Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (born Louise-Élisabeth Vigée on April 16, 1755 in Paris, and died in the same city on March 30, 1842, ) , also known as Madame Lebrun, was a prominent French painter, considered a great portraitist of his time. She could be compared to Quentin de La Tour or Jean-Baptiste Greuze.

Her artistic style is generally considered part of the aftermath of Rococo, while she often adopts a neoclassical style. Vigée Le Brun cannot be considered a pure Neoclassist, however, in that she creates mostly portraits in Neoclassical dress rather than the History painting. While serving as the portrait painter to Marie Antoinette, Vigée Le Brun works purely in Rococo in both her color and style choices.

Her art exceptional career make she a privileged witness of the upheavals of the end of the eighteenth century, the French Revolution and the Restoration. Fervent royalist, she was successively painter of the court of France, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, the Kingdom of Naples, the Court of the Emperor of Vienna, the Emperor of Russia and the Restoration.

Vigée Le Brun left a legacy of 660 portraits and 200 landscapes. In addition to private collections, her works may be found at major museums, such as the Hermitage Museum, London’s National Gallery, and museums in continental Europe and the United States.

His parents, Louis Vigée, pastelist and member of the Académie de Saint-Luc and Jeanne Maissin, of peasant origin, A younger brother, Étienne Vigée, who became a successful playwright, was born two years later.

Born in the rue Coquilliere in Paris, 2 Elisabeth was baptized at the church of Saint-Eustache in Paris, then put into nurse. In the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy it is not yet in the habit of raising its own children, so the child is entrusted to the peasants of the neighborhood of Epernon.

Her father comes to look for her six years later, takes her back to Paris in the family apartment rue de Cléry.

Elisabeth Louise entered the school of the convent of the Trinity, in the Rue de Charonne in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, as a boarder, in order to receive the best education possible. From that age on, his precocious talent for drawing is expressed; In his notebooks, on the walls of his school.

It was at this time that Louis Vigee was in ecstasy one day before a drawing of his little prodigy, drawing representing a bearded man. He prophesies that she will be a painter.

In 1766, Élisabeth-Louise left the convent and came to live alongside her parents.

His father died accidentally of a septicemia after swallowing a fish bone on May 9th. Elizabeth-Louise, who is only twelve years old, will take a long time to mourn and then decide to indulge her passions. Painting, drawing and pastel.

His mother remarried as early as December 26, 1767, with a wealthy but avaricious jeweler, Jacques-François Le Sèvre (1724-1810); Elizabeth-Louise’s relations with her father-in-law are difficult.

Elizabeth’s first teacher was her father, Louis Vigee. After his death, another painter, Gabriel-François Doyen, best friend of the family and famous in his time as a history painter, encouraged him to persevere in pastel and oil; Advice it will follow.

It is certainly advised by Doyen that in 1769 Elisabeth Vigee went to the painter Gabriel Briard, a knowledge of the latter (for having had the same master, Carl van Loo). Briard is a member of the Royal Academy of Painting, and willingly gives lessons, although he is not yet a professor. He is a mediocre painter, above all a reputation as a good draftsman, and also has a workshop at the Louvre; Elizabeth is making rapid progress and is already beginning to talk about her.

It was at the Louvre that she met Joseph Vernet, a famous artist from all over Europe. He is one of the most acclaimed painters of Paris, his advice is authoritative, and he will not fail to lavish it on him.

“I have constantly followed his advice; For I never had a master properly so called, “she wrote in her memoirs.

In any case, Vernet, who devoted his time to the formation of “Mlle Vigee,” and Jean-Baptiste Greuze noticed and advised her.

The girl paints many copies according to the masters. She will admire the masterpieces of the palace of the Luxembourg; Moreover, the reputation of these painters opened to her all the doors of private royal and aristocratic art collections in Paris where she could study at leisure the great masters, copy the heads of Rembrandt, Van Dyck or Greuze, study semi-tones As well as the degradations on the projecting parts of a head. She writes:

“One could exactly compare myself to the bee, so much I harvested knowledge …”.

All her life, this need to learn will not leave her, for she has understood that a gift is working. Already, she is commissioned portraits and begins to make a living.

She painted her first recognized painting in 1770, a portrait of her mother (Madame Le Sèvre, née Jeanne Maissin, private collection). Having at her age little hope of integrating the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, a prestigious but conservative institution, she presented several of her paintings at the Academy of Saint-Luc, of which she officially became a member on 25 October 17.

