One of the most famous and well-respected portrait painters in 18th-century France, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun achieved remarkable success. With supreme technical skills, and an ability to empathise with her sitters and thus capture them in new lights, she quickly became a favourite at the royal court of Versailles.
Forced to flee France following the outbreak of revolution in 1789, Vigée Le Brun found continued success across Europe: she was elected to art academies across 10 cities and was a favourite of royal patrons across the continent.
Here are 10 facts about one of history’s most successful female portrait painters, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.
1. She was painting portraits professionally by her early teens
Born in Paris in 1755, Élisabeth Louise Vigée was sent to a convent aged 5. Her father was a portrait painter and it’s believed she first had instruction from him as a child: he died when she was just 12 years old.
Denied formal training, she relied on contacts and her innate skill to generate clients, and by the time she was in her early teens, she was painting portraits for her patrons. She became a member of the Académie de Saint-Luc in 1774, admitted only after they unwittingly exhibited her works at one of their salons.
2. She married an art dealer
In 1776, aged 20, Elisabeth married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, a painter and art dealer based in Paris. Although she was going from success to success on her own merits, Le Brun’s contacts and wealth helped fund more exhibitions of her work, and gave her greater scope to paint portraits of the nobility. The couple had a daughter, Jeanne, who was known as Julie.
3. She was a favourite of Marie Antoinette
As she became increasingly well-known, Vigée Le Brun found herself with a new patron: Queen Marie Antoinette of France. Whilst she was never granted any official titles, Vigée Le Brun painted over 30 portraits of the queen and her family, often with a relatively intimate feel to them.
Her 1783 painting, Marie-Antoinette in a Muslin Dress, shocked many as it pictured the queen in a simple, informal white cotton gown rather than in full regalia. Portraits of the royal children and the queen were also used as a political tool, in an attempt to rehabilitate Marie Antoinette’s image.
4. She became a member of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture
Despite her successes, Vigée Le Brun was initially denied entry to the prestigious Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture because her husband was an art dealer, which violated their rules. It was only after King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette applied pressure to the Académie that they changed their decision.
Vigée Le Brun was one of only 15 women to be admitted to the Académie in the years between 1648 and 1793.
5. She painted almost all of the leading women at Versailles
As a favourite artist of the queen, Vigée Le Brun became increasingly sought after by the women at Versailles. As well as the royal family, she painted leading courtiers, the wives of statesmen and even some of the statesmen themselves.
Vigée Le Brun was also particularly used to paint ‘mother and daughter’ portraits: she completed several self-portraits of herself and her daughter Julie.
6. She fled into exile when the French Revolution arrived
When the royal family were arrested in October 1789, Vigée Le Brun and her daughter Julie fled France, fearing for their safety. Whilst their close connections to the royals had served them well thus far, all of a sudden it became clear that now, they would prove to put the family in an extremely precarious position.
Her husband, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre, remained in Paris and defended claims that his wife had fled France, instead stating she had travelled to Italy to ‘instruct and improve herself’ and her painting. There may have been some truth in that: Vigée Le Brun certainly made the most of her time abroad.
7. She was elected to 10 prestigious art academies
The same year she left France, 1789, Vigée Le Brun was elected to the Academy in Parma, and subsequently found herself a member of academies in Rome and St Petersburg, amongst others.
8. She painted the royal families of Europe
The emotional tenderness of Vigée Le Brun’s portraits, combined with her ability to connect with her female sitters in a way male portrait artists seemingly often failed to do, led Vigée Le Brun’s work to be extremely popular amongst noblewomen.
On her travels, Vigée Le Brun painted the Queen of Naples, Maria Carolina (who was also Marie Antoinette’s sister) and her family, several Austrian princesses, the former King of Poland and the grand-daughters of Catherine the Great, as well as Emma Hamilton, the mistress of Admiral Nelson. She was due to paint Empress Catherine herself, but Catherine died before she could sit for Vigée Le Brun.
9. She was removed from a list of counter-revolutionaries in 1802
Vigée Le Brun had partly been forced to leave France after a sustained press campaign smearing her name and highlighting her close associations with Marie Antoinette.
With the help of her husband, friends and wider family, her name was removed from the list of counter-revolutionary emigres, allowing Vigée Le Brun to return to Paris for the first time in 13 years.
10. Her career carried on well into her old age
In the early 19th century, Vigée Le Brun purchased a house in Louveciennes, and she subsequently divided her time between there and Paris. Her work was exhibited in the Paris Salon regularly until 1824.
She eventually died at the age of 86, in 1842, predeceased by both her husband and daughter.