Marriage in Paris of the portraitist Louis Vigee (1715-1767), a member of the Academie de Saint Luc, with Jeanne Maissin (1728-1800), a hairdresser and the daughter of a marchand-laboureur from Rossart in the province of Luxembourg.
Their daughter, ELISABETH LOUISE VIGEE, is born in Paris on the rue Coquilliere, the 16th day of April. The infant is baptised in the church of Saint Eustache. Barely three months old, she is sent to a farm in the village of Epernon, near Chartres, where for the first five years of her life she will remain in the care of a peasant woman.
Her brother, Louis Jean Baptiste Etienne, is born on December 2 (see cat. no. 2).
Her parents enroll her as a pensionnaire at the school of the Couvent de la Trinite on the rue de Charonne, Faubourg Saint Antoine. There she displays a precocious talent for drawing.
After making her first communion, she returns permanently to her parents home and is permitted to attend drawing classes given by her father in his studio. Louis Vigee dies on May 9 in his apartment on the rue de Clery. To assuage her grief, Mlle Vigee studies drawing, first in the home of Mme Blaise Bocquet and later in the studio of a mediocre painter, Gabriel Briard. On December 26, her widowed mother marries a goldsmith, Jacques Franeois Le Sevre (1724-1810), a miserly and altogether disagreeable fellow. The family soon moves to an apartment on the rue Saint Honore facing the Palais Royal. Mlle Vigee copies old master paintings in famous private collections during visits chaperoned by her mother.
By this year, she is established as a professional portrait painter.
Because she has practiced her art without a license, her studio is seized by officers of the Chatelet. She immediately applies for membership in the Academie de Saint Luc. In August and September she exhibits a number of works at the Salon of Saint Luc, but her official reception in the Academie-de Saint Luc takes place only on October 25.
Her step-father retires and the family leases an apartment in a house on the rue de Clery, the Hotel de Lubert, then occupied by the painter and art dealer Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun (1748-1813). Le Brun takes a keen interest in the beautiful young artist and allows her to copy paintings from his vast stock. On August 9, she presents portraits of the Cardinal de Fleury and Jean de La Bruyere to the Academie Franeaise, a highly publicized event.
On January 11, Elisabeth Louise Vigee marries Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun. Mme Le Brun's first royal commission is for a number of portraits of the King's brother, the Comte de Provence (lost).
She paints her first portrait from life of Queen Marie Antoinette (fig. 15). Le Brun and his wife sign an agreement to buy the Hotel de Lubert. In this large townhouse Vigee Le Brun's salon will eventually become one of the most fashionable in pre-revolutionary Paris.
In November, she exhibits at the Hotel de Lubert a full-length portrait of Marie Antoinette and Innocence Taking Refuge in the Arms of Justice (Musee d'Angers).
Her only child, Jeanne Julie Louise, is born on February 12 (see cat. nos. 25 and 50).
Vigee Le Brun exhibits regularly at the Salon de la Correspondance.
Between May and June, she accompanies her husband on a tour of Flanders and Holland.
Thanks to the direct intervention of the Queen, on May 31 the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture is compelled to accord Vigee Le Brun full membership. As her reception piece, she offers an historical composition, Peace Bringing Back Abundance (cat. no. 9). In August she exhibits for the first time at the Salon of the Academie Royale (see cat. nos. 9 and 12). Critical reaction is mixed.
Her second and last pregnancy results in a miscarriage. On October 19, her brother Etienne marries Suzanne Marie Franeoise Riviere (see cat. no. 18).
At the Hotel de Lubert, Vigee Le Brun exhibits knee-length portraits of Charles Alexandre de Calonne (fig. 10) and Nicolas Beaujon. That summer she sends a number of impressive paintings to the Salon of the Academie Royale (see cat. nos. 13 and 17). The majority of the reviews are enthusiastic. She receives from the Crown an official commission for a portrait of Marie Antoinette and her children (fig. 30).
Calumnious attacks against Mme Le Brun, manifest as early as 1783, November and takes up residence at intensify. In the press and in private correspondences she is accused of the mistress of the Finance Minister Calonne (see cat. no. 15), the Comte de Vaudreuil (see cat. no. 14), and the painter Franeois Guillaume Menageot. For Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, the architect Jean Arnaud Raymond begins construction, in the rue du Gros Chenet, on property adjoining that of the Hotel de Lubert, of a large and opulent townhouse. The building will require several years to complete (on the Hotel Le Brun, see Gallet, 1960).
