One of France’s preeminent 18th-century portrait painters, Elisabeth Vigee-le Brun lived a period of dramatic political change. Elisabeth is best known for her portraits of Marie Antoinette and other European royals. Encouraging a novel intimacy with her subjects, Elisabeth's portraits had a naturalistic style that put them well ahead of their time.
Born in Paris on the 13th of Apil 1755, Élisabeth Louise Vigée was the daughter of Louis and Jeanne Vigee (nee Maissinin). Louis was a pastel portraitist and Jeanne was a hairdresser. Both parents professions helped Elisabeth in her career. Louis gave his daughter art instruction while Jeanne introduced her to aristocratic clientele.
At the age of five, Elisabeth went to a convent for schooling and returned at the age of 11. Back home with her family, Elisabeth spent a great deal of time in her father’s studio. Here she learned the craft of an artist and mixed with her father’s artist friends. Louis died suddenly when Elisabeth was 12. This loss devastated Elisabeth and the Vigee family struggled to survive without Louis' income. Out of financial necessity, Jeanne remarried to a jeweller named Jacques-François Le Sèvre, a decision Elisabeth resented.
As a young adult, Elisabeth was under great pressure to bring money into the family home she shared with her mother, step-father, and brother. Despite having no formal training, Elisabeth painted a stunning portrait of her brother in 1774 that she used to attract potential clients. Like other female artists denied an apprenticeship, Elisabeth study the old masters at the Louvre. But Elisabeth’s early commissions got her in trouble with artists guild, The Academy of Saint Luc, to who she was not paying dues. So, aged 19, Elisabeth applied to and became a member of one of the most prestigious art Academies in Paris.
In 1776, with a reputation as a talented portraitist, Elisabeth married art dealer, Jean-Baptiste Le Brun. Elisabeth soon had a daughter named Julie and established herself as a prominent figure in the aristocratic social life of Paris. The Queen of France, Marie Antoinette hired 23-year-old Elisabeth to paint her portrait. The painting was a gift for the Queen’s mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. Up to now, neither the Empress not the Queen had liked any of the portraits painted of Marie Antoinette.
Elisabeth rose to the challenge and painted a portrait of Marie Antoinette in extravagant court dress. The Queen and Empress were so impressed that Elisabeth became the Queen's unofficial portraitist for the next decade. In all, Elisabeth painted two state portraits and 30 informal portraits of the Queen. Portrait sittings were long and tedious affairs, but Elisabeth and Marie Antoinette enjoyed each other’s company. While the daughter of an artist and a hairdresser could not be friends with a queen in public, the pair developed an intimate bond.
With the help of her royal ally, Elisabeth was admitted to the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. With her new prestigious position at the Academy and the friendship of the Queen, Elisabeth’s career flourished. Between 1784 and 1789, Elisabeth exhibited around fifty portraits at the annual Royal Salons. Her fees rose dramatically. Holding Salons at her home and rubbing shoulders with aristocratic art lovers, Elisabeth’s star continued to rise. By the mid-1780s, Elisabeth was the highest paid portraitist in Paris.
Yet, Elisabeth’s lifestyle and royal connection were at odds with France’s turn towards revolution. On October 5th, 1789, when the people of France rioted and forced King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to flee, Elisabeth had to take sides. She chose the monarchy and went into exile.
Travelling in disguise, Elisabeth took Julie and her governess to Italy where she tried to pick up where she had left off. The first painting Elisabeth painted in Italy was a self-portrait for the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. This clever move officially inducted Elisabeth into the canon of great European artists.
Elisabeth conducted a “Grand Tour” of Italy and used her exile as an opportunity to improve her artistic skills. Before long, Elisabeth was painting the aristocratic leaders of Italy and enjoying a lifestyle much like the one she had in France. Among Elisabeth’s new clients was Queen Marie Caroline of Naples, the sister of Marie Antoinette.
Elisabeth then took her trade to Austria where her reputation proceeded her. Elisabeth loved Vienna. It was here that she met and painted Count Paul Andreevich Shouval, Russian ambassador to Vienna, who convinced her to visit St Petersburg. With the Count’s introduction, Elisabeth made the three-month journey from Vienna to St Petersburg. On arrival, Catharine the Great became Elisabeth's patron.
Elisabeth felt at home at Catharine’s court because it so resembled French court before the revolution. In 1801 Elisabeth returned to France but Julie, who was by this time a young woman, stayed behind. Elisabeth had forbidden Julie from marrying a Russian diplomat and her decision to stay in Russia broke Elisabeth’s heart. Mother and daughter were estranged for two decades.
Elisabeth’s decision to leave France during the French Revolution had major consequences. Like others who waited out the revolution in exile, Elisabeth was declared legally dead in France and her property was seized by the state. To avoid having his own property seized, Jean-Baptiste divorced Elisabeth in 1794.
It was only after a sustained campaign by Jean-Baptiste and other family members that Elisabeth was finally able to return to France. Post-revolution Paris was like a different country to the one Elisabeth had left behind and she couldn’t settle in her homeland.
Eventually Elisabeth bought a country house in France where she painted well into old age. In 1813, Jean-Baptiste died and in 1819 Julie died, having never re-established contact with her mother. In 1820, Elisabeth’s beloved brother Etienne died too. Elisabeth painted through her grief and published her memoirs between 1835 and 1837. She died aged 86 in 1842, leaving behind a vast oeuvre of exquisite work.