In 1770, the dauphin Louis-Auguste, future Louis XVI, grandson of King Louis XV, married Marie Antoinette of Austria at Versailles, daughter of the Empress Maria Theresa.

At the same time, the Le Sèvre-Vigée family moved to the rue Saint-Honoré, opposite the Palais-Royal, in the Lubert hotel. Louise-Élisabeth Vigée begins to make portraits of command, but her father-in-law gets her revenues. She takes the habit of drawing up the list of portraits she painted during the year. Thus, it is possible to know that in 1773, she painted twenty seven. She began to paint many self-portraits.

She was a member of the Académie de Saint-Luc as early as 17. In 1775, she offered the Royal Academy two portraits; In reward, she received a letter signed by D’Alembert informing her that she was admitted to participate in the public sessions of the Academy.

When his father-in-law retired from business in 1775, the family settled in the Rue de Cléry, in the Hotel Lubert, whose principal tenant was Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Lebrun, who worked as a merchant and restorer of paintings. Antiquarian and painter. He is a specialist in Dutch painting and has published catalogs. She visited with great interest the gallery of paintings of Lebrun and there perfect its pictorial knowledge. The latter becomes his agent, takes care of his business. Already married for the first time in Holland, he asks her in marriage. Libertin and player, he has bad reputation, and the marriage is formally discouraged to the young artist. However, wishing to escape from her family, she married him on 11 January 1776 in private, with the dispensation of two bans, in the church of Saint-Eustache. Elisabeth Vigée becomes Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun.

In the same year, she received her first commission from the Court of the Comte de Provence, the king’s brother, and on November 30, 1776, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun was admitted to work for the Court of Louis XVI.

In 1778, she became an official painter of the queen and was therefore called to realize the first portrait of Queen Marie Antoinette from nature.

It was also during this period that she painted the portrait of Jean-Antoine Gros child at the age of seven and opened an academy and taught.

Her mansion became a fashionable place, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun went through a period of success and her husband opened a sales hall in which he sold antiques and paintings by Greuze, Fragonard and others. She sells her portraits for 12,000 francs, on which she only receives 6 francs, her husband pocketing the rest, as she says in her Souvenirs: “I had such carelessness over money that I knew almost nothing of it Not the value. ”

On February 12, 1780, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun gave birth to her daughter Jeanne-Julie-Louise. She continues to paint during the first contractions and, it is said, scarcely releases her brushes during childbirth. His daughter Julie will be the subject of many portraits. A second pregnancy a few years later will give a child died in infancy.

In 1781, she traveled to Brussels with her husband to assist and buy the sale of the collection of the late Governor Charles-Alexandre de Lorraine; She met the Prince de Ligne.

Inspired by Rubens whom she admires, she paints her Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat in 1782 (London, National Gallery). His portraits of women attracted him the sympathy of the Duchesse de Chartres, the princess of the blood, who presented her to the queen, her exact contemporary, the latter making her her official and favorite painter in 1. She multiplied the originals and copies . Some canvases remain the property of the king, others are offered to pets, ambassadors and foreign courts.
While she could not be accepted, she was received at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture on 31 May 1783 at the same time as her competitor Adélaïde Labille-Guiard and against the will of Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre , The king’s first painter. Her sex and the profession of her husband’s merchant of paintings are strong oppositions to her entry, but the protective intervention of Marie Antoinette allows her to obtain this privilege of Louis XVI.

Vigée Le Brun presents a reception painting (although it was not asked for), La Paix bringing back L’Abondance, made in 1783 (Paris, musée du Louvre), to be admitted as a painter of History. With the support of the queen, she allowed herself the impertinence of showing a breast uncovered, while the academic nudes were reserved for men. It is received without any category being specified.

In September of the same year, she participated in the Salon for the first time and there Marie-Antoinette said “à la Rose”: initially, she has the audacity to present the queen in a robe in gaule, cotton muslin that is Usually used in body or interior linen, but the critics are scandalized by the fact that the queen was painted in her shirt, so that after a few days Vigée Le Brun has to remove it and replace it with a Portrait identical but with a more conventional dress. From then on, the prices of his paintings soar.

In 1784, his younger brother Étienne married Suzanne Rivière, whose brother was the exile companion of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun between 1792 and 1. She painted the portrait of Finance Minister Charles Alexandre de Calonne who was paid 800,000 francs .

Being one of the Court’s intimates, she is the object of both criticism and slander. Rumors, more or less well-founded, accuse Vigée Le Brun of maintaining an affair with Minister Calonne, but also with the Comte de Vaudreuil (of which she has a wick in her snuffbox and whose correspondence with him are published) or the painter Menageot .

