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A series of Illustrated Monographs
Madame Vigee Le Brun
Bates and Gould Company, Boston
Illustrated with ten painting reproductions
The Art of Vigee Le Brun [Period Art Critiques]
Descriptions of the Plates
Vigee Le Brun Bibliography
Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigee, better known under her married name of Le Brun, and generally spoken of as Madame Vigee Le Brun, was born in Paris on April 16, 1755. Her father, Louis Vigee, was a pastel painter of moderate talent, devoted to his art and always ready to commend and encourage his daughter's talent. In those 'Souvenirs' in which Madame Vigee Le Brun has recorded the incidents of her life, she tells us that her love for painting bad already declared itself when, as a child of six, she was sent to a convent school, where she was in constant disgrace with her teachers because she decorated her copy books and those of her schoolmates, and even the walls of the dormitory, with faces and landscapes in colored chalks. On one occasion, when at home on a holiday, she drew by lamplight a vigorous little sketch of the bead of a man, which so delighted her father that he exclaimed, "You will be a painter, my child, if ever there was one" These words Elisabeth Vigee never forgot, and that childish drawing, made when she was but seven or eight years old, was cherished by her as long' as she lived.
These were happy days for the little girl; she spent many hours in her father's studio experimenting to her heart's content with his crayons, and dutifully accompanied her mother, who, we are told, was "good to the point of austerity," to high mass and to evening prayer. She took pride in the cleverness of her brother, three years younger than herself, and assures us with naive frankness that he was much prettier than she. Indeed, at that time ]Elisabeth, from her own account, was far from beautiful; her eyes, she says, were deepset, her face was pale and thin, and, moreover, she was growing so fast that she could not hold herself erect.
All this was a trial to her mother, who showed a marked preference for her younger child, whom she spoiled with indulgences, whereas with Elisabeth she was strict and even severe. The father's love and devotion, however, were unremitting, and in return Elisabeth lavished upon him the tenderest affection. Her grief, therefore, was great when, in May, I768, her father died. She was then thirteen years old. "So heartbroken was I," she writes, "that it was long before I felt equal to taking up my pencil again. Doyen used to come to see us sometimes, and as he had been my father's best friend his visits were a comfort. It was he who urged me to resume the occupation I loved, and in which, to tell the truth, I found the only consolation for my grief."
It was at this time that Elisabeth began to paint from nature. Several portraits, in pastels and in oils, were accomplished, and to improve herself she copied some of Rubens's, Rembrandt's, and Van Dyck's pictures, and several heads of young girls by Greuze which she thought offered a good lesson in flesh painting.
She was already beginning to be noticeable for the beauty which was one of her charms in after-years, and was even now a source of gratification to her mother, who saw with pride the plain, pale-faced child developing into a fair and blooming young woman. Her progress in art was rapid, she was already talked about to some extent, and her name became known to various painters prominent in that day, among whom was Joseph Vernet. He gave her cordial encouragement and earnestly advised her to follow no school system, but to study only the works of the great Italian and Flemish masters, and, above all, to turn to nature" the first and best of all teachers." This counsel, Elisabeth says, she faithfully followed, and was never indebted to any one master for her instruction.
At this time Elisabeth's home in Paris was in the rue Saint Honore opposite the terrace of the Palais Royal, which her windows overlooked. In the garden of the palace she frequently saw the Duchesse de Chartres walking with her ladies in waiting, and before long the young girl discovered that she herself was in her turn, and with the kindliest interest, observed by the duchess, who finally sent for her and asked her to paint her portrait, recommending her also to many of the court ladies, who forthwith visited the studio in the rue Saint Honore and commissioned Elisabeth to paint their portraits. No doubt the youth and beauty of the artist did much towards making her the fashion she now became, and as she was charming in manner as well as fair of face, and was, moreover, gifted with a quick and ready wit, many of the gay young courtiers who became her sitters openly expressed their admiration, somewhat to her annoyance. "It may readily be supposed," she writes, "that some admirers of my face gave me commissions to paint theirs in the fond hope that they might in this way win my good graces; but I was so absorbed in my art that nothing could distract me from it, and as soon as I detected any inclination on the part of the gentlemen who sat for me to make sheep's eyes at me, I used to paint them looking in another direction, and then at the least movement of their pupils towards me I would cry, 'Now I am doing the eyes!' This was, of course, rather trying to them, and my mother, who was always present, used to laugh quietly to herself."
These were busy days for the young artist, who found her brush in such demand that she could with difficulty execute the commissions which poured in upon her. On Sundays and saints' days she allowed herself a little rest, and on those occasions, after hearing high mass, she tells how her mother and stepfather would take her to walk in the beautiful gardens of the Palais Royal, where the fashionable world, arrayed in its best, was wont to disport itself, and where her beauty attracted much attention. At that time the opera house was close to the palace, and at half past eight on summer evenings, when the performance was over, every one adjourned to the gardens, where singing and instrumental music were continued until the small hours of the morning. Paris was light-hearted and careless in those years preceding the terrible Revolution of 1789, so soon to break forth in all its horrors, but so little suspected then by the frivolous world of fashion.
In the autumn Of 1774, when she was nineteen, she was elected a member of the Academy of St. Luke. Soon after this she became acquainted with Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, a well-known picture dealer who was looked I upon in that day as one of the first connoisseurs of paintings in Europe. He showed conspicuous attention to the young girl, inviting her to visit his rare collection of works of the old masters, and lending her many of his most precious specimens in order that she might copy them. At the end of six months he asked for her hand in marriage, and Elisabeth, although far from wishing to become his wife, was persuaded after much indecision and many misgivings to accept his offer, led thereto by the urgent desire of her mother, and still more induced by her own longing to escape from the misery of living with her stepfather. "But so little did I feel inclined to sacrifice my liberty," she writes, "that even on the way to church I kept saying to myself: 'Shall I say yes, or shall I say "no"?' Alas," she adds , "I said 'yes,' and thereby merely exchanged present troubles for others.
