An Illustrated Introduction to the Paintings of Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun
By Sena Jeter Naslund, Author of The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman.
Welcome to the website! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my novel The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman. It features two women artists: one an imagined fiction writer, Kathryn, who lives on St. James Court in Louisville and the other a renowned historical French painter, Élisabeth, who is the subject of Kathryn’s just-drafted novel. On this website, I’ve grouped images of Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun’s actual paintings in several categories, presented with my brief comments, the probable date when the painting was created, and the museum where it is now housed. Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun lived from 1755-1842.
To view the paintings, click on the hyperlinks below. These images, and many more, can be found on the wonderful site The Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun Gallery, at http://www.batguano.com/vigeegallery.html.
One of the earliest of Élisabeth’s works, painted in her teen years but considered to be of museum quality, is her portrait of her younger brother as a schoolboy, Étienne Vigée. (1769? or 1773? St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri)
Élisabeth painted two outstanding portraits of older artists who guided her as a youth and became life-long friends. Each is portrayed holding the items that identify him as a painter. Joseph Vernet often gave Élisabeth fatherly advice; sadly, his own daughter was sent to the guillotine during the Revolution for wasting the candles of France. Hubert Robert, imprisoned but released during the Revolution, was among those who welcomed Élisabeth back to Paris after her exile during the revolutionary period. (Joseph Vernet, 1778, The Louvre, Paris; Hubert Robert, 1788, The Louvre, Paris)
While Élisabeth was primarily a portrait painter, mythological paintings were considered a higher form of art than portraiture. Her painting Peace Bringing Back Abundance, which represents Peace and Abundance as two allegorical women, was the application piece for her successful bid for admission to the French Académie. Notice that Peace carries an olive branch in one hand, while Abundance, with flowers in her hair, is carrying wheat to signify plenty. She also displays a harvest of fruits. (1780, The Louvre, Paris)
PAINTINGS OF MARIE ANTOINETTE
Because the mother of Marie Antoinette, Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria, complained that none of the portraits she had been sent of her daughter depicted her accurately, Antoinette took the advice of friends to engage Élisabeth as a portraitist. The two young women immediately became friends. Nothing was of greater importance in establishing Élisabeth as a significant artist than her thirty portraits of Antoinette.
The very first portrait of Antoinette in formal court dress won the praise of Maria Theresa. Antoinette’s fashionable and expensive dress was held out at the sides by paniers or baskets and used thirty-six yards of silk in its construction. (1778, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)
Antoinette often grew weary of the formality of the Court and its heavy dresses. Though accused of extravagance, she preferred to wear simpler, less expensive dresses of muslin, with straw hats and no jewelry. This is one of my favorite portraits of Antoinette, but the French public was outraged that the queen allowed herself to be presented in what they termed her chemise, a dress that resembled underclothing or a nightgown. (1783, Private Collection, Germany)
To provide a substitute for the portrait thought to lack queenly dignity, Élisabeth painted a second portrait in a similar pose, but this time Antoinette is wearing silk, lace, jewelry, and a more elaborate hat. In both portraits, the queen is holding a rose, the symbol of beauty. (1783, Versailles)
One of the last portraits Élisabeth painted of Antoinette shows her in a maternal pose, surrounded by her children. It is something of a propaganda piece intended to suggest that the queen is the Mother of France. One of her children, Sophie, who died as a baby, is sympathetically referenced in the painting by an empty crib. Soon after this large, regal painting was hung, the populace demanded its removal from the salon and placed in its stead a placard that read Madame Deficite. (1787, Versailles)
SELF-PORTRAITS BY ÉLISABETH VIGÉE LE BRUN
Artists have often practiced their technique by painting themselves; self-portraits also serve to establish the identity of the artist. Probably every viewer has his or her own interpretation of such self portraits. To me, the six self-portraits presented here mark different phases of Élisabeth’s life.
Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbon (1781, Kimball Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas) presents Élisabeth as a young person looking directly but unassertively at the viewer; the face is divided rather evenly into areas of light and shadow. Élisabeth appears as a pretty and slender young woman, with a modest neckline and a crisp cerise bow. At the time of the painting Élisabeth was actually a mother, age 26, and she was an established artist, though the painting itself does not suggest these facts; instead it focuses on her youthfulness and even innocence.