Before 1789, the work of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun is composed of portraits, a genre fashionable in the second half of the eighteenth century, for the wealthy and aristocratic clients who constitute its clientele. Vigée Le Brun was, according to her biographer Geneviève Haroche-Bouzinac: “a beautiful woman, pleasantly pleasing, with a playful conversation, she played an instrument, was a good actress, Have facilitated his integration into worldly circles and a great talent of portraitist who possessed the art of flattering his models … “. For Marc Fumaroli, the art of portraying Vigée Le Brun is an extension of the art of the conversation of salons, where one presents oneself at its best, listens and makes society in a feminine world away from the noise of the world. The paintings of Vigée Le Brun are one of the summums of the art of painting “au naturel”.

She will write a short text, Tips for Portrait Painting, for her niece.

Among his portraits of women, one can quote in particular the portraits of Marie-Antoinette (about 20 not counting those of the children); Catherine Noël Worlee (the future princess of Talleyrand), which she made in 1783 and which was exhibited at the Salon de peinture in Paris in 1783; The sister of Louis XVI, Mme. Elizabeth; The wife of the Comte d’Artois; Two friends of the queen: the Princesse de Lamballe and the Comtesse de Polignac.

In 1788, she painted what she considered her masterpiece: The Portrait of the Painter Hubert Robert.

At the height of her glory, in her Parisian mansion in the Rue de Clery, where she receives high society once a week, she gives a “Greek supper,” which defrays the chronicle by the ostentation which unfolds there and for Who is suspected of having spent a fortune.

Letters and libels circulate in Paris, to prove his relation with Calonne. He is accused of having wainscoting of gold, of lighting his fire with cash-notes, of burning aloe wood in his chimney. The cost of the dinner of 20,000 francs was reported to King Louis XVI. Became angry with the artist.

In the summer of 1789, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun was in Louveciennes at the home of the Countess du Barry, the last mistress of Louis XV, whose portrait she began when the two women heard the canon thunder in Paris. The old favorite would have exclaimed: “If Louis XV lived, surely all this would not have been so. “.

His mansion is ransacked, sans-culottes pour sulfur into his cellars and try to set fire to it. She took refuge with the architect Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart.

On the night of October 5-6, 1789, when the royal family was forcibly returned to Paris, Elisabeth left the capital with her daughter, Julie, her housekeeper and a hundred louis, leaving behind her husband, who encouraged her to flee, Her paintings and the one million francs she earned from her husband, carrying only 20 francs, “she wrote in her Souvenirs.

It says later on of the end of the Ancien Regime: “Women then reigned, the Revolution dethroned them. “.

She arrived in Rome in November 1. In 1790, she was received at the Uffizi Gallery by realizing her self-portrait, which was a great success. She sends works in Paris to the Salon. The artist makes his Grand Tour and lives between Florence, Rome where she finds Menageot, and Naples with Talleyrand and Lady Hamilton, then Vivant Denon, the first director of the Louvre, in Venice. She wanted to return to France, but in 1792 she was placed on the list of emigrants and lost her civic rights.

On February 14, 1792, she left Rome for Venice. While the Army of the South returned to Savoy and Piedmont, it went to Vienna in Austria, from where it did not think to leave and where, as former painter of Queen Marie-Antoinette, it benefits from the Protection of the imperial family.

In Paris, Jean-Baptiste Pierre Lebrun sold all his business in 1791 to avoid bankruptcy, while the art market collapsed and lost half of its value. Close to Jacques-Louis David, he asked in 1793, without success, that the name of his wife be removed from the list of the emigrants. He publishes a pamphlet: Précis History of Citizen Lebrun. Like his brother-in-law Stephen, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre is imprisoned for a few months.

Invoking the desertion of his wife, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre asked for and obtained the divorce in 1794 to protect and preserve their property. At the same time, he appraised the collections seized by the Revolution at the aristocracy, of which he drew up inventories and published the Observations on the National Museum32, prefiguring the collections and organization of the Louvre Museum, of which he became the expert commissioner. Then, as an assistant to the arts commission, An III (1795), he published Essay on the means of encouraging painting, sculpture, architecture and engraving. Thus the maternity picture of Madame Vigée Le Brun and her daughter (v.1789), commissioned by the Comte d’Angivillier, director of the King’s Buildings, seized by Le Brun integrates the collections of the Louvre.

As for Elizabeth-Louise, she traveled through Europe in triumph.

