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In researching Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun I found her to be very interesting.  Although she had much sadness in her life, there is an aura of romance surrounding her and her brilliant works that made her one of the most prominent female artists of her time.  Not only was her artwork beautiful but she was a very eloquent writer and speaker.


On April 10, 1755, Marie Louise Elizabeth Vigée was born in Paris, France.  Her father, who was an artist himself, was Elizabeth's first art teacher.  Her father introduced her to many of his friends and acquaintances when he felt they may help further her art career.  Elizabeth was twelve years old at the time of her father's death.  Before he died, he did everything he could to guarantee her a future in the art world, hopefully one that would be a relatively easy life.

Elizabeth would spend five years of her childhood in a convent.  While there, she was always seen carrying a sketch pad and pencil and would sketch everything she saw.  Later in her life, she is quoted as saying

"I receive an intense pleasure in the use of my pencil and my passion for painting is as innate and never grows less but increased in charm as I grew older.  It was a source of perpetual youth and I owed it all to acquaintances and friendships with the most delightful men and women of Europe."

While Elizabeth was still a young woman, she studied under many teachers, but it was Joseph Vernet who convinced her to study the artwork of Flemish and Italian masters and more importantly, to study nature and paint in her own style, not to follow any particular school or system of painting.  Elizabeth said that this bit of advice is what she attributes the majority of her success to.

When Elizabeth was 16, she admitted two portraits to the French Academy.  This was her first chance to have her work viewed by the public.

When she was 21, she married the art dealer, J. B. P. Le Brun.  It was very well known that he had several bad habits and would often times spend all of the money Elizabeth earned from her artwork.  When she left her husband and France, in 1789, she barely had one hundred francs although at this point in her career, she had earned over a million francs. 

She had many prominent friends, both men and women, throughout the world as a result of all her travels.  One such friend was Marie Antoinette, who, in 1779, requested that Elizabeth return to Versailles to paint the first of twenty portraits for her.  There was a deep affection between these two women, almost like they were sisters.  Even though Marie Antoinette was queen, this did not affect their friendship which was a great advantage for Elizabeth.  It allowed her to see the real Marie Antoinette and also brought her more public attention.  In the painting Elizabeth made of Marie as queen, surrounded by her loving children at Versailles, it's easy to see the "sisterly love" and tenderness Elizabeth had for her friend when she made this painting.

Marie Antoinette expressed her desire for Elizabeth to be elected into the French Academy.  This request was quickly approved.  She became an Academician before she completed her reception picture, this was an honor that was not bestowed on many artists.  Elizabeth was the only artist who was permitted to display her work in the Salon of the Beaux-Arts

Elizabeth had one strict rule that she never allowed to be broken.  She would always take a short nap at the end of each workday.  She called this her "calm time", and said this helped increase her power of endurance even though it came at a price, missing out on some of the pleasures of everyday life.  She often missed dinner invitations and private events due to the fact that many social events of that time occurred in the early evening at the same time she would take her "calm time".

Some considered Elizabeth to be an extravagant person.  She would often hold late evening social gatherings for several friends.  On one such evening, she invited over fifteen people to her home to listen to her brother, Voyage Du Jeune Anacharsis En Greece, read a poem, while she was taking her "calm time".  In this poem, it describes a dinner and recipes for making different sauces from Greece.  Elizabeth was captured at the thought of improvising a Greek supper during the reading of the poem.  She sent for her personal chef and described to her what was talked about in the poem, and instructed her to create this feast for her guests.  The guests who were mainly society's loveliest ladies quickly improvised the creation of Greek costumes from material that Elizabeth had in the house.  Elizabeth wore the white shirt she used while working, to which she added a lace veil with a tiara made of flowers.  She kept her studio filled with beautiful antiques and had a friend who was an antique dealer that loaned her all the place settings, lamps, and other fixtures for the dinner, which was beautifully set by the artistic hands of Elizabeth.

As new party guests would arrive, Elizabeth would quickly put together an authentic looking costume, then selected several of the guests for an impromptu tableau vivant.  She dressed her daughter and her friends as pages, each one carrying an expensive antique vase. They draped a canopy over the table and posed the actors in typical portrait poses.  This party was a huge success and was talked about in the society circles of Paris for years afterwards.  As the story was retold many times over, it grew.  What was actually a fairly inexpensive evening grew into tales of an extravagant evening with golden tablecloths and priceless antiques everywhere the eye could see. 

Hearing rumors about the Revolution about to take place in 1789, Elizabeth went to Italy where she visited Rome, Naples, and Vienna.  Elizabeth wrote the following in one of her journals,

"We reached Naples about 4 o'clock.  I cannot describe the impression I received upon entering the town.  That burning sun, that stretch of sea, those islands seen in the distance, that Vesuvius with a great column of smoke ascending from it and the very population so animated and so noisy, who differ so much from the Roman that one might suppose they were a thousand miles apart."
Every city and town that she visited treated her with great respect and kindness and bestowed upon her many great honors.