In short, Le Brun, a man many years older than she, although agreeable enough in manner, proved a spendthrift and a dissipated gambler, who, having made way with his own fortune, felt no scruples in spending all the earnings of his young wife, whom he seems to have married in order to obtain an easy means of support. At his request the marriage was for some time kept secret, and many friends of the bride's, unaware that the event had been consummated, took occasion to warn her against a step which they well knew would cause her nothing but unhappiness. Alas, that these warnings should have come too late! Elisabeth Vigee was already Madame Le Brun, and only too soon did she learn for herself that the misery predicted for her by her friends was indeed hers. Fortunately, absorption in her art and a naturally buoyant disposition enabled her to bear her lot.
At the desire of her husband that their income should be increased she now consented to give lessons in painting, but this expenditure of her time and strength was so distasteful to her that she soon abandoned it for her beloved portrait painting. "The number of portraits I painted at this time," she says, " was really Prodigious."
"Le Brun, the model and the painter of beauty,
But all these pleasures of gratified vanity were, she assures us, as nothing compared with the joy she felt when in 1780 her child was born - the little girl, Jeanne Julie Louise, whom she has represented in more than one of her pictures clasped in her own loving embrace.
In 1779 Madame Vigee Le Brun painted the first of her many portraits of Queen Marie Antoinette, whose favorite painter she became and with whom she was always on a footing of affectionate intimacy. At the first sitting, it is true, the artist was somewhat intimidated by the imposing air of the queen, but this impression was soon dissipated by Marie Antoinette's graciousness, and we are told of the duets that were sung by the royal model and the painter at the close of the morning seance, for the queen dearly loved music and Madame Le Brun had a charming voice.
One day illness prevented Madame Le Brun from keeping her appointment at the palace, and when on the following morning she went to Versailles to make her apologies, she was coldly received by one of the chamberlains, who reminded her that the previous day had been that appointed for the sitting, and that as the queen was then about to o out to drive he was sure nothing could be arranged for that day. When admitted to the royal presence, however, she found the queen far more ready than the chamberlain to excuse her remissness. Upon learning that Madame Le Brun had been ill, and had come then only to offer apologies and to receive further commands, she begged the artist not to go, revoked the order for her carriage, and willingly gave Madame Le Brun a sitting. "I remember," says the painter, "that in my confusion, and my eagerness to make a suitable reply to all this kindness, I picked up my paint-box so excitedly that it upset, and all my brushes and crayons were spilled upon the floor! As I stooped to pick them up the queen said, 'Never mind, never mind,' and in spite of anything that I could say, she gathered them all up herself."
In 1782 Madame Le Brun accompanied her husband upon a business trip into Belgium and Holland. She writes enthusiastically of all that she saw in the way of art in those countries, and was so struck by the beauty of Rubens's picture 'Le chapeau de paille' (The Straw Hat), then in Antwerp, that she at once painted a portrait of herself in a similar style. The picture, which, like its prototype, is now in the National Gallery, London, added considerably to her reputation, and was the occasion, upon her return to Paris, of her being proposed by Joseph Verner as a member of the Royal Academy of Painting. This honor was conferred upon Madame Le Brun in 1783, and for her reception picture she painted 'Peace bringing Plenty' (Plate 10). As a member of the Academy she was now accorded the privilege of exhibiting her works at the Salon, a privilege which in those days belonged exclusively to academicians.
Madame Le Brun lived at this time in the rue de Clery , Paris, where her husband occupied large and richly furnished rooms in which he kept his valuable collection of pictures; she herself was relegated to a small anteroom and a simply furnished bedroom which served also for her drawing-room. There she received her numerous visitors, and gave her famous evening parties to which all were so eager to come that the little room was frequently crowded to overflowing; even marshals of France, she says, were obliged to sit on the floor for want of chairs! Great musicians furnished the music on these occasions, and famous actors took part in the impromptu charades given for the entertainment of the guests. At ten o'clock a simple supper was served, and at midnight the company dispersed. On one memorable occasion a repast after the manner of the ancient Greeks was devised, the idea for the entertainment being suggested to the hostess by her brother's reading of 'Anacharsis,' in which a Grecian dinner is minutely described. The cook was at once summoned and instructed how to prepare the viands, the ladies hastily arrayed themselves in Greek costumes, the materials for which were furnished by the studio belongings of Madame Le Brun, similar costumes were improvised for the men, Etruscan pottery was borrowed from one of the guests, hanging lamps were appropriately arranged, and at half past nine all was in readiness to surprise two late comers, the Comte de Vaudreuil and Monsieur Boutin, who upon entering the room found the assembled company grouped around the table singing Gluck's chorus, 'The God of Paphos,' and whose astonishment and enthusiasm knew no bounds. Reports of this novel entertainment spread all over Paris, and accounts of what was denounced as Madame Le Brun's lavish expenditure were grossly exaggerated. Twenty thousand francs, it was said, had been spent upon this famous Greek supper; from twenty thousand the sum grew to forty, then to sixty, and finally to eighty thousand. "In reality," writes Madame Le Brun, "the supper had occasioned an outlay of somewhat less than fifteen francs" (three dollars).
Such calumnies were deeply distressing to Madame Le Brun. As a matter of fact, her indifference to the luxuries attainable by money was marked. Her dress, she tells us, was of the simplest; except on state occasions she was habitually attired in white muslin or lawn dresses, and as the money she earned was invariably appropriated by her husband, it often transpired that she had no more than six francs which she could call her own.
