Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Monday, March 30, 2015

Louise Vigée-le Brun: A Court Favorite and an Incredible Talent

Louise Vigée-le Brun (died 30 March 1842)

Born in 1755, Marie-Louise-Élisabeth Vigée was the daughter of a portrait and fan painter, from whom she received both training and encouragement and who delighted in allowing his daughter the freedom to experiment. In her father's home Louise Vigée was also exposed to other artists who offered her additional instruction. Although her father, Louis Vigée, was a moderately successful artist, Louise's abilities and accomplishments far exceeded his relatively quickly.

A self-portrait by Louise le Brun,
Louis Vigée died in 1768, when his daughter was just thirteen, by which time Louise Vigée must have already learned a great deal--she had learned enough that she was soon able to support her widowed mother.

She also began to attract a wealthy and influential clientele while she was still in her teens; in 1774, when she was nineteen, she was accepted into the the Académie de Saint-Luc. Two years later, she married Jean-Baptiste Le Brun, himself an artist and art dealer. 

In 1779 Vigée-le Brun painted her first portrait of Marie Antoinette. Over the course of the next decade, she painted an additional thirty portraits of the queen.

With the French queen's support, Vigée-le Brun became a popular painter for members of the court and of the aristocracy, and the queen's patronage led also to Vigée-le Brun's 1783 membership in the most important professional artists' organization, the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture.

Louise Vigée-le Brun avoided the catastrophe of the French Revolution--she left the country in 1789. By 1802 she was able to return briefly, but she spent the years between 1803 and 1805 in London. She did return permanently to France in 1805 and continued to paint throughout the rest of her life. She published a three-volume memoir, Souvenirs, between 1835 and 1837.

There is a wonderful website devoted to Louise Vigée-le Brun (it includes a comprehensive gallery), The Art of Elisabeth Louise Vigée le Brun--you can access it by clicking here. The online Art History Archive offers an excellent biography and overview of her work, but there are also full-length biographies, including Angelica Goodden's The Sweetness of Life: A Biography of Elisabeth Louise Vigee le Brun and Gita May's Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun: The Odyssey of an Artist in an Age of Revolution

For an excellent analysis of Louise Vigée-le Brun and the woman artist in the eighteenth century, you might enjoy Mary D. Sheriff's The Exceptional Woman: Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun and the Cultural Politics of Art.

Le Brun's portrait of Countess Skavronskaia,

Edited (January 2016) to Add: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) is hosting an exhibition, "Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France," 15 February 2016 to 15 May 2016.  It's a short one! Here's the link: click

Update, September 2016: As of September 2016, although the exhibition has closed, the link remains live--there are images, a good biographical essay, and a bibliography. A recent New York Times piece (28 August 2016) asking whether "old masters" can remain "relevant" today notes that "there is still a public appetite for viewing old masters, citing attendance figures for this exhibition: "The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s show “Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France,” for example, drew more than 165,000 visitors." 

Checking In Again, 30 March 2023: The MOMA link to the exhibition is still working . . .