Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antionette’s favorite artist and the woman who changed portrait painting (part 1)

May 4, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

Élisabeth Vigée (later Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun) painted her first exhibited portrait sometime before 1770 — a picture of her younger brother Étienne Vigée, who would later become a playwright and man of letters. She had not yet reached her fifteenth birthday.

Élisebeth’s early life was one of extraordinary good fortune.

— She had a talent for portrait painting and, more importantly, an inclination to use and develop that talent.

— She had a father who was also an artist, who doted on her, and who taught and encouraged her.

— Because of her father’s position, she had great teachers from a very early age.

— The artistic rage of her time was portrait painting. Everyone who was anyone wanted a portrait.

By the time she was fifteen (her father died when she was twelve, leaving her devasted with grief), she was supporting her family with so many portrait commissions that she barely had time to finish them. Her ascension as a French artist reached its highest levels when she became the favorite of Marie Antoinette while she was still in her twenties. She would paint more than 50 portraits of the queen, her husband, and family.

When she was 20, she married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, also a painter as well as an art dealer and curator. Despite the fact that in her memoirs later in life Élisabeth had few good things to say about her husband, Le Brun opened many doors for her and most crucially took her with him on a trip to Flanders and the Netherlands in 1781. There she saw many of the painting of the Dutch masters and especially those of Peter Paul Rubens.

Determined to apply the techniques that she had observed in the Netherlands, she returned to Paris and executed a self-portrait (Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1782, seen here) on wood rather than canvas that broke many of the conventions of portrait painting and caused a minor scandal. The work turned out to be highly popular, however, and she received many requests from patrons who wanted the same look she exhibited in that painting.

Her association with Marie Antionette, which had been so important to her reputation and income, became a detriment to her safety in 1789 when a mob stormed the Bastille, setting in motion the French Revolution. Élisabeth fled France with her daughter Julie when the royals were arrested and began a 12-year sojourn that took her around Europe and highlighted her fame.

That will story will be in part 2.

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