Her 'Souvenirs' record a number of visits which she paid to various chateaux in the neighborhood of Paris, her hosts being the Prince de Conde, the Duc d'Orleans, the Comte de Vaudreuil, the Duc de Nivernais, Madame du Barry, and many other equally noted personages. While staying at Louveciennes, where Madame du Barry lived, unmistakable signs of the approaching Revolution made themselves felt. The news from Paris became more and more alarming, and when Madame Le Brun filled with forebodings, returned to her new home in the rue Gros Chenet she was subjected to repeated insults from the populace, daily becoming more desperate and unruly.
Upon the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789, horrified by the deeds of violence enacted daily about her, and terrified for the safety of herself and her child, she resolved to leave France and seek refuge in Italy, where she could pursue her art unmolested. Accordingly, at midnight of the fifth of October of that ill-omened year, having disguised herself in the rough garb of a working woman, she and her little daughter, accompanied by a governess, set off in the public coach, were safely conveyed beyond the French border, and, after passing through Switzerland, arrived in Italy. There the ' journey became almost a triumphal progress; everywhere the artist went the most flattering welcome was accorded her; at Bologna she was elected a member of the Academy of that place, at Florence she was asked to contribute her own portrait to the collection of artists' portraits in the Uffizi Gallery, and at Rome, where she was made a member of the Academy, the academicians presented her with the palette of the young French painter Drouais, who had lately died, and begged that in exchange she would allow them to have some of the brushes with which she was accustomed to work. The most distinguished society of Rome opened its doors to her and the most eminent people made her welcome.
After leaving Naples, a short stop was made in Rome before traveling to Perugia, Florence, Siena, Parma, Mantua, and finally to Venice, where she spent some time before going on to Verona, Milan, and Turin. From there she had planned to return to France, but upon learning of the grievous events which had taken place in Paris, and finding Turin filled with French refugees who had been driven from their country, the idea of returning home was relinquished and Vienna was decided upon instead.
In that city Madame Le Brun passed two years and a half, receiving flattering attention wherever she went, entering into the gay social life of the Austrian capital, and busying herself with her painting. Her stay there was saddened by the news received from Paris of the tragic fate of Louis XVI. and of Marie Antoinette, as well as of many of her friends and acquaintances who had met death on the scaffold. Return to France was now not to be thought of, and, desirous of adding to the fortune she had already acquired during her absence, Madame Le Brun decided to go to Russia, where she had many friends. Passing through Prague, Dresden, and Berlin, she finally reached St. Petersburg towards the end of July, I795. No reception could have been more gratifying than that accorded her upon her arrival in the Russian capital. A call from Count Esterhazy, the French ambassador, preceded her presentation to the Empress Catherine II., who received her with gracious kindness and ever after bestowed upon her marks of favor and regard.
Dinners and balls and entertainments of every description in the gay city of St. Petersburg followed each other in quick succession, until one wonders in reading the vivid account given in the 'Souvenirs' how time could have been found for the numerous portraits which Madame Le Brun executed while in Russia. The one she was to have painted of Catherine II. was never accomplished, owing to the death of the Empress in I796, but of the Empress Maria, wife of Catherine's son and successor, Paul I., she painted in the following year a full-length portrait, and innumerable titled people, men and women, sat before her easel. Finally, the honors shown her were crowned by her election as a member of the Academy of Arts.
Heart-sick and broken in health by her anxiety, Madame Le Brun resolved to leave St. Petersburg, and in October 1800, she took up her residence in Moscow, where she spent five months. At the end of that period she had grown so sad and ailing that not withstanding the entreaties of her friends and the many orders for portraits, sufficient in number to keep her occupied for many months to come, she made up her mind to return to her own country. Accordingly she journeyed back to St. Petersburg, then in a tumult of excitement over the assassination of the emperor, Paul I., bade adieu to the daughter who was still estranged from her, took leave of her many friends, and, having had a farewell audience of the new emperor, Alexander I., and his empress, who begged her to reconsider and remain in Russia, where they promised that everything possible should be done to restore her health, Madame Le Brun, touched though she was by so much kindness, reluctantly left the land where ,many happy years had been spent.
During a short stop in Berlin she met with the utmost consideration from Queen Louise of Prussia, who welcomed her at Potsdam and of whom she made two portraits in pastel. Before her departure from Berlin she was informed by the director of the Academy of Painting there that she had been chosen a member of that body.
In the summer of 1800 Madame Le Brun reached Paris, after an absence of twelve years. Her husband still occupied the house in the rue Gros Chenet, and on the occasion of his wife's return, elaborate preparations were there made to receive her. The staircase was lined with flowers, costly hangings of green and gold decorated her bedroom, and a crown of gold stars was placed over the bed. She seems to have been in no way unappreciative of these demonstrations, although she remarks, riot without a touch of bitterness, that she herself was obliged to pay for them with her own earnings.
But for Madame Le Brun herself, pretty and charming as she still was at forty-six, the same gay and social life which she had before enjoyed, and was accustomed to lead wherever she might be, was at once resumed. All who were left of her old friends flocked about her, and on the first occasion of her appearance in a concert-hall where the Parisian world was assembled, every one turned in her direction when she entered and heartily applauded the popular artist, even the musicians rapping on their violins with their bows.
The following year Madame Le Brun made a journey to England, a country she had long wished to see. Arrived in London, she was the object of much attention from the prominent people of the day, among them the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. As usual, her brush was in demand and her working time was quickly filled. Some jealousy seems to have been aroused among the English artists when it was learned that she had been commissioned to paint the Prince of Wales (afterwards George IV).
Her stay in England, which had been intended to last but a few months, had continued for nearly three years when news reached her that her daughter had arrived in Paris. She at once returned home, but her joy in again seeing her child seems sadly enough to have been in no way reciprocated by that daughter, who obstinately refused to live with her mother and insisted upon associating with companions whom Madame Le Brun could not admit to her house.
