Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, an illustrious painter of world renown, was best known for his portraits of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. As a child, she had a gift for drawing; as a young girl, she made her first portrait at the age of 15; as a young woman, she entered the Royal Academy of Painting at 25 and became the Queen's official painter. A meteoric rise that will take her to Saint Petersburg with Empress Catherine II.
The youth of Elisabeth Vigée
Born April 16, 1755, to a painter father, she entered the rue de Charonne convent at the age of 5 to educate herself there like all the little bourgeois girls of her age, and to have fun she draws. Back at her parents' house at 11, she is very happy to be able to use her father's pencils. The latter giving lessons to improve his income, Elisabeth sneaks into the back of the room and attends. Her father is happy to see that she is very talented. But this family joy is quickly extinguished when her father dies from a lost ridge in the stomach, we are in 1768, she is only 13 years old.
Doyen, a friend of her father's, a painter of history, urges her to resume her pencils; a year later, she enrolled at Briard, which had a studio in the Louvre. These two painters had the same master Carle Van Loo. There, she met Joseph Vernet (56 years old, recognized at court thanks to Louis XV who entrusted her with the paintings of French ports). Vernet, very attracted by this young talent, encouraged him to study nature and to focus on Flemish and Italian art.
She produced her first masterpiece in 1770: the portrait of her mother ... and the girl is talked about all over Paris. Soon the ladies of the court visited her in her studio, near the Royal Palace, even Madame Geoffrin, well in court, a woman of spirit who recognized talents. She inevitably received orders from Madame d'Aguesseau, the Comtesse de Vieuville, the Marquis de Choiseul (Minister of Louis XV).
Wise, success does not turn his head; Having become a professional painter, she scrupulously notes the paintings made and already counts 27, she is only 18 years old.
Official painter of the queen at Versailles
It was during a walk in Marly-le-Roi that she met Marie Antoinette. The queen smiles at him and invites him to continue his walk "wherever he pleases". The queen did not stop by chance, her cousin the Duchess of Chartres had extensively praised her the merits of Elisabeth.
She met Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, son of an antique dealer and claiming to be an expert in painting, who wooed her, having discovered his great talent. At the insistence of his mother, Elisabeth married him in January 1776, it will be a failure as she mentions in her Memoirs "his passion for women caused the ruin of his fortune and mine which he had entirely".
In November 1776, Chalgrin, intendant of the Buildings of Monsieur, asked him to paint the portrait of the king's brother and twelve copies. Four months later, she painted four portraits of the queen. In 1778, great people placed him orders such as the Duke of Cossé who asked him for the Countess du Barry.
Finally, in the spring of 1779, Elisabeth was presented to the queen; immediately "the current goes": they have the same age, the same sweetness, the same innate grace, the same taste for music, they get along wonderfully. Elisabeth made a first portrait of the queen in a satin dress, a rose in her hand, then two copies. Immediately, she became the favorite painter but above all the official painter of the queen.
The paintings either stay with the king, or are sent to foreign courts, to friends ... his fame is made! The whole court is clamoring for it, so much so that you have to put yourself on a waiting list! She then begins portraits from life (whereas before she worked based on canvases already produced), such as those of the Count of Provence, Madame Elisabeth (sister of Louis XV), then the Princess of Lamballe and the Countess of Polignac.
It was then that Joseph Vernet, who followed her career, offered to present her to the Royal Academy of Painting "the official consecration of a talent recognized by all" ... but the intervention of the queen in person was necessary to that it be accepted (the Academy not wanting any more new women): "peace bringing back abundance" will be exhibited at the Salon in 1780 and she will become a portrait painter at the Academy of Saint Luc.
From October 1781, Marie Antoinette intends to have her children painted and will not remonstrate with her when Elisabeth is absent due to illness ... they are both pregnant, they understand each other. The meetings are no longer professional, they are two women, two mothers with the joy of talking and carrying their children.
Elisabeth excels in portraits of children and women; his painting changes, the painted clothes fade in favor of the beauty of the characters, of their human soul. In these paintings, the clothes do not hinder the body, the hairstyles are unfinished, the face is barely made up, it is a return to nature.
Naturally the queen asks him for a painting with her children. Elisabeth drew up a sketch and then began her work which she wanted to present at the Salon in 1788. She represented an empty cradle: the queen was pregnant. And yet the characters do not reflect joy. Since the necklace affair, the queen has been hurt, she has lost her child and the Dauphin is sick! Time has passed between the commission and the creation of the painting presented at the Salon and then exhibited in the Versailles gallery. Every day, the queen passes in front of this empty cradle which should have welcomed Sophie-Hélène-Béatrice, who died in mid-June 1787, and mourns the Dauphin who left in June 1789… the picture is moved!
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun's worldwide fame
The days are getting darker, Elisabeth can no longer paint, no longer has taste for her art. The population is unleashed, libels attack it being admitted to the Court; It's time to go. She opts for Italy, but despite the passport received for her and her daughter, the National Guards arrest her. She then disguises herself as a worker, hidden under a big scarf and not without difficulty reaching the border, she is saved. Surprisingly, people recognize her, help her, support her. From Florence, she reaches Rome and Venice, finds friends who have fled like her. There, finally, she resumes painting, realizes her self-portrait, paying homage to the queen by painting her on the canvas on the left.
Ready to return to France in November 1791 at the express request of the deputies (on pain of confiscation of property and her civic rights), she learned of the capture of the Tuileries and the start of the Terror and decided to go to Austria. Installed in Vienna for some time, received at the Court, the Russian ambassador transmits the invitation of the Empress to her. So she went to Saint Petersburg in July 1795. Here again, she did not expect such a reception: the best Russian society looked for her, orders poured in, she never stopped painting; after the Grand Duchesses the Empress wishes to pose ... but she dies too quickly!
It's been twelve years since she left Paris, the need to return is felt, she arrives in Paris in January 1802. The press takes hold of this great news, a concert is given in her honor, friends invite her but nothing is as before, it no longer finds its place in this society. She visits England, Switzerland and divides her time between the French capital and her country house in Louveciennes.
After her Memoirs in 1835, a little alone having lost all the members of her family, she suffered a fatal stroke on March 30, 1842.
- Louise Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun: Histoire d'un regard, by Geneviève Haroche-Bouzinac. Flammarion, 2011.
- Memories 1755-1842: Women reigned then, the Revolution dethroned them, by Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun. Tallandier, 2009.
- “Madame Vigée-Le Brun” Ines de Kertanguy. Perrin, 2000.
- The fabulous destiny of Elisabeth Vigée Le BrunElisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Arte Video, 2018.