout. It became her second-favorite after the Père La Chaise cemetery of Paris. She also visited the synagogue of Bordeaux, styled after the temple of Solomon, the ruins of the ancient Roman Gallien Arena. After spending a week in Bordeaux, she started back for Paris, greatly satisfied with her travels. During her journey, it was common for her to be mistaken for a noble lady owing to her expensive carriage; she later lamented in her memoirs that this often meant she had to pay more in the inns where she resided.
Her journey to Bordeaux was the last time she traveled extensively.
Friendship with Antoine Jean-Gros
The artist formed an intimate friendship with Antoine-Jean Gros, whom she had known since he was seven years old and had painted his portrait when he was at that age, during which she had noticed an artistic inclination in the child. Upon her return to France she was surprised to find Gros had become a successful and famous painter, head of his own school of art. Gros was socially reclusive, and often brusque to others, but he formed a close bond with Vigée Le Brun, who wrote "Gros was always a man of natural impulses. He was prone to feel the keenest sensations and would become equally passionate over a kind action or a beautiful work of art. He was ill at ease in society, rarely breaking the silence in a crowded place, but he listened attentively and replied with his gentle smile, or by a single word, always very apt. To appreciate Gros, one had to know him intimately. Then he would open up his heart, a kind and noble one at that; some people reproached him for having a certain brusqueness of tone, but this disappeared entirely in private. His conversation was even more fascinating because he never expressed himself in the same way as other men; always finding the most unusual and powerful images to convey a thought, you might almost say he painted with words."
She was greatly affected by his suicide in 1835; she had met him the day before and noted him brooding over criticism he had received over one of his paintings.
She spent most of her time in Louveciennes, typically eight months of the year. She formed new friendships with people including the writer and man of letters M. de Briffaut, the playwright M. Despré, the writer M. Louis Aimé-Martin, the composer M. Désaugiers, the painter and antiquarian Comte de Forbin, and the famous painter Antoine-Jean Gros. She hosted these people and socialized with them regularly in her countryside home or in Paris, as well as her old friend the Princess Kourakin. She painted Saint Geneviève, with the face being a posthumous portrait of 12 years old Julie. for the local chapel, the Comtesse de Genlis graced this painting with two separate poems; one for the saint, the other for the painter. She spent her time with her nieces Caroline Rivière and Eugénie Tripier-Le Franc, whom she came to regard as her own children. She had tutored the latter in painting since childhood and was greatly pleased to see her blossom into a professional artist. Eugénie and Caroline would assist her in writing her memoirs, late in her life. 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...).
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).
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).
Portrayal in popular culture
The 2014 docudrama made for French television, Le fabuleux destin d'Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, directed by Arnaud Xainte, and starring Marlène Goulard and Julie Ravix as the young and old Elisabeth respectively, 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.
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.
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
Étienne Vigée, 1773. Saint Louis Art Museum.
Self-portrait in a Straw Hat, National Gallery, London
Madame du Barry, 1782. The last Maîtresse-en-titre of Louis XV of France and a victim of the Reign of Terror." One of three Le Brun portraits, including a posthumous portrait that she finished in 1805.
(Note:Though du Barry never wore rouge, another artist added it to her cheeks.)
Marie-Gabrielle de Gramont, Duchesse de Caderousse, 1784. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Baronne de Crussol, 1785. Musée des Augustins.
Comtesse de La Châtre, 1789. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Self-portrait with Her Daughter, 1789. Louvre.
Madame Molé-Reymond, actrice de la Comédie italienne, 1786. Louvre Museum.
The Marquise de Pezay, and the Marquise de Rougé with Her Sons Alexis and Adrien, 1787
Muhammad Dervish Khan, 1788. Private collection.
Self-Portrait, 1781. Kimbell Art Museum.
Vicomtesse de Vaudreuil, 1785. Getty Center.
Portraits painted in Italy
Self-portrait, painting Marie Antoinette, 1790. Uffizi.
Emma, Lady Hamilton as Ariadne, 1790. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Painted in Naples.
Francesco di Borbone, 1790. Museo di Capodimonte.
Luisa Maria Amelia di Borbone, 1790. Museo di Capodimonte.
Copy of her 1790 self-portrait, originally done for the accademia di St. Luca in Rome.
Portraits painted in Austria
La comtesse Maria Theresia Bucquoi, 1793. Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Theresa, Countess Kinsky, 1793. Norton Simon Museum.
Princess Karoline of Liechtenstein, 1793. Liechtenstein Museum.
Countess Siemontkowsky-Bystry, 1793. Private collection.
Pélagie Sapieżyna-Potocka, 1794. Royal Castle, Warsaw.
Portraits painted in Russia
Princess Ekaterina Nikolaevna Menshikova, 1795. National Gallery of Armenia.
Ekaterina Feodorovna Baryatinskaya-Dolgorukova, 1796. Yamazaki Mazak Museum of Art.
Princess Golitsyna, 1797. (Maria Razumovskaya)
Anna Beloselskaya-Belozerskaya, 1798. National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Julie Le Brun as Flora, 1799. Museum of Fine Arts (St. Petersburg, Florida).
- Vigée Le Brun was very sensitive to sound while sleeping, this had been a lifetime haunt to her, when traveling to new locations or cities, moving lodgings frequently was customary until she found a suitably quiet residence.
- There are several variant spellings: ULAN prefers "LeBrun", RKD uses "Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun" and so on.
- Baillio, Joseph; Salmon, Xavier, eds. (2015). Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Paris: Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux—Grand Palais.
- Kleiner, Fred S., ed. (2015). Gardner's Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective. Vol. 2 (15th ed.). Boston: Cengage Learning. p. 656. ISBN 978-1-305-64505-9.
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Literature and resources
- University of Pennsylvania, Memoirs of Madame Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Translated by Lionel Strachey, Copyright 1903, by Doubleday, Page & Company, Published, October, 1903
- Vigée-Lebrun, Louise-Elisabeth. The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun – via Project Gutenberg.
- "Artcyclopedia entry: Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun".
- Jeffares, Neil. Dictionary of Pastellists before 1800 (Online ed.).
- "Works of art by Vigée Le Brun in British Collections". Art UK. Archived from the original on 11 November 2018.
- "Gallery of works by Vigée Le Brun, articles, her memoirs, and biographical information". Archived from the original on 5 December 1998.
- "Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France". Metropolitan Museum of Art.
- Works by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- Katherine Baetjer: "Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France.", Modern Arts Notes Podcast
- Rice, John A.; Heartz, Daniel (2014). "Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun's Portrait of Giovanni Paisiello". In Wilcox, Beverly (ed.). Artists and Musicians: Portrait Studies from the Rococo to the Revolution. Ann Arbor: Steglein Publishing.