Only one more journey of any length is recorded in the 'Souvenirs.' This was to Switzerland in 1808-9, where she painted a number of landscapes, and at Coppet made a portrait of Madame de Stael. It was after her Swiss tour that, "having at length acquired," she says, "an inclination for rest," she purchased a country seat at Louveciennes, near Paris, which became, as her house in Paris had been, the center of a highly cultivated and brilliant circle.
Especially was this the case when, after the Napoleonic rule, the Bourbons under Louis XVIII. came once more into power.
In 1813 Monsieur Le Brun died an event which seems to have caused his wife genuine grief in spite of the trials to which he had subjected her during their years of married life. "This blow, however," she admits, "was far less than the cruel grief experienced at the death of my daughter. All the wrongdoings of the poor little thing were blotted out," she says; " I saw her as in the days of her childhood as I still see her. Alas! she was so young! Why did she not outlive me ?".
This was in 1819. In the following year Madame Le Brun's brother also died, and thus the last of her near ties was severed. She herself lived on until she had grown to be an old woman. To the end she took pleasure in the gay and social side of life, to the end she worked at her beloved art. Her time was divided between her apartment in the rue Saint-Lazare in Paris and her summer home at Louveciennes. Two nieces, Madame de Riviere, the daughter of her brother, and Eugenie Le Brun, afterwards Madame Tripier Le Franc, a niece of Monsieur Le Brun, were devoted in their care of her.
On March 30, I842, Madame Vigee Le Brun died very peacefully, in Paris, at the age of eighty-seven. According to her wish she was buried in the cemetery at Louveciennes.
Andre Michel, Jouin's "Chefs D Oeuvre"
There was so close, so intimate, a connection between this painter and her models that although she lived well into the nineteenth century, dying as recently as I842, she yet remains in the history of French art the portrait-painter par excellence of the court of Marie Antoinette. When, upon the approach of the Revolution, she fled from France, terrified by the first distant rumblings of that reign of terror, it may be said that her work had virtually been accomplished; for her best, her really significant, portraits all belong to her early years.
If we would catch in an attitude or in a look the moral reflection, so to speak of an epoch, if we would read the thoughts or divine the dreams harbored under the elaborate head-dresses of the great ladies of that day, or would guess the secrets of those hearts, sometimes full of tenderness, again light and flippant, concealed beneath transparent muslin fichus, it is to the works of Madame Vigee Le Brun that we must turn for answers to our queries.
The extraordinary vogue which the painter enjoyed in her lifetime has to some extent continued, so that her fame is distinct and lasting, but it would assuredly be but a doubtful tribute to her memory were her graceful figure to be placed upon any very lofty pedestal, and there made to assume any sort of imperious or magisterial attitude. Moreover, to apply the word "masterpiece" to any work of hers would be to make too free a use of a word the full significance of which has been somewhat weakened by the indiscriminate way in which eloquent chroniclers have applied it. Madame Le Brun would be the first to admonish us not to speak of her in any way but simply, and without undue abuse of superlatives.
To the artist herself it was a constant source of regret that because of the overwhelming number of orders for portraits which she received, in a word, by reason of her very success, she was debarred from devoting her talents to great "historical painting." Fortunately for her, however, as well as for us, she remained a portrait painter and a woman. Her aspirations for the "grand style" did not carry her away so far as to do violence to her natural bent, nor to change in any way the limpid purity of her gentle and graceful talent. Full of tender sentiment, as was in accordance with the prevailing taste of the age in which she lived, she yet never descended to silly sentimentality or flat insipidity. " I always tried so far as it lay in my power," she writes in her 'Souvenirs,' "to give to the women whom I painted characteristic attitudes and expressions; those who had no special individuality I painted in nonchalantly pensive positions." In the advice which she gives in regard to the painting of portraits she says: "Before beginning a portrait, engage your model in conversation, try several different poses, and finally select not only the most comfortable and natural, but the one that best suits his or her age and character; for all that helps to make the likeness better. When your sitter is a woman," she naively adds, "you should compliment her; tell her that she is beautiful; that her complexion is lovely, etc. This puts her into a good humor, and enables her to pose for you with more pleasure."
The charm and beauty with which in her secret desire to please her models Madame Le Brun invests her pictures is naturally apparent also in her portraits of herself. She was very pretty, and in her old age she used to recall with an amused sort of complacency the days when a crowd would gather round her in the street or at the theater, and when more than one admirer of her beauty would go to her to have his portrait painted, "in the hope of succeeding in pleasing her."
Neither in her art nor in her nature was there anything morbid about Madame Le Brun. If we examine the portrait which she has left us of herself and her daughter we shall find something more than light-hearted happiness in her delicate face; beneath and beyond all that there are the marks of courage. Life did not spare her its sorrows-sorrows that were keenly felt. She was as unhappily married as a woman well could be, but she kept intact that treasure of sweet temper and gay spirits which we see in her laughing eyes.
She was devoted to her art, painting, she tells us, "with fury;" and this absorbing passion was a refuge and a consolation to her in her hours of tribulation. Moreover, notwithstanding her sorrows, she had a keen love of life and of society as it was understood and enjoyed in France before the terrible year Of 1789, and in spite of her hours of sadness and melancholy she delighted in her great success as a woman and an artist.- From the French
Charles Blanc, Histoire Des Peintres
All the fairies gathered around the cradle of Elisabeth Vigee as at the birth of a little princess in the kingdom of art. One endowed her with beauty, another with wit; the fairy Grace presented her with a pencil and a palette. It is true that the fairy Marriage, who had not been invited, told her that she was to wed Monsieur Le Brun, the connoisseur in pictures; but to comfort her the fairy Travel promised to guide her from court to court, from academy to academy, from Paris to Rome, to St. Petersburg and to London, with her gaiety, her talents, and her easel before which all the sovereigns of Europe, as well as all those whom genius had crowned, should pose as subjects for her brush.
