Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun – At Paris, New York & Canada

Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun

Elisabeth Louise Vigee-Lebrun, Self Portrait, 1791, Ickworth, Suffolk, (National Trust Photographic Library)

How wonderful. At last the first retrospective of many wonderful portrait paintings by  Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) is on show at Paris at the Grand Palais Galleries Nationales through to January 11, 2016.

After that it will travel on to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York from February 15 and then at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa from 10th June.

Containing some 160 works, curated by Joseph Baillio and Xavier Salmon, the exhibition has some exceptional loans from private and public collections, including the Chateau of Versailles.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was one of the great portrait painters of her period in history and the exhibition provides an insight into her impact on history and people’s perceptions.

The Neoclassical movement of the second half of the eighteenth century left a legacy in which designers ever since have found inspiration in the clarity, simplicity and spaciousness of its forms.

It grew gradually embracing many disciplines and was seen from St. Petersburg to Edinburgh, from Virginia to Versailles.

Its identification with Ancient Greece and Rome had as much to do with the eighteenth century’s perception of early democracy, as it did with antique rules of architecture and design.

Self-portraits of Vigée Le Brun abound.


Queen Marie Antoinette, also known as The Muslin Portrait, oil on canvas, by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1783; in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

She used her paintings, pastels and drawings, eight of which will be on display, to assert her own status and position as a single working mother.

Successfully she raised a child on her own, despite the constraints placed on her by her chosen career, becoming a woman for all time, a woman of influence.

Taught by her father Louis Vigée, a noted portraitist who worked chiefly in pastels, it was 1776 when Marie-Louise-Elisabeth Vigée married art dealer JBP Le Brun, adding his surname after her own.

The self-portraits are exceedingly appealing and revealing.

They introduce us to the delightful young woman of whom her father himself said “You will be a painter, my child, if ever there was one,”

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun triumphed over long entrenched prejudices to enjoy a career made possible by becoming Marie Antoinette’s favourite portraitist.

Renowned for her freshness, charm and sensitivity, she painted some 900 pictures in her lifetime including, 600 portraits and some 200 or so landscapes.

A year younger than the Queen, Vigée Lebrun became a friend


Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun, 1783, Marie-Antoinette, Queen consort of King Louis XVI of France, Chateau of Versailles

She was considered a great beauty and the charm of her work speedily made her fashionable.

Over a period of six years she painted more than thirty portraits of the Queen and her family.

In return Queen Marie-Antoinette offered Vigée LeBrun kindness, using her influence to have her paintings hung at the Academy of Painting, the impediment at first being that her husband, because he was an art dealer, until the King and Queen vouched for her being a painter in her own right.

She was admitted in 1783, becoming one of only four women members.

Vigée Le Brun painted Marie Antoinette twice in 1782, one of which she was wearing a silk dress carrying a Rose. However this was not the first work she chose to hang at the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, established in Paris in 1648 under the leadership of Louis XIV’s favourite designer Charles Le Brun (1619-1690)

She submitted an unusual portrait of her patron for display. The portrait revealed the Queen not wearing royal finery, silks, satins or brocades as per usual, but in a simple Creole style white muslin dress. In itself this nearly caused a revolution, especially when all the silk workers in Lyon rioted in protest.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun became painter confidante to many of the royal personages of Europe.

Her connections with the French royal family and in Parisian high society would make the revolution dangerous for her. Following the fall of the Bastille in 1789 Vigée Le Brun was forced to flee.

Vigee Le Brun Countess Anna Stroganova

Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun, 1795-1801, Portrait of Countess Anna Stroganova with her son, oil on canvas, courtesy The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

There is no doubt she would have lost her pretty head had she remained.

In 1790, she was elected to membership in the Accademia di San Luca, Rome and worked in Florence, Naples, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and Berlin.

She spent three years in Vienna (Princess von und zu Liechtenstein, 1793, private collection, New York) and more than six years in Russia, with all the while her paintings still being exhibited in the Paris Salons while  she was in exile.

Painting was her life and she went on painting beautiful women and powerful men including Countess Anna Stroganova  and her son. Baron Grigori Alexandrovich Stroganov, 1st Count Stroganov, and his wife née Princess Anna Sergeevna Trubetskaya were life long friends and patrons of Vigée Le Brun.

One of the richest families in Russia, they were “imenitye liudy” (distinguished persons), a designation granted to them by Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich.

Emma by Vigee le Brun

Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun, 1790, Lady Hamilton as Ariadne

Her new clients across the channel included England’s Naval hero Lord Horatio Nelson whose liaison with Emma, Lady Hamilton had made them the most famous Briton celebrities in the world at the time.

Vigée Le Brun’s portraits of Emma were newsworthy. They also became a source of prejudice against the talented woman who was not only a remarkable artist, but also succeeded in a male dominated profession, making her an object of envy.

By the end of the eighteenth century class distinctions were beginning to fade; and the French revolution although it eventually ended the monarchy saw the rise first of the Empire under the Emperor Napoleon

Vigee Le Brun

Self Portrait, Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun, c1781, Kimbell Art Museum

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was in London still, where she had painted portraits of the Prince of Wales and Lord Byron, among others, only returning to Paris in 1805 when Napoleon 1 succeeded to the throne. She returned to Paris in 1805 where she died aged 86 in 1842, having lived a good life.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun

Grand Palais
Galleries Nationales

Ends 11 January, 2016


The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Special Exhibition Gallery 199

New York

February 15 – May 15, 2016


National Gallery of Canada,
Special Exhibition Galleries
Ottawa, Ontario

10 Jun 2016 – 11 Sep 2016


The exhibition is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Réunion des Musées Nationaux – Grand Palais, and the National Gallery of Canada, with the exceptional participation of the Château de Versailles.

Curators : Joseph Baillio, Art Historian, Xavier Salmon, Director of the Graphic Arts Department at the Louvre Museum
Scenography : Loretta Gaïtis

This exhibition is produced by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais.



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