At the invitation of the Russian ambassador, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun traveled to Russia, a country she would consider her second homeland. In 1795 she was in St. Petersburg, where she stayed for several years, supported by orders from the upper Russian society and the support of Gabriel-Francois Doyen, close to the Empress and her son. She lives in particular with the Countess Saltykoff.

Invited by the great courts of Europe and having to provide for her means, she painted without ceasing.

She refuses to read the news, for she learns of the execution of her guillotined friends during the Terror. She learned, among other things, the death of her lover Doyen, a cousin of Gabriel-Francois, born in Versailles in 1759, who was Marie Antoinette’s cook for ten years.

In 1799, a petition of two hundred and fifty-five artists, writers and scientists asked the Directory to withdraw its name from the list of emigrants.

In 1800, his return was precipitated by the death of his mother at Neuilly and the marriage she did not approve of her daughter Julie with Gaëtan Bertrand Nigris, director of the Imperial Theaters in St. Petersburg. It is for her a heartbreak. Disappointed by her husband, she had founded her whole affective universe on her daughter. The two women will never be completely reconciled.

After a brief stay in Moscow in 1801, then in Germany, she can safely return to Paris since she was struck off the list of emigrants. She was greeted in Paris on January 18, 1802, where she found her husband, with whom she lived under the same roof.

If the return of Elizabeth is greeted by the press, she finds it difficult to find her place in the new society born of the Revolution and the Empire.

A few months later, she left France for England, where she moved to London for three years. There, she meets Lord Byron, the painter Benjamin West, finds Lady Hamilton, Admiral Nelson’s mistress whom she had known in Naples, and admires the painting of Joshua Reynolds.

She lives with the Court of Louis XVIII and the Count of Artois in exile between London, Bath and Dover.

After a passage through Holland, she returned to Paris in July 1805, and her daughter Julie who left Russia. In 1805, she received the commission of the portrait of Caroline Murat, wife of General Murat, one of Napoleon’s sisters who had become queen of Naples, and it went wrong: “I painted real princesses who never tormented me and Did not make me wait, “36 the fifty-year-old artist said to this young queen who had succeeded.

On January 14, 1807, she bought her Parisian private mansion and auction room from her indebted husband. But in the face of imperial power, Vigée Le Brun left France for Switzerland, where she met Madame de Staë.

In 1809, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun returned to France and settled in Louveciennes, in a country house near the castle that had belonged to the Countess du Barry (guillotined in 1793), of which she had painted three portraits before the Revolution. She then lived between Louveciennes and Paris, where she held a show and met the renowned artists. Her husband, whom she had divorced, died.

In 1814, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun rejoiced at the return of Louis XVIII, “The monarch that suited the time,” she writes in her memoirs. After 1815 and the Restoration, his paintings, in particular the portraits of Marie Antoinette, were restored and re-attached to the Louvre, Fontainebleau and Versailles.

His daughter ended his life in misery in 1819, and his brother, Étienne Vigée, died. She makes a final trip to Bordeaux where she makes many drawings of ruins. She still painted a few sunsets, studies of the sky or the mountains, including the valley of Chamonix in the pastel (Le Mont Blanc, L’Aiguille du Goûter, Grenoble museum).

In Louveciennes, where she lives eight months of the year, the rest in winter in Paris, she receives Sunday friends and artists including her friend the painter Jean-Antoine Gros, whom she knew since 1778, and she is very Affected by his suicide.

In 1829, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun wrote a short autobiography which she sent to Princess Nathalie Kourakine, and wrote her will. In 1835, she published her Souvenirs with the help of her nieces Caroline Rivière, who had come to live with her, and Eugénie Tripier Le Franc, portraitist painter and last student. It is the latter who writes with his own hand a part of the painter’s memories, hence the doubts expressed by certain historians as to their authenticity.

At the end of his life, the artist, prey to cerebral attacks, loses his sight.

She died in Paris at her home in Rue Saint-Lazare on 30 March 1842 and was buried in the cemetery of Louveciennes. On the gravestone, deprived of its grid of entourage, stands the stele of white marble bearing the epitaph “Here, finally, I rest …”, ornamented of a medallion representing a palette on a base and surmounted of a cross.