As a painter Madame Vigee Le Brun belongs wholly and distinctly to the eighteenth century; that is to say, to that period in the history of French art which was brought to an abrupt termination by the works of Louis David. So long as she followed the counsels of Joseph Vernet her pencil evinced a certain suppleness and her brush a certain force; but unfortunately she too often sought especially was this the case in her later works - o imitate Greuze, and weakened the likeness to her models by an exaggerated mistiness. She became the fashion so early in her life that she was debarred from any thorough study, and she was too frequently satisfied with a clever suggestiveness in her portraits.
Without estimating her so leniently as she was in her own day estimated by the French Academy, we nevertheless must needs assign Madame Le Brun an honorable place in the history of painting in France; for, notwithstanding revolutions and reforms, she continued to pursue, as long as she lived, the dainty and delicate art of Watteau, of Nattier, and of Fragonard-an art at once graceful and intrinsically French.-From the French
R. Pinset and J. Dauriac, Histoire Du Portrait en France
Madame Vigee Le Brun is one of the most charming painters of the French school. In their freshness, their life, and their spirit, her works are unsurpassed; and if they are open to criticism on account of a certain feminine softness and delicacy, the flesh-tones, by way of compensation, are of undeniable excellence. Moreover, in all the accessories of her portraits, to say nothing of the attitudes of her models, her skill was admirable. She possessed, too, one rare quality - a quality characteristic of only true artistsand that is universality; in other words, her portraits do not owe their beauty to the fact that they belong to any one special period, or because they bear the imprint of any definite epoch, but they are and always will be beautiful because of the universal truth they express.
The great French Revolution Of 1789 was destined to bring about changes not only in manners and in laws, but also in art. A new class of people naturally demands a new style of painting. Above all, for the reformation, the regeneration, of a school with whose principles the new order of things finds fault, a painter is needed whose intrepid spirit shall prompt him to boldly break with the prevailing tastes and traditions of the day. After the Revolution it was plain that a new school was about to come into being. All that was needed was a leader and that leader was found in Louis David. The exquisite grace of Madame Vigee Le Brun was, therefore, the last expression of what may be called eighteenth century painting in France. - From the French
Louis Bernard, Chefs Doevre de Peinture au Musee du Louvre
Madame Vigee Le Brun painted in the graceful and charming m style of Watteau and of Fragonard, but with greater sobriety and with a note of sincerity that was exceptional in the eighteenth century art of France. She could not, however, wholly escape those mannerisms characteristic of the century which gave her birth, and in some of her portraits we are conscious of a certain artificiality. All her life she vibrated, so to speak, between the method of painting of Jean Baptiste Regnault and that of Jean Baptiste Greuze borrowing from the one his suave and supple touch, his insipid manner of softening, and from the other the exaggerated roundness of his modeling.
The vogue which Madame Le Brun acquired upon her first appearance, and which she always retained, the adulation accorded her as a woman even more than as an artist, sadly interfered with all hard study in the rudiments of her profession, and caused her to rely for her success entirely upon her exceeding facility. - From the French
Sophia Beale, Portfolio - 1891
With regard to Madame Vigee Le Brun's position as an artist, there is no doubt that the work left behind her proves her to have been equal to most of her contemporaries, and superior to many. Gros was more dramatic, Louis David had more force and vigor in his touch, and Prud'hon was immeasurably above her in his subject pictures, a line in which Madame Le Brun never shone; but she is vastly superior in technique and bold handling to Hubert Robert or Gerard, and there is an elegance and grace about her portraits which is eminently womanly in the best sense of the word. Still, although her talent was considerable, she owed a great deal of her success to her personality and her industry, for she had the love of work and the perseverance without which even genius is of little use.
Madame Le Brun was not a great portraitist; but if not a Velasquez, a Rembrandt, or a Rubens, her work is elegant and refined, and possesses a charm which is not common. "She has neither the force nor the virility of some of the great painters of France," says her biographer, M. Charles Pillet, "but because of the exquisite delicacy of her touch she is one of the most aimable painters of the French school." Aimable that little French word exactly expresses Madame Le Brun's position in the great army of portrait painters.
"The Lady with the Muff " as this celebrated portrait of Madame Mole Raymond, an actress of the 'Comedie Francaise,' is often called, is one of Madame Le Brun's most popular works. The composition has sometimes been criticized for its lack of repose, but in the dash and breeziness of the graceful figure, apparently painted as in the act of running, there is an undeniable charm.
Madame Mole Raymond, her hands hidden in a huge brown muff which she presses against her breast, wears a bluish lavender dress and a blue apron. A broad brimmed blue hat trimmed with a bow of ribbon and a feather is jauntily placed upon her elaborately curled hair, and around her neck is a white muslin fichu, with long ends crossed and tied at the back of her waist.
"The painting," writes Sir Charles Eastlake, "is admirable in execution, reminding one in certain qualities of Gainsborough, but more finished and even in impasto."
This picture was painted in 1786, exhibited at the Salon in the following year, and bequeathed in 1865, by Mademoiselle Maurice Raymond, a daughter of the lady represented, to the Louvre, Paris, where it now hangs. The figure is life-sized, and the panel on which it is painted measures about three and a half feet high by two feet four inches wide.