Much to her delight, Élisabeth and her husband Charles Le Brun, a dealer in fine art, took a business trip out of France, to Antwerp, where Élisabeth saw a famous Rubens’ painting of a woman in a straw hat. She was particularly impressed with Rubens’s use of contrasting kinds of brightness—direct sunlight and the ambient sunlight—instead of the more usual demarcation of light and shadow. Using herself as the model, she immediately experimented with the technique. In this Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat, she identifies herself as an artist by placing her palette and brushes in one hand; she seems in a new role: stepping forward confidently both as an artist and as an attractive young woman moving through the wide world. The background is an expanse of blue sky, not a neutral or dark interior, and her neckline is considerably lower, though she wears the same earrings and black lace shawl as in the earlier, more youthful-appearing portrait of 1781. The ribbon is limp as though tied and untied many times. The painting rather insists that she herself is the painter as the colors on her palette are those used in the painted flowers on her hat. It was when he saw this painting that her friend and mentor the painter Joseph Vernet suggested she should apply for admission into the exclusive Académie. A detail from this painting is used on the cover of my novel. (1782, National Gallery, London, England)
As Élisabeth’s fame increased, other artists became jealous of her success and spread rumors about her: that a man had actually painted the portraits attributed to her and/or that she was “unnatural,” perhaps possessing a penis or that her paint brush was a kind of penis substitute. Perhaps because her gender was in question, this Self-Portrait with Julie shows her like a Madonna, in a triangular composition, holding a child, with the mother figure’s turban suggesting something like a halo. The facial expression is one of exaggerated sweetness. She called the painting “Maternal Tenderness” to further emphasis that she was thoroughly female and therefore harmless. (1786, The Louvre, Paris)
I much prefer a later portrait with daughter Julie, painting in 1789, the year Élisabeth and Julie escaped the revolution by dressing as commoners and taking a common stage coach not only out of Paris but out of France to seek safety in Italy. Her art-dealer husband, less identified with royalty than Élisabeth, choose to stay behind to safe-guard his collection. In this painting, Élisabeth is wearing a simple “Greek” tunic that references her extremely successful social life as a salonnaire. An impromptu party she gave, costuming her guests as ancient Greeks was the talk and envy of Parisian court society. (1789, The Louvre, Paris)
Élisabeth and Julie having fled to Italy, Élisabeth began this 1790 self-portrait in Florence at the request of the Uffizi museum (which was building a collection of esteemed artists’ self-portraits) and finished it in Rome. Élisabeth’s reputation as a portrait painter was recognized and extended by her years in Italy. Here she is depicted not just holding her palette and brushes but in the very act of painting. The interesting position of her paintbrush at the edge of the canvas, in this version of the painting, suggests to me that she may be toying with the boundaries between art and life. Her facial expression seems almost dazed, as though the trauma of escaping from her dangerous country has lingered; her black dress, defined by a crimson sash and a white collar, also strikes a somber note. The subject whom Elisabeth is in the act of painting is Marie Antoinette. Élisabeth’s facial expression seems somewhat wistful and suggests that she misses her friend the queen whom she must now paint from memory. Of course Antoinette’s image also served to remind Italian patrons of the status Élisabeth had achieved in France, as a royal portraitist. (1790, Uffizi Museum, Florence, Italy)
Painted ten years later in Russia, this portrait again represents Élisabeth as an artist involved in her creative process. The Russian painting is enlivened with gold woven into the white turban and by a heavy gold necklace. Élisabeth’s seated position is less stark and stiff and more naturalistic than in the Italian self-portrait. The painter seems to be looking beyond the frame, at her subject, who is out of view. Or is she gazing beyond her world, at us? There’s a sort of direct-indirectness in the composition that is especially engaging to me. While it differs from the magnificent outdoors Antwerp “Here I am” portrait-of-the-artist holding her brushes and palette, this image has some of its vitality and alive-in-the-moment feeling. Here the painting has a more contemplative, almost intellectual air.
PORTRAITS OF ÉLISABETH’S BELOVED DAUGHTER JULIE
We have already seen two portraits of Julie as a child with her mother in France, included in Élisabeth’s self portraits of 1786 and 1789. Here is an additional one that through the use of a mirror provides both a full face and profile of Julie as a small child. Julie appears thoughtful and rather solemn about contemplating her own face, and Élisabeth mentions several times in her memoir, Souvenirs, how Julie’s utterances sometimes amazed and delighted her mother with their solemn originality. (Julie Le Brun with a Mirror, 1787, Private collection, France)
Élisabeth was particularly pleased about her rendering of Julie’s facial expression in this portrait of her beloved daughter, who is now a young teen in Italy, just having finished a bath. (1792, formerly Youssoupoff Collection, St. Petersburg, Russia)
During her Russian sojourn, Élisabeth painted two young women