Mme Le Brun participates in the Salon (see cat. nos. 24 and 25). Once again, her entries are highly praised.
She gives her famous "souper grec", one of the exceptional social events of the reign of Louis XVI.
A totally fictitious correspondence between the now exiled Calonne and Mme Le Brun is published in March and April. What little remains of her personal reputation is destroyed. That year she exhibits at the Salon, and critical acclaim is virtually unanimous (see cat. no. 28). Her notoriety makes the Hotel Le Brun a target for marauding bands of vandals. Deeply distressed, unable to work, she seeks refuge with the family of the architect Brongniart at the Invalides and then with the Riviere family on the Chaussee d'Antin. The night of October 6, following the invasion of Versailles by Parisian mobs, Mme Le Brun leaves for Italy on the public coach. She is accompanied by her young daughter and a governess. Her intention is to return to France once order is reestablished. She will remain an exile for twelve years. On her way to Rome, she stops at Lyons, Turin, Parma,,(where she is elected a member of the Academy on November 3), and Florence. She arrives in Rome in late November and takes up residence at the Academie de France. She frequents the most aristocratic and anti-revolutionary circles.
For the grand-dukal collection of artists, self-portraits at the Uffizi in Florence, Vigee Le Brun paints a portrait of herself (fig. 29) and exhibits it in Rome with huge success. In early April she is elected a member of the Roman Accademia di San Luca. On April 7, she leaves for Naples (see cat. nos. 30, 31 and 32). During the summer she returns to Rome but leaves again for Naples at the end of December (see cat. no. 33).
By March, she is once more in Rome (see cat. nos. 35 and 36), but she will soon embark upon a third and final trip to Naples. In September works by Vigee Le Brun are shown at the Paris Salon (see cat. no. 33), now open to all artists regardless of their affiliation with the soon to be defunct Academie Royale.
On April 14, she leaves Rome with the hope of returning to Paris. On her northward itinerary are Spoleto, Foligno, Florence, Siena, Parma (by late June), Mantua, Venice (see cat. no. 37), Verona and Turin (where she is joined in mid-August by Auguste Louis jean Baptiste Riviere, who will be her traveling companion for the next nine years). In Paris, her name has been added to the list of emigres, and she loses all her rights as a French citizen. The Le Brun properties are scheduled to be confiscated by the Revolutionary government. In August Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun formally requests that the Assemblee Legislative remove his wife's name from the list. His petition is denied. Realizing that the danger for her in France would be too great (the monarchy has just collapsed), Vigee Le Brun decides to stav in Italy. In Milan the Austrian ambassador, Count Wilczek, convinces her that there are lucrative prospects for her as a portraitist in Vienna, especially given her royalist credentials. On her arrival in the Austrian capital, she rents a house on the outskirts of the city. Her in Vienna will consist mostly of Austrian and Polish nobles (see cat. nos. 38, 39 and 40).
Le Brun publishes in Paris a lengthy defense of his wife's conduct in a pamphlet entitled Precis historique de la vie de la citoyenne Le Brun, peintre (see Appendix III). On October 6, he appeals to the Legislature to allow her to be counted among the artists traveling abroad in order to perfect their art. This petition is also rejected. In November, Le Brun is arrested and briefly imprisoned. A month later Etienne Vigee is incarcerated at the prison of Port-Libre where he will remain until July of the following year.
At the height of the Terror, in order to protect himself and his property, Le Brun sues for divorce on the grounds of desertion. On June 3 a decree of divorce is issued.
On April 19, Vigee Le Brun leaves Vienna for Russia. She arrives in Saint Petersburg in late June and rents an apartment near the Winter Palace. Patronized and feted by the Imperial family and the highest nobility, she will amass a considerable fortune over a period of six years (see cat. nos. 41-51).
Marie Victoire Lemoine exhibits a tribute to Mme Le Brun, The Interior of the Studio of a Woman Artist (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; for that painting, see exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Women Artists:1550-1950, 1976, no. 57).
Two paintings by Vigee Le Brun are sent from Saint Petersburg to the Paris Salon.
On July 26 in Paris, at a session of the Directoire, a deputation of eight artists presents a petition in favor of Vigee Le Brun signed by 255 artists, writers, and scientists (this document is reproduced in A. Girodie, Un peintre de fetes galantes, Jean-Frgderic Schall, Strasbourg, 1927, pls. XLIV-XLVII).