The most celebrated portrait of Marie Antoinette is this large picture painted by Madame Vigee Le Brun in 1787, in which the queen is represented with her children seated in the Palace of Versailles. She is dressed in a robe of red velvet trimmed with fur, and wears an elaborate toque of the same color decorated with ostrich plumes. The little Duc de Normandie, then two years old, is on his mother's lap; "Madame Royale" stands at the queen's side tenderly clasping her arm, while on the right the Dauphin lifts the curtain of an empty cradle, generally supposed to be that of his younger brother, but which according to M de Nolhac belonged to a little sister whose death occurred at about the time of the painting of this group.
The picture was finished for the Salon Of 1788, but the artist had many misgivings as to its reception. The time was certainly unpropitious for the exhibition of a portrait of Marie Antoinette, whose popularity was already on the wane, and who in the eyes of the populace was responsible for a large part of the misery of France. Madame Le Brun has related how even the frame of her large picture, having been sent to the Salon before the canvas, evoked a number of ill natured remarks. "That's the way the money is spent ," people said. "Finally," she writes, "I sent in mv picture, but could not muster up courage to follow it and find out what its fate was to be, so fearful was I lest it should be badly received by the public. In fact I was fairly sick with fright. I shut myself in my room, and there I was praying the Lord for the success of my royal family when my brother and a host of friends burst in to tell me that my picture had met with universal approbation.
"After the close of the Salon, the king had it taken to Versailles, and there M. d'Angivillers, then minister of the Fine Arts, and director of the royal establishments, presented me to His Majesty, who was good enough to converse with me at some length, and to say that he was much pleased with my work. Then he added, looking again at my picture, 'I do not know much about painting, but you make me love it!'
"The picture was placed in one of the apartments at Versailles through which the queen always passed in going to and returning from mass. After the death of the Dauphin, early in I789, the picture reminded her so vividly of her cruel loss that she could not look at it without weeping. She therefore ordered it to be removed, but with her usual thoughtful kindness she at once apprised me of her reason for doing so. It is, indeed, to the queen's sensitive feeling that I owe the preservation of my picture, for had it been left where it was the bandits and fishwives who soon afterwards marched to Versailles in search of the king and queen would certainly have destroyed it."
After her return from Russia, Madame Le Brun relates how she went one morning to Versailles to see her picture. It had been banished to a corner of the palace, and was placed with its face against the wall. She was told that Napoleon, hearing that many people went to Versailles on purpose to see the painting, had given orders for its removal, orders which apparently were not strictly carried out, as the custodian continued to show the picture and by so doing had gained so much money that he refused to accept any gratuity from Madame Le Brun, declaring that owing to her he had already earned enough.
This painting now hangs in the Palace of Versailles. It measures about eight feet long by seven feet wide.
Joseph Francois De Paule, Comte de Vaudreuil, is described by Madame Le Brun, who knew him well, as distinguished in appearance, courteous, witty, and gifted with infinite tact. A lover and connoisseur of art, his wealth enabled him to indulge his taste for the works of the great masters, of which he possessed a valuable collection.
De Vaudreuil was high in favor at court and many honors were conferred upon him. He was made grand falconer, given command of the citadel of Lille, and created a member of the Order of the Holy Ghost-the highest order of chivalry under the Bourbons. Upon the downfall of that house he sought refuge in England, but at the time of the Restoration returned to France, where he was made a peer of the realm and appointed governor of the Louvre, a position he held until his death in I817.
Madame Le Brun's portrait of the Comte de Vaudreuil, here reproduced, shows him at the age of forty four, when he was at the height of his power. He wears a richly embroidered coat, and across his breast the sky blue watered ribbon, the cordon bleu, insignia of the Order of the Holy Ghost.
The picture is in a private collection in Paris.
The most popular, and in many respects the most beautiful, of Madame TLe Brun's numerous portraits of herself is this picture, now in the Louvre. It was first exhibited at the Salon Of 1789, and was presented by the artist to Monsieur d'Angivillers, minister of the Fine Arts.
Madame Le Brun has here represented herself in a gown of white muslin with a red scarf tied around her waist. Her brown bair, arranged in curls in front and knotted on the top of her head, is bound with a band of red ribbon, and a green mantle is draped about the lower part of her figure. Her little daughter, whom she clasps in her embrace, and who in turn has thrown her arm about her mother's neck, is dressed in blue.
"In this picture," writes M. Charles Pillet, "Madame Le Brun's face is expressive of happiness and maternal pride. The arm placed about her child is delicately and skillfully modeled, and its roundness is admirably shown against the slightly bluish tone of her white muslin gown. The sprightly air of the little girl, and the manner in which she presses closely against her mother in quick response to the loving embrace, are exquisitely natural. The general tone of the painting is harmonious, and the picture is one of Madame Le Brun's finest achievements in portraiture."
The panel measures a little over four feet high by about three feet wide.
This portrait of the French landscape-painter Hubert Robert was painted in 1788, the year before Madame Le Brun left Paris for Italy. He is represented with one hand resting on a stone parapet, while in the other he holds his palette and brushes. His coat is lavender, with a collar of red velvet, his waistcoat is yellow, and a white neck-cloth is carelessly tied about his throat. M. Charles Pillet commends the naturalness of the pose and the simplicity of the composition. "The manner in which it is painted," he writes, "is supple, the touch broad and free; the contrasts are well rendered and the colors harmonious. The portrait belongs to the best period of Madame Le Brun's art, and has none of that hardness sometimes perceptible in her later works."
Hubert Robert was born in 1733. He was therefore fifty-five years of age when Madame Le Brun painted this portrait. "Of all the artists of my acquaintance," she says, "Hubert Robert was by far the most versatile. Fond of every kind of pleasure, not excepting that of the table, he was always in such demand that I do not believe he dined at home three times a year. Theaters, balls, dinners, concerts, garden-parties-he went everywhere that he was invited, and spent all the time that was not occupied with his painting in amusing himself. He was witty, well informed without being in the least pedantic, always in good spirits, and the most amiable man maginable."
