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Portrait: Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Born in Paris in 1755, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was the daughter of Jeanne (née Maissin), a hairdresser, and portraitist Louis Vigée who encouraged Elisabeth in her study of art. After her father died when Elisabeth was only 12, Jeanne married a wealthy jeweller and the family moved to the Rue Saint-Honoré, near to the Palais Royal. Although Elisabeth openly disliked her mother’s husband, the move enabled her to mix in the circles of established artists such as Gabriel François Doyen, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, and Joseph Vernet.

By the age of 15 Elisabeth was able to financially support herself through her portrait work and at 19 she was admitted to the Académie de St Luc. Her 1776 marriage to art dealer Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun brought with it exhibitions, salons and society clients and her portraits, that combined the elegance of Rococo with the composure of the trending Neoclassical style, soon caught the eye of Queen Marie-Antoinette.

Elisabeth went on to paint more than 30 portraits of the queen and her family, including the ‘scandalous’ portrait titled Marie-Antoinette in a Muslin Dress (1783), and royal intervention secured membership of the powerful and prestigious Académie Royale in the same year.

Unfortunately, her close association with the unpopular queen resulted in a negative press campaign against Elisabeth. In fear of the advancing French Revolution, she left her husband and departed France for Italy with her daughter Julie in 1789.

For the next 12 years Elizabeth travelled extensively, painting portraits of aristocracy and royalty to great acclaim. In Italy she was elected to the Academy in Parma and the Accademia di San Luca in Rome. In Vienna she was commissioned to paint Princess Maria Josefa Hermengilde von Esterhazy, and in Russia she painted family members of Catherine the Great and was made a member of the Academy of Fine Arts of Saint Petersburg.

Elizabeth returned to France in 1802 following a campaign by Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun to have her name removed from the list of counter-revolutionary émigrés. She continued to travel, to London in 1803 and Switzerland in 1807 and 1808, where she was made an honorary member of the Société pour l'Avancement des Beaux-Arts.

Painter of over 660 portraits and 200 landscapes, Elisabeth died on 30 March 1842 at the age of 86 in Paris. Her work is now held at the Louvre, the Hermitage Museum, the National Gallery in London, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Her work also inspired the Clifton Haynes ‘Portrait of a Young Girl’ in the Swan Deverell general art auction 20 Nov - 5 Dec 2021.

Further Reading

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.

Karvouni, Evangelia (2014). "Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun: A Historical Survey of a Woman Artist in the Eighteenth Century". Journal of International Women's Studies. 15 (2): 268–285.

Langmuir, Erika (1997). The National Gallery Companion Guide(rev. ed.). London: National Gallery Publications Ltd. pp. 328–329.

May, Gita (2005). Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun : The Odyssey of an Artist in an Age of Revolution. Yale University Press.


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