Women in History: Marie-Louise-Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun (1755-1842)

Marie-Louise-Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun was a French painter of the 18th Century who was known for her flattering portraits of women. She painted several famous and influential figures such as Marie Antoinette, the Duchess of Polignac, Princesse de Lamballe, Duchesse d’Orleans, Comte de Vaudreuil, Giovanni Paisiello, Empress Catherine II, and the Prince of Wales just to name a few. Vigee-Lebrun was a Rococo painter who had a penchant for lighthearted and witty paintings done in bright pastels, gold, and curves and expressed neoclassical techniques within her work. She disliked the fashion of the time so she often dressed her female subjects in simple dresses (instead of a hoop skirt) with a draped scarf (she was known for her use of drapery), wearing no powder and with bangs swept across the forehead.

Though Vigee-Lebrun painted with special attention to detail, she was the Vogue of her time and tended to Photoshop her female subjects. She knew what women strove and desired to look like and so took it upon herself to erase any perceived imperfections. Vigee-Lebrun did not do the same for her male subjects. Her male subjects were painted in more exact detail, most notably in the hands. In Vigee-Lebrun’s female portraits, the hands were noticeably soft, lacking detail and the perspective was incorrect, but in her male portraits, the hands were detailed, realistic and reflected her male subjects’ profession (e.g. rich = soft and unblemished, military = calloused). Her male portraits also expressed her subjects’ true personalities instead of veiling their expressions through a perceived sense of aesthetic perfection. Vigee-Leburn painted an estimated 900 paints within her lifetime, 600 of which were portraits.

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Madame Elisabeth de France.
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Julie Le Brun (her daughter).
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Peace Bringing Back Abundance.
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Marie Antoinette.
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Comte de Vaudreuil.
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Alexandre Charles Emmanuel de Crussol–Florensac.

Vigee-Lebrun began drawing and painting when she was a young girl. Her father was an artist himself and was vastly pleased with Vigee-Lebrun’s interest in the arts. He gave her lessons for a brief a time, but his teachings were cut short by his death. To cope with her grief, Vigee-Lebrun threw herself into painting and sought lessons wherever she could. Vigee-Lebrun quickly developed an artistic reputation. As a teenager, she managed to provide for herself, her mother and brother through the sale of her paintings, but it was not always easy. To help alleviate her burden, her mother remarried a jeweler named Jacques Franeois Le Sevre. Le Sevre was a miserly and stingy man. He demanded that Vigee-Lebrun give him all of her commissions, and it is believed that she complied with his demands in fear of him retaliating against her mother (though Vigee-Lebrun herself admitted that she never cared much about money).

In 1774, Vigee-Lebrun’s art studio was seized by the officers of the Chatelet. At the time, it was illegal to practice without a license. Vigee-Lebrun applied to the Academie de Saint Luc and was accepted. A few years later, Vigee-Lebrun applied to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture as a painter of historical allegory. It was almost unheard of for a female painter to be categorized as a historical allegorist instead of as a portraitist so she was met with resistance from the Director of the Académie, but a direct order from King Louis XVI ensured her acceptance (she was friends with Marie Antoinette at the time).

In 1775, Vigee-Lebrun met her future husband, Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun. Le Brun was an art dealer who often loaned paintings to Vigee-Lebrun so that she could copy them. He proposed to her in 1776, but she was not interested. She felt financially secure and so felt no pressure to marry. Her mother, however, believed that Le Brun was rich and strongly encouraged her daughter to marry him. Her step-father was becoming increasingly hard to live with so Vigee-Lebrun caved to her mother’s wishes and married Le Brun. At first, their marriage was a secret. Le Brun had an obligation to another young lady, and he had yet to break it off with her. Whilst Vigee-Lebrun was secretly married, her friends warned her off from marrying Le Brun telling her that she would be better off drowning herself. Vigge-Lebrun thought nothing of their warnings but soon learned first hand that Le Burn was a heavy gambler. Le Burn would come to collect all of Vigee-Lebrun’s commissions and lose most of it in gambling. Vigee-Lebrun would see virtually none of her vast earnings.

After Le Brun and Vigee-Lebrun’s marriage came to light, they bought a hotel called the Hotel de Lubert and converted it into Vigee-Lebrun’s salon. Hotel de Lubert became one of the most fashionable pre-revolutionary salons in Paris, and was a target for vandals when Vigee-Lebrun’s reputation was ruined by false allegations of adultery. Vigee-Lebrun’s reputation was so tarnished, in fact, and because of her friendship with Marie Antoinette, that when the Palace of Versailles was invaded, she was terrified that the people would target her so she fled the country with her daughter and toured Europe. She traveled through Italy, Russia, Austria and Britain, and while she was away, she was listed as an emigres in Paris and lost all rights as a French citizen. This meant that all Le Brun properties could be confiscated by the Revolutionary government. In order to protect himself and retain his properties, Le Brun claimed dissertation and divorced his wife.

Vigee-Lebrun eventually returned to France several years later. She returned to her ex-husband (but they did not remarry), settled his debts and bought Hotel de Lubert from him. She lived in France on and off for the next forty years and died in her Paris apartment in 1842 at the age of 86. Her probable cause of death was arteriosclerosis.

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