A Short Biography of Vigée Le Brun
By Rich Carlson
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Elisabeth Louise Vigee was born 16 April 1755 in Paris, the daughter of portaitist Louise Vigee and his wife Jean Maissin, a hairdresser. Only 3 months old, Elisabeth was sent to a small farm near Epernon, and cared for by a peasant woman until, at the age of five, her parents enrolled her in the Couvent de la Trinite. After 7 years, she returned to her parents in Paris and was allowed to attend drawing classes under her father. She was able to spend only a few months with him before his death (9 May 1767). She continued to pursue drawing and painting by copying paintings in private collections and painting portraits of family members, learning her skills without apprenticing to a master.
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Within three years she was painting portraits professionally. After her studio was seized for practicing without a license, she applied to the Academie de Saint Luc, exhibited works in their Salon, and was installed as a member on 25 October 1774. The following year, her step father retired and moved the family to an apartment in the home of Jean Baptiste Pierre LeBrun, a painter and art dealer. On 11 January 1776, Elisabeth Louise married Jean Baptiste.
Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun frequently paintined the portraits of royalty and was summoned to Versailles in 1778 to paint the Queen Marie Antoinette. Her only daughter, Julie, was born 12 February 1780. In 1781 she toured Flanders and Holland with her husband. The works of Rubens and other Flemish masters inspired her to try new techniques such as painting on wooden panel rather than canvas and using thin coats of paint to create effects of luminosity and depth. Her Self-Portrait "au chapeau de paille" is an explicit acknowledgement of Rubens in composition as well as technique.
On 31 May 1783, she was accepted as a member of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture as a painter of historical allegory. Her admission was opposed by the Director of the Academie, but a direct command by King Louis XVI (encouraged by the Queen Marie Antoinette, Elisabeth's friend) ensured her acceptance. The Académie session skipped the formalities typically due a new member, and entered in the minutes that she was admitted only out of "profound respect [to] the orders of its Sovereign." As a woman (for whom only a few seats were allowed), her admission as a painter of historical allegory, rather than as a painter of portraits or still lifes, was a triumph great enough to overshadow any lack of formalities. As her entry piece, she displayed "Peace Bringing Back Abundance" , a work completed in 1780 before her trip to the Low Countries.
After her admission, she was allowed to exhibit at the Salon and did so often. Her work grew in popularity and received increasingly laudatory critical reviews despite personal slanders against her and her association with the Royalty. (e.g. "Bacchante" in 1785, the Marquise de Peze in 1787 ,and the Marquise de Fresne d'Aguesseau in 1789). In 1785, she again painted Queen Marie Antoinette, this time with her children. The painting was completed in 1787 and shown at the Salon.
By 1789, accusations of impropriety and adultery had destroyed her public reputation. She fled Paris with her daughter after revolutionary mobs seized Versailles on 6 October. (She had been staying with a friend, Alexandre-Theodore Brongniart (and painted his daughter), at the Invalides for a few months previous to this date.) After travelling through Lyons, Turin, Parma, and Florence, she arrived
in Rome. Her paintings again met with great critical acclaim and she was elected to the Roman Accademia di San Luca. During this time she made several trips to Naples. In 1791, she was allowed to exhibit at the Salon in Paris despite her political affiliations. Hoping to return to Paris, she began to travel north. After the collapse of the monarchy and her branding as an emigre, she turned back to Italy. In Milan, she met the ambassador of Austria and accepted his invitation to travel to Vienna. While there she painted portraits of Austrian and Polish nobles. In 1793, both her husband and brother, Etienne, were briefly imprisoned. After the establishment of the Republic, Louis XVI was executed. In October of the same year, her friend, the Queen Marie Antoinette, was found guilty of treason and guillotined. Fearing for his life, Elisabeth's husband sued for divorce in 1794.
Elisabeth left Vienna and travelled to St. Petersburg. She remained in Russia six years. She was a favorite of the royalty and earned large sums for her paintings. She was also received as a member of the Academy of Fine Arts of St. Petersburg. In 1800, Julie LeBrun married Gaetan Bernard Nigris, secretary to the Director of the Imperial Theaters in St. Petersburg, despite her mothers protestations. The two women broke ties and Elisabeth moved to Moscow. After a petition signed by 255 artists, writers, and scientists was presented in Madame Vigee LeBrun's behalf, she was removed from the list of emigres and given permission to return safely to France. She returned to St. Petersburg in 1801 and then traveled to Berlin for six months before returning to Paris. While in Germany she was again recognized as a member of the Academy. Julie remained in Russia with her husband.
Despite her divorce, Elisabeth returned to the Hotel LeBrun. In 1803, she traveled to London and painted there for two years. She returned to Paris in 1805 after visiting Holland and
Belgium. Julie had returned to Paris a year before, but the relationship between mother and daughter remained strained. In the following years ,Vigee LeBrun made several trips to Switzerland. In 1807 she was made an honorary member of the Societe pour l'Avancement des Beaux-Arts of Geneva. In 1804, Nigris returned to St. Petersburg ending his marriage to Julie. Elisabeth purchased a house in Louveciennes in 1809 and lived there and in Paris until the house was seized by Prussians in 1814. Jean Baptiste LeBrun died on 7 August 1813. After this date, Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun remained in Paris until her death in 1842. In 1819, her daughter Julie died. The following year her brother Etienne also died. She continued to paint throughout these years, exhibiting in the Salon in 1824. She composed her memoirs and permited them to be published in 1835 and 1837. A stroke in the last year of her life caused considerable damage and prohibited her from painting. After her death, she was taken to Louveciennes and buried in the cemetery near her old home.
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