Women’s History Month Artist Spotlight: Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

 In MOA Features
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun: Self-Portrait, 1790

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, “Self-Portrait,” 1790, oil on canvas, 39.3 x 31.8 inches. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

Guest Post by Ellen Ford, MOA Marketing & PR Intern

Although she was born and died in Paris, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun achieved international prominence during her lifetime.

As the child of a portraitist, Le Brun was given early access to her father’s studio and art materials. In her memoirs, Le Brun describes the passion for art she discovered at a young age: “I scrawled on everything at all seasons; my copy-books, and even those of my schoolmates had their margins crammed with tiny drawings of heads and profiles.”

By the time she was 17, she was receiving commissions from wealthy clients and became a member of the Academy of Saint Luc at 19. She was known as a skilled conversationalist, who could put her subjects at ease while they sat for her, producing portrait subjects who looked animated and natural.

In 1776, she married Jean-Baptiste Le Brun, an eminent art dealer of the time. The marriage started smoothly and gave Le Brun access to art and connections in high French society. The couple had one child, Jeanne-Lucie-Louise Le Brun, affectionately nicknamed “Brunette” by her mother. However, the marriage soon turned sour as Jean-Baptiste’s tendencies to gamble away Le Brun’s earnings strained the relationship.
Le Brun later became the royal portraitist for Marie Antoinette and produced thirty portraits for the French queen. According to Katherine Baetier, the curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Although a woman artist who was the daughter of a hairdresser could not be a friend to the queen of France, perhaps it did matter to the queen that they were exactly the same age, and over the several years that Vigée Le Brun painted her, they were also both of child-bearing age, and both had children, and both lost a child… I have a sense that this must have mattered in some way.”

Although her work for the queen brought her increased prominence and attention, her royal associations put her in danger once the French Revolution began. She left France and would spend the next years traveling throughout Europe while continuing to paint royalty and aristocrats to support herself and her daughter.

She eventually returned to France, where she would die in 1842. Her work was largely ignored following her death and the significance of her oeuvre was not recognized until the late 20th century, when exhibitions featuring her work were toured by major art institutions.

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