Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antionette’s favorite artist and the woman who changed portrait painting (part 2)

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

When Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun fled Paris with her small daughter in October 1789, she felt that her life might be in danger — and she was probably right. Élisabeth had been the unofficial portraitist for the French royal family. She had painted more than 50 portraits of them and was most especially noted for her paintings of the hated Marie Antionette.

The king, queen, and family had been arrested by the revolutionary powers that held sway in France. The Terror had not yet begun, but many who were there saw it coming. Élisabeth was one of them. So, she set out on an arduous stagecoach journey to Italy, leaving behind her husband, many paintings, and a rich clientele.

What she had with her, in addition to her daughter and some possessions, were her reputation and, most importantly, her talent.

Élisabeth spent the next two years in various cities in Italy: Venice, Parma, Florence, and Rome among them. She taught her school of painting and again had the rich and famous for clients. Among them was Lady Emma Hamilton, the beautiful and bold mistress of Lord Nelson, who sat for several portraits and served as a model for Elisabeth to try various genres of painting

In the mid-1790s, Èlisabeth traveled and lived in Austria and the German provinces, again painting portraits of those well-heeled enough to pay her prices. She continued to develop her style and technique. She produced her own pigments and paints and thus put colors on her canvasses that no other artist could match. She continued to travel north, and in 1795 she found herself in Russia, where she stayed for six years. Catherine the Great commissioned her to paint a portrait of her beloved granddaughters but was highly displeased with the result, complaining that the girls’ nearly sleeveless dresses showed too much skin. Èlisabeth repainted the portrait.

By 1801, Èlisabeth was ready to return home to Paris, and France was ready to have her. After 12 years of exile, she found that France was less enthralled by her work than when she left. She was still able to receive commissions, and she still traveled widely because of her reputation. But the social structures had changed as well, and she found Paris less inviting. She purchased a house outside of Paris and continued to paint and exhibit her work.

When she passed the age of 70, she composed a three-volume autobiography of her life, and she died in 1842 at the age of 86. During her life she produced 660 portraits and 200 landscapes, and today they hang in galleries and museums around the world.

An excellent video about her life is on Amazon Video and free to Amazon Prime members.

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