The majority of his work, 660 out of 900 paintings, 41 is composed of portraits. The only notable exception is his painting La Paix bringing back the Abundance of 1780, constituting his reception piece at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, which had been severely criticized by the members of the Academy for his mistakes in drawing And its lack of idealization. She seems to be abandoning this genre for financial reasons. She uses oil, reserving the pastel for sketches. It is inspired by the old masters. Thus the style of the Portrait of a Woman by Pierre Paul Rubens (1622-1625, London, National Gallery) can be found in several of his paintings, including his self-portrait in the straw hat (1782-1783, London, National Gallery) or Gabrielle Yolande Claude Martine de Polastron, Duchess of Polignac (1782, National Museum of the castles of Versailles and Trianon). The influence of Raphael and his Madonna della seggiola (1513-1514, Florence, Palazzo Pitti) can also be found in his Self-portrait with his daughter Julie (1789, Paris, Musée du Louvre). Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun will paint about fifty self-portraits, making her favorite subject of her own.

Another of his favorite subjects is the representation of the child, either as an isolated subject or in the company of the mother, trying to paint “maternal tenderness,” a nickname given to one of her works (Autoportrait Madame Le Brun holding her daughter Julie on her lap, 1786, Paris, musée du Louvre).

His work developed a first style before 1789, and a second after that date. The first part of his work is composed of female portraits in the “natural” style proper to rococo. It gradually favors simple and floating fabrics, not starched, hair not powdered and left natural. The second part is more severe, the style has changed in the portraits, but also with the landscapes that appear then (about 200). His palette becomes darker compared to the virtuoso glee of the pre-revolutionary work. If his work executed under the Ancien Régime was much commented, appreciated or criticized, the second part which goes from 1789 to 1842 is little known. For his biographer Nancy Heller in Women Artists: An Illustrated History, the best portraits of Vigée Le Brun are as much a vibrant evocation of personalities as the expression of an art of living that disappeared, even when she painted46

The first retrospective exhibition of his work, in France, takes place in Paris at the Grand Palais in 20.

If Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun was famous during his lifetime, his work associated with Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI was forgotten until the 21st century. If in 1845 it appears in the Universal Biography of all the celebrated men who have made themselves remarkable by their writings; Their actions, their talents, their virtues or their crimes as the wife of Jean-Baptiste Le Brun, in 1970, his name does not even appear in the illustrated Grand Larousse. Hooked up at the Louvre his self-portrait with his daughter Julie is considered to be a bit of a fever. The most severe criticism of Vigée Le Brun’s conception of maternity (and painting) will be that formulated by Simone de Beauvoir in Le Deuxième Sexe in 1949, which writes: “Instead of giving oneself generously to the work which, She undertakes, the woman considers it as a simple ornament of her life; The book and the painting are only an inessential intermediary, enabling him to exhibit this essential reality: his own person. Hence, it is her person who is the principal – sometimes the only – subject that interests her: Mme Vigée-Lebrun never tires of fixing her smiling maternity on her canvases. ”

At the end of the twentieth century, the work of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun was commented upon and studied by American feminists in an analysis of the cultural policy of the arts through the questions raised by her exceptional career, the parallelism between the link United her to Marie Antoinette and that of Apelles and Alexander the Great, the establishment of her reputation, relations with her male peers, the courtesan society which founded her royalist clientele, her attitude to the Revolution, and then the prohibition Made women study at the Fine Arts by the Constituent Assembly, its narcissism and motherhood as a feminine identity extending the remark of Simone de Beauvoir.

The English historian Colin Jones considers that the self-portrait of the painter Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun with his daughter (1786) is the first real smile represented in Western art where the teeth are apparent. At the time of his presentation, it is considered scandalous. Indeed, since antiquity, the representations of mouths with teeth exist but they concern characters negatively connoted, such as the people or subjects who do not master their emotions (fear, rage, ecstasy, etc.), for example on Flemish paintings of the seventeenth century with drunkards or even children like William Hogarth’s The Shrimp Merchant. Rarely, artists make them self-portraits where they are seen smiling with their teeth (Rembrandt, Antoine Watteau, Georges de La Tour) but Colin Jones considers this as a tribute to Democritus, where the furious laughter echoes the madness of the (As on the canvas of Antoine Coypel representing the ancient philosopher). It should also be noted that the deficient hygiene of the time spoils the teeth and often makes them lose before the age of 40 years: to keep the mouth closed and to control his smile answers therefore a practical necessity. Nevertheless, under the leadership of Pierre Fauchard, dentistry progressed in the eighteenth century. The canvas of Vigée Le Brun shocks thus because it transgresses the social conventions of its time which demands a mastery of its body, art being only the reflection. Subsequently, the democratization of medicine and the possibility of keeping healthy and white teeth allows the smile to be displayed.

The first retrospective of his work in France takes place from September 2015 to January 11, 2016 at the Grand Palais in Paris. Accompanied by films and documentaries, the painter Marie-Antoinette appears in all its complexity.