Self-Portrait, 1790.  Oil on canvas, approximately 39" by 32". Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Self-Portrait, 1790.  Oil on canvas, approximately 39″ by 32″. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Marie-Louise-Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun (1755-1842) was born of humble parentage to Jeanne Massin and the portraitist Louis Vigee.  Like Angelica Kauffmann, Vigee-Le Brun was a precocious artist whose talent was discovered and encouraged at a young age.  Together, these female artists stood out among their 18th century peers of both genders.

Vigee-Le Brun lost her father when she was twelve, forcing her mother to remarry for economic neccesity.  By the time she was 15, Vigee-Le Brun had not only established her own studio, but also was attracting prestigious sitters — and a reputation as a brilliant portraitist.

In 1776, she married the leading art dealer in Paris, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun.  Two years later – at 23 years old – she was summoned to Versailles to paint the portrait of Queen Marie Antoinette.  Her portrait so delighted the Queen that Vigee-Le Brun became a court artist who was well compensated and promoted by the Queen.  Although Mssr. Le Brun’s profession technically disqualified Elisabeth from membership in the prestigious Academie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture, Marie Antoinette’s intervention secured the young painter’s admission, making Elizabeth one of four female artists so honored.

In 1787, she showed at the Paris Salon, where her gender caused a commotion.

Marie Antoinette and Her Children

Over the next decade, Elisabeth painted 30 or so portraits of the Queen, of which the most famous is Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787).

One of the last portraits created by Vigee-Le Brun before the Queen was imprisoned and executed during the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette is shown as unidealized and human, more mother than matriarch.  The portrait was intended to belie public perception that the Queen was extravagant, out of touch with her subjects, and immoral.

The pyramidal composition centers Marie Antoinette as its focus, lovingly surrounded by her children:

  • Maria Therese Charlotte is nestled into her mother’s arm on the left;
  • Louis Joseph, the dauphin, or oldest son of the King of France, is on the right and points to the empty cradle of a recently deceased sibling; and
  • Louis Charles, the Duke of Normandy and the second dauphin.

Typical of Vigee-Le Brun portraits, this work shows the painter’s technical prowess and sympathy with her sitters.

Above: Marie Antoinette and Her Children, 1787. Oil on canvas, approximately 41″ by 32″.  Chateau de Versailles, Verailles. 

Self Portrait with Julie

In the years preceding the French Revolution, Vigee-Le Brun was heavily criticized in the anti-establishment press. Retrospectively, this vitriol was incited by a host of factors: her extensive success in a male-dominated profession; her frequent commissions from the courts of Europe; and her comport with upper stratums of society. Due to her closeness with the French monarchy, Vigee-Le Brun was also accused of being a bourgeois and a social climber.

In 1789 after the Revolution, Vigee-Le Brun fled Paris with her daughter, Julie, and moved to Italy where she painted Self Portrait with Julie.

A touching tribute to mother-daughter love, Self Portrait with Julie is at once unidealized and dignified.  The artist herself recalls allegorical or mythological figures, while nine year old Julie radiates tenderness and a desire for maternal protection.

In 1794, she returned to Paris to learn that she was no longer a citizen and to divorce her husband. She was subsequently welcomed in other countires including Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, England and Russia, where she became a patron of Czarina Catherine II.

Self-Portrait with Julie, 1789.  Oil on canvas, approximately 48″ by 75″.  Musee du Louvre, Paris.

Remarkably, she received five honorary memberships in these countries’ art academies. Even more remarkably, her complete oeuvre of 800 paintings (of which 600 were portraits) permitted her to amass a considerable fortune, making her a rarity among female artists… then and today.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition, Vigee-Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France, will be open until May 15, 2016.

 Like reading about the remarkable feats of women artists?

Explore this survey of ten female artists who rocked the art history world from the 16th to 20th centures.