Robert's vogue as a painter was in his lifetime very great. His facility was amazing. It was said that he could paint a picture as quickly as he could write a letter. As a consequence his works, some twenty of which are now in the Louvre, are very numerous.
When in Florence in 1789, Madame Vigee Le Brun was asked to paint a portrait of herself for the collection of artists' portraits in the Uffizi Gallery in that city. Her promise to comply with this request, an honor she duly appreciated, was fulfilled soon after her arrival in Rome, where her first work was the well known portrait here reproduced.
Madame Le Brun, who was then thirty-four years old, has represented herself as seated before an asel, palette and brushes in hand, engaged in tracing in white chalk upon her canvas the features of Queen Marie Antoinette. The artist's dress is black, and she wears a red sash falling in long ends behind.
The portrait is painted on canvas, and measures three feet three inches high by two feet eight inches wide. It is in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
No subject could have been more congenial to Madame Le Brun's graceful brush than was the beautiful Marquise de Jaucourt whom the artist has here represented dressed in a simple muslin gown with a lace edged fichu about her shoulders and a ribbon sash tied around her waist. Her broad brimmed hat, trimmed with loops of ribbon, is slightly tilted upon her dark curls, which enframe a delicately modeled face with large brown eyes and a charmingly childlike expression.
Perhaps no other portrait by Madame Le Brun better exemplifies her taste in costume, and skill in posing her model. It offers an instance of what Ladv Dilke has called her "ingenious eye catching arrangements, which," that critic says, "gave to her clever pencil a charm that induces us to pardon the somewhat superficial character of her intelligence and her art."
The picture is owned by the Marquis de Jaucourt, Paris. [The picture is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City]
Madame Vigee Le Brun painted between twenty and thirty portraits of Marie Antoinette, of which one of the most charming is this picture in the Palace of Versailles, where the queen is represented in a garden tying up a bouquet of flowers. Her dress is of gray taffeta trimmed with delicate lace, she wears a hat of gauze decorated with ostrich Plumes, while around her throat and wrists are strings of pearls.
Madame Le Brun describes Marie Antoinette as "tall and with a fine figure." "Her arms," she says, "were superb, her hands small and perfectly formed, and her feet charming. She had the best walk of any woman in France, carrying her head erect and with a dignity that stamped her queen in the midst of her whole court; and yet this majestic mien in no wise diminished the sweetness and gentleness of her expression. Her features were not regular; she had inherited the long and narrow oval peculiar to the Austrian race- her eyes, almost blue in color, were rather small - her nose was delicate and pretty, and her mouth not too large, although her lips were somewhat thick. But the most remarkable thing about her face was her brilliant complexion. I have never seen any so dazzling."
There is every reason to believe that all Madame Le Brun's portraits of Marie Antoinette were decidedly flattering as likenesses, so that although, as M. de Nolhac has said, they will always remain the most charming presentments of that queen, they are by no means the most truthful.
The picture here reproduced measures about three and a half feet long by nearly three feet wide.
Among Madame Le Brun's distinguished friends in Russia Stanislaus Angustus Poniatowski , the last king of Poland, who, after the downfall of his kingdom, took up his residence in St. Petersburg, where he lived as a private gentleman. Kindly by nature, courteous and considerate, a delightful conversationalist and a charming and most genial host, he was beloved by all who knew him. As to his personal appearance, "he was," writes Madame Le Brun, "very tall and handsome. His face expressed gentleness and affability; his carriage was erect; his bearing dignified; and he was wholly without affectation. His kindness was most unusual. I remember an instance that makes me feel ashamed of myself whenever I think of it. When I am painting I refuse to see any one in the world except my model a custom which has more than once caused me to be very rude to people who have interrupted me in my work. One morning, Just as I was finishing a portrait, I heard the noise of horses at my door, and instantly guessed that it was the King of Poland who had come to see me; but I was so interested in my work that I lost my temper and cried out as he opened the door, 'I am not at home!' Without a word the king put his cloak on again and went away. When I had laid down my palette, and in cold blood thought over what I had done, I was so repentant that that same evening I betook myself to the house of the King of Poland to apologize, and to beg forgiveness. 'What a reception you gave me this morning!' he exclaimed as soon as he saw me, and then immediately added, 'I understand perfectly how trying it must be to a busy artist to be interrupted while at work, and you may rest assured that I am not in the least angry with you.' He then insisted on my remaining to supper, and no further allusion was made to my misbehavior."
Of the two portraits which Madame Le Brun painted of Poland's last king, the earlier, now in the Louvre, Paris, is reproduced in plate 9. His hair is powdered and he wears a mantle of red velvet richly trimmed with ermine.
The painting has a distinction and a greater force and brilliancy than are usually to be found in the artist's work.
The oval canvas measures about three feet three inches high by two feet eight inches wide.
'Peace Bringing Plenty' was painted by Madame Le Brun for picture, when, in May, 1783, she was made a member of the French Academy of Painting. It was exhibited at the Salon in that same year and is now in the Louvre, Paris.
'Plenty,' her blond hair decorated with flowers and sheaves of wheat, and holding a cornucopia filled with fruit, was painted from Mademoiselle Lucie Hall, daughter of a Swedish miniature painter then resident in Paris, while Mademoiselle Adele, her sister, was the model for 'Peace,' with a crown of' laurel in her dark locks and a branch of the same symbolic tree in her hand.
The composition is wholly in accordance with the art traditions of that period, and while possessing a certain grace is inferior to most of Madame Le Brun's work in portraiture. The canvas measures about three and a half feet high bv four feet three inches wide.