Jeanne Maissin, the artist's mother, dies in Neuilly on April 9. Less than a month later, on June 5, Vigee Le Brun's name is permanently struck from the list of emigres. She can now return to France. On June 16, she is received as a member in the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts of Saint Petersburg. During the course of the year, against her mother's will, Julie Le Brun marries Gaetan Bernard Nigris, secretary to the Director of the Imperial Theaters of Saint Petersburg. Deeply depressed, Vigee Le Brun leaves for Moscow on October 15 (see cat. no. 51).
She returns to Saint Petersburg in the spring. Soon thereafter she leaves Russia with Paris as her eventual destination. Once again she is accompanied by M. Riviere. During a six-month sojourn in Berlin she is patronized by the Hohenzollern family and is made a member of the Academy. Traveling through Germany she leaves Riviere with his family in Brunswick.
Vigee Le Brun arrives in Paris on January 18; in spite of her divorce, she resumes residence in the Hotel Le Brun. Later that year she rents a country house near Meudon, and there she completes a number of paintings begun in Russia and Germany. At the Salon, she exhibits her first portrait of Stanislas II Augustus, King of Poland (cat. no. 47). In December she demands that Le Brun refund her dowry. For a number of years she will make use of her maiden name in legal contracts.
After the signing of the Peace Treaty of Amiens, Vigee Le Brun travels to London. She first takes an apartment on Leicester Square, then rents a house at 61 Baker Street. Among her English sitters will be the Prince of Wales, the young Lord Byron, and Mrs. William Chinnery (see cat. no. 53).
Julie Nigris returns to Paris, accompanied by her husband. In London, Vigee Le Brun moves to a townhouse on Portman Square, then to Maddox Street. The mediocre English painter John Hoppner publishes a volume of poetry, The Oriental Tales, the preface of which contains a strong indictment of Mme Le Brun, her portraiture, and the art of the entire French school.
Traveling via Holland and Belgium, Vigee Le Brun returns to Paris in July, and settles once again at the Hotel Le Brun.
She executes a full-length portrait of Napoleon's sister, Caroline Murat; this is the only commission she will receive from the Imperial government. Settling many of her ex-husband's debts, she accepts in exchange mortgages on his real properties. Early in 1807 she purchases from him the Hotel de Lubert, its outbuildings and gardens. Later that year, on a visit to
Switzerland, she spends two weeks with Mme de Stael at Coppet. On November 30, she is made an honorary member of the Societe pour
I'Avancement des Beaux-Arts of Geneva.
Between July and August, Vigee Le Brun makes a second trip to
Switzerland (for an account of her travels in this country, see S. Kuthy, "Elisabeth Louise Vigee-Lebrun and das Althirtenfest in Unspunnen," Zeitschrift fiir Schweizerische Archdologie und Kunstgeschichte, XXXI, 1976, pp. 158-171). Nigris returns to Russia, leaving his wife behind.
In December Mme Le Brun purchases a large house in the village of
Louveciennes. Henceforth she will divide her time between her Paris apartments and this country home. Her aristocratic salon becomes a meeting-place for the celebrities of the Romantic school.
Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun dies on August 7.
In March, after the fall of the Empire, her house at Louveciennes is invaded by Prussian soldiers.
Vigee Le Brun exhibits two paintings at the Salon.
Her daughter, Julie Nigris, dies in Paris on December 8.
After the death of her brother Etienne (August 8), his daughter Caroline becomes Mme Le Brun's heir and constant companion. The artist travels to Bordeaux.
She participates at the Salon.
On June 30, she is made a member of the Academie du Vaucluse at Avignon.
For Charles X, she paints a portrait from memory of his friend, the late Duc de Riviere. To express his gratitude, the King presents the old artist with a coffee service in vermeil.
In December Mme Le Brun sends a short hand-written autobiography to Princess Natalie Kourakin (see Vigee Le Brun, 1829).
With the help of her nieces, Caroline
Riviere and Eug6nie Le Franc, she composes her memoirs (see cat. no. 57). In February of 1835, she signs a contract allowing Hippolyte Fournier to publish her Souvenirs, the first volume of which appears that year. The second and third volumes will be printed two years later.
The artist suffers a stroke which leaves her greatly debilitated.
Mme Vigee Le Brun dies in Paris in her apartment at the Hotel Le Coq, 99 rue Saint Lazare. The probable cause of death is arteriosclerosis. She is buried in the old cemetary of Louveciennes.