When she arrived in Florence, Elizabeth was requested to create her own portrait which was to be hung at the Uffizi along with other self-portraits of famous artists.  Elizabeth's portrait became very well known and was displayed next to the portrait of Angelica Kauffmann

Elizabeth fell in love with Rome soon after she arrived.  She said if she could forget France, she would be the happiest woman in the world living in Rome.  She wrote the following about Angelica Kauffmann while she was in Rome:

"I have been to see Angelica Kauffmann, whom I greatly desired to know.  I found her very interesting, apart from her fine talent, on account of her mind and her general culture.... She has talked much with me during the two evenings I have spent at her house.  Her manor is gentle; she is prodigiously learned, but has no enthusiasm, which, considering my ignorance, has not electrified me.... I have seen several of her works; her sketches please me more than her pictures, because they are of a Titianesque color."

Elizabeth received so many commissions for portraits while she was in Italy, that she did not have time to finish them all.  She said:

"Not only did I find great pleasure in painting surrounded by many masterpieces, but it was also necessary for me to make another fortune.  I had not a hundred francs of income.  Happily I had only to choose among the grandest people the portraits which it pleased me to paint."

Although she found Rome very entertaining, she became restless and sought other scenery. Elizabeth traveled to Vienna where she would remain for three years.  She quickly made friends and began painting feverishly until she became restless and decided to move yet again.

This time she chose to travel to Russia.  She was accepted with open arms and quickly set up a studio and remained in Russia for six years.  Elizabeth's daughter was her main passion in life.  She was the greatest source of both joy and grief.  While in Petersburg, Russia, her daughter was accepted by society and was greatly admired.  This meant more to Elizabeth than any of her own accomplishments in life.  At this point in her life, Elizabeth's drive to earn as much money as possible was at it's greatest.  She was so caught up in her work she placed her daughter in the care of her household staff and let them handle her daughter's society debut.

When her daughter met and married M. Nigris, Elizabeth and her new son-in-law quickly became dissatisfied with each other.  He did not like the way she had other people raising her daughter and often asked to borrow money from her, saying it was to help pay for the wedding expenses.  Elizabeth was so displeased she left Petersburg to go to Moscow.  After several months she would return to Petersburg, where she announced she would return to France.  As she was returning to France, her trip was delayed several times as people would commission her to paint their portrait when she arrived in their town.

Elizabeth arrived in Paris in early 1801.  Soon after arriving, Elizabeth wrote:

"I shall not attempt to express my emotions when I was again upon the soil of France, from which I had been absent twelve years.  Fright, grief, joy, possessed me, each in turn, for all these entered into the thousand varying sentiments which swept over my soul.  I wept for the friends whom I had lost upon the scaffold, but I was about to see again those who remained.  This France to which I returned had been the scene of atrocious crimes; but this France was my native land!"

The new government was hateful to Elizabeth.  She found that she did not feel at home even while she was in Paris.  Barely a year after arriving in Paris, she moved to London where she remained for three years.  Elizabeth did not care much for the climate or the people, but had made friends with other families who had fled from France like Elizabeth did.

In 1804, Elizabeth returned to Paris to visit her daughter.  Elizabeth's health began to suffer due to her strenuous work schedule and high anxiety.  Her health was so bad and she suffered from fatigue to the extent that she desired to be alone and live in nature.  Elizabeth would move to Switzerland in 1808.  She felt the need for a place where she could be at ease and bought a house at Louveciennes and would spend much of her time at her home.

In 1824, after the death of her daughter and her brother, Elizabeth was left with no close relatives at all, except for two nieces.  She would travel throughout France trying to distract herself to no avail.  She settled back down in Paris and in Louveciennes splitting her time between the two homes.  Her two nieces who became her caregivers and treated her better than anybody could imagine.

One of the nieces was also a portrait painter who received great advice from Elizabeth.  Elizabeth said of her two nieces:

"They made me feel again the sentiments of a mother, and their tender devotion diffused a great charm over my life.  It is near these two dear ones and some friends who remain to me that I hope to terminate peacefully a life which has been wandering but calm, laborious but honorable."

Over the last few years of her life, the society world of Paris distinguished Elizabeth with many honors.

Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun died at the age of 87, in 1842 and was mourned by many friends and patrons she had accumulated during life.  Her career was a great one, in total, she painted over 660 paintings, including self-portraits, landscapes, royal families, aristocrats, famous authors, as well as leaders of churches.

Many museums around the world house paintings made by Elizabeth. These include such museums as:

  • Uffizi Museum, Italy
  • Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia
  • Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna, Italy
  • The Louvre, Paris France
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
  • National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
  • Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, Italy

You can a complete collection of Elizabeth's beautiful paintings online at http://www.batguano.com/Vigeegallerytop.html


I would like to thank Tiefling for bringing this fantastic artist to my attention. I found her very interesting, and her artistic abilities are second to none.


Sources:
Women And The Art World. 2nd ed. : Alpine Publishers, 1971.
http://www.batguano.com
http://www.artunframed.com
http://www.mezzo-mondo.com
http://www.artifact.ac.uk/
http://arthistory.heindorffhus.dk/
http://www.cyberpathway.com/art/
http://www.umfa.utah.edu
http://www.oil-paintings.com
http://www.art-newzealand.com/
http://www.artshow.com/
http://www.artcyclopedia.com
http://www.prtraits.com
http://www.arthistory.upenn.edu/
http://www.thegracemuseum.org

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