Madame Vigee Le Brun painted at least Six hundred and sixty portraits, fifteen subject pictures, and about two hundred landscapes. A chronological, though not an altogether complete, list of tier works will be found in the last volume of her "Souvenirs." The greater number of her works, are in private possession. The following list includes the most important of the comparatively few examples other art contained in collections accessible to the public.
ENGLAND. LONDON, NATIONAL GALLERY: Portrait of Madame Vigee Le Brun LONDON, WALLACE COLLECTION: Portrait of a Boy; Portrait of Madame Perregaux FRANCE. CHANTILLY, CONDE MUSEUM: Portrait of Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria Portrait of Marie Caroline, Queen of Naples; Portrait of Marie Louise Josephine, Queen of Etruria - MONTPELLIER, MUSEUM: Portrait of Princess Marie of Russia -PARIS, CZARTORYSKI GALLERY: Portrait of Princess Isabella Czartoryski-PARIS, LOUVRE: Peace Bringing Plenty (Plate 10); Madame Vigee Le Brun and her Daughter (Plate 6); Portrait of Paesiello; Portrait of Hubert Robert (Plate 5) ; Portrait of Joseph Vernet; Portrait of Madame Mole-Raymond (Plate 1); Madame Vigee Le Brun and her Daughter; Portrait of Stanislatis Augustus Poniatowski (Plate 9) -ROUEN, MUSEUM: Portrait of Madame Grassini -TOULOUSE, MUSEUM: Portrait of Madame de Crtissol VERSAILLES, PALACE: Marie Antoinette and her Children (Plate 2); The Dauphin and Madame Royale; Portrait of Marie Antoinette (Plate 8); Portrait of Marie Antoinette with a book; Portrait of Marie Antoinette with a Rose; Portrait of the Duchesse d'Orleans; Portrait of the Queen of Naples with her Daughter; Portrait of Gretry; Portrait of Jean de la Bruyere; Portrait of Andre Hercule de Fleury-VERSAILLES, PETIT TRIANON: Portrait of Marie Antoinette with a Rose -ITALY. BOLOGNA GALLERY: Portrait of Mademoiselle Le Brun-FLORENCE, UFFizi GALLERY: Portrait of Madame Vigee Le Brun (Plate 6) - ROME, ACADEMY OF ST. LUKE: Portrait of Madame Vilgee Le Brun (Page 22)-RUSSIA. ST. PETERSBURC., GALLERY OF PRINCE YOUSSOUPOFF: Madame Catalani Singing-SPAIN. MADRID, THE PRADO: Portrait of Marie Caroline, Queen of Naples; Portrait of Princess Christine of Naples.
A list of the principal books and magazine articles dealing with Madame Vigee Le Brun
The chief source of information concerning Madame Vigee Le Brun is her "Souvenirs", first published in Paris in 1835-1837. Several English translations of this entertaining book have appeared from time to time.
BERNARD, L. Chefs-d'ceuvre de peinture au Musee du Louvre. Paris, 1878 BLANC, C. Histoire des peintres de toutes les ecoles: ecole francaise. Paris, 1885 - CLEMENTS, C. E. Women in the Fine Arts. Boston, 1904.-DAYOT, A. L'image de la femme. [Paris] 1899 -DUROZOIR, C. Marie-Louise-Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun (in Michaud's Biographie universelle). Paris, 1843- -ELLET, E. F. Women Artists in all Ages and Countries. London, 1860 - Fidiere, O. Les Feiumes artistes i I'Academie Royale de peinture et de sculpture. Paris, 1885-GOSSELIN, T. Histoire anecdotique des salons de peinture depuis 1673- Paris, 1881 -GRUYER, F. A. La Peinture au Chateau de Chantilly. Paris, 1898 - GUHL, E. C. Die Frauen in der Kunstgeschichte. Berlin, 1858 - KINGSLEY, R. G. A History of French Art. London, 1899-LAROUSSE, P. A. Marie-Anne-Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun (in Grand dictionnaire universal). Paris, i866-90 -LE BRUN,J .B.P. Precis historique de la vie citoyenne Le Brun, peintre. Paris  -LE BRUN, MADAME L. E. Souvenirs de la vie. Paris, 1835-37 - MANTZ, P. Madame Vigee-Lebrun (in Armengaud's Les Reines du monde). Paris, 1862-MERSON, 0. La Peinture francaise au XVIl siecle et au XVIII. Paris, -MICHEL ,A. MadameVigee Le Brun (in Jouin'sChefs d oeuvre). Paris, 1895 - MUTHER, R. History of Modern Painting. New York, 1896 - NOLHAC, P. DE. Marie Antoinette et ses enfants (in jouin's Chefs-d oeuvre). Paris, 1897-98 -NOLHAC. P. DE and PERATE, A. Le Musee National de Versailles. Paris, 1896 - PILLET, Madame Vigee-Le Brun. Paris [I890]-PINSET, R., AND D' AURIAC, J. Histoire du portrait en France. Paris, 1884-PROCES-VERBAUX de I'Academie Royale de peinture et de sculpture. Vol. 9. Paris, 1899 -ROBERTS, M. Women ofthe Last Days of Old France. London, 1872-SELDEN, C. Portraits de femmes. Paris, 1877-STRANAHAN, C. H. A History of French Painting. New York, I 888 - TALLENTYRE, S. G. The Women of the Salons. London, 1901-VACHON, M. La Femme dans I'art. Paris, 1893.
ARGOSY, 1896: Isabella Fyvie Mayo; A Genius and a Beatity MUNSEY's MAGAZINE, 1897: Anonymous; Famous Portrait Painters PORTFOLIO, 1891: Sophia Beale; Elizabeth Louise Vigee-Le Brun.
Vigée Le Brun's Gallery | Vigée Le Brun Biographies