Marie-Antoinette with the Rose (1783) by Louise Elisabeth Vigée-LebrunPalace of Versailles
Meet the painter who shocked the 18th-century French art world
When you hear the name Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, the next name that may come to mind is that of Marie Antoinette. Vigée Le Brun may have been a self-made artist in a male-dominated world, but that didn't stop her from making waves in the art world in 18th-century France. She is most remembered for her 30 portraits of the famed Queen, but her work expanded far beyond this, creating around 660 portraits and 200 landscapes during her career.
Marie-Antoinette (after 1783) by after Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le BrunNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Vigée Le Brun was born in Paris in 1755 with artistic blood running through her veins; her father, Louis Vigée, was a portraitist and fan painter and her mother Jeanne was a hairdresser. She began her training in portraiture at a young age but had to be self-taught, as her gender meant she wasn’t accepted into formal training. Her father taught her the rudiments and she also spent time studying the artistry of pictures on display in Paris’s galleries, most notably taking inspiration from the works of the Flemish Masters.
Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France (1779/1788) by Anonymous, after Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le BrunPalace of Versailles
By her teens she was already painting professionally, although the studio she worked from was seized when she was discovered to be operating without a license. Undeterred, she applied to the Académie de Saint-Luc, a painter’s guild that mostly catered to those who lacked the money or rich patrons to be members of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, France’s premier art institution. She was made a member in 1774.
Comtesse de la Châtre (Marie Charlotte Louise Perrette Aglaé Bontemps, 1762–1848) (1789) by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le BrunThe Metropolitan Museum of Art
Not long later she married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, a painter and art dealer whose great-great-uncle, Charles Le Brun, was the first director of the Académie Royale under Louis XIV. Through her exhibits at their home and the Hôtel de Lubert, as well as her new familial ties, she made numerous important contacts, soon being regularly commissioned to paint portraits of many a noble.
Self-Portrait (c. 1781) by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le BrunKimbell Art Museum
Vigée Le Brun’s work was popular for the way she flattered her sitters, making them appear naturally glamorous. She caught the eye of Marie Antoinette, who became one of the artist’s best customers—but not without scandal. Vigée Le Brun painted over 30 portraits of the Queen and her family, but the one that caused the biggest stir is one that is sometimes referred to as Marie-Antoinette in a Muslin Dress (below). It showed the royal in a simple, loose-fitting cotton dress that caused an uproar for its informality and inelegance, and the Queen’s decision to be shown that way. The painting was removed from the Salon shortly after and Vigée Le Brun quickly painted a similar one, this time with the Queen dressed in a classic blue-grey silk dress. The presentation of this second portrait was a big success and several replicas of it were made.
Elisabeth-Philippe-Marie-Hélène de France, said Madame Elisabeth (1782) by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le BrunPalace of Versailles
Despite the scandal, Marie Antoinette’s influence had a positive result on Vigée Le Brun’s career. Vigée Le Brun had tried to apply for a membership to the Académie Royale, but was refused because her husband was an art dealer, which broke the rules of admission. Luckily for Vigée Le Brunn, her number one fan Marie Antoinette persuaded her husband, Louis XVI, to overrule this. The portraitist was made a member in 1783, claiming one of the four spots available for women.
Self-Portrait with Her Daughter, Julie (1780-1819) (18th Century) by Louise-Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun (1755-1842)Original Source: Paris, musée du Louvre
Later, in 1787, Vigée Le Brun again sent shockwaves through the Parisian art world for daring to paint something that no other artist would: a smile. The self-portrait she debuted at the Paris Salon showed her and her daughter, Julie, in a maternal embrace with Vigée Le Brun’s mouth parted and her teeth showing. It was seen as unconventional and controversial as it went against the accepted close-lipped rules of French art.
Marie-Antoinette de Lorraine-Habsbourg, queen of France, and her children (1787) by Elisabeth Louise Vigée-LebrunPalace of Versailles
In 1789, the French Revolution was in full swing, and the Royal Family was arrested, forcing Vigée Le Brun to flee to France with her daughter for fears for their safety. During this time she lived in Italy, Austria, Russia and Germany and continued painting subjects from the highest echelons of society. In Russia especially the French aesthetic was much admired, but Vigée Le Brun’s style was sometimes considered too revealing: Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia, was shocked by the bare skin depicted on the arms of her granddaughters and Vigée Le Brun was forced to add sleeves. Overall, the artist was widely appreciated, and she was elected to Italy’s Academy in Parma, Accademia di San Luca in Rome and was made a member of the Academy of Fine Arts of Saint Petersburg.
Madame Grand (Noël Catherine Vorlée, 1761–1835) (1783) by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le BrunThe Metropolitan Museum of Art
Eventually Vigée Le Brun was able to return to her home of France when a successful campaign by her family had her name removed from a list of counter-revolutionary émigrés (those who had “escaped revolutionary justice”). She continued to travel, but eventually settled down in Louveciennes, in the suburbs of Paris.
Self-Portrait (ca. 1783) by Marie-Gabrielle CapetThe National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo
She died in 1842, at the age of 86 having left behind an impressive oeuvre that documented some of the most famous faces of history and a legacy of breaking taboos imposed on both artists and women.
Louise-Marie-Adélaïde de Bourbon-Penthièvre, duchess of Orléans (1789) by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le BrunPalace of Versailles