Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun, in the self-portrait above, could be mistaken for a conventional 18th century woman, getting ready to pursue a conventional pastime like painting flowers. But underneath the modest smile lurked talent, ambition, grit and a fierce determination to survive and thrive. She lived through turbulent times when many others in her position lost their heads–literally. As a protege and friend of Marie Antoinette, Elisabeth adroitly escaped the horrors of the French Revolution, and even made the political turmoil work in her favor.
As a talented teenager, Elisabeth began painting portraits of society people, helped by her father, a fan painter, and later other teachers who recognized her talent. An important benefactor was Louise de Bourbon, wife of the Duke of Orleans. Early in Elisabeth’s career, everything in her studio was confiscated by the authorities–because she didn’t have a license to paint! (In modern times, we often think our world is over-regulated. But at least in most places, being a starving artist does not require a government license). She applied for membership in the Academie de Saint Luc, and was somehow admitted. It sounds to me like they didn’t realize they were dealing with a young girl. Maybe she just used her initials when she submitted paintings for approval.
Her marriage helped her career. At age 20, she married Jean-Baptist-Pierre LeBrun, a painter and art dealer. His grandfather had been the first Director of the French Academy under Louis XIV, the Sun King. Soon Elisabeth was painting Marie Antoinette and her family members–about 30 royal family portraits in all.
When the French Revolution broke out, Elisabeth decamped to safer surroundings. She worked for several years in Russia, Italy, and Austria. Eventually, she was allowed to return to France while Napoleon I was Emperor. She continued to paint well into old age, once causing a minor scandal by painting a self-portrait with her teeth showing. This was simply not done–probably for good reason, since most people had terrible teeth in those times. She died in 1842, at the ripe old age of 86. She left behind over 600 portraits, plus 200 landscapes and history paintings, which now appear in museums and private collections all over Europe and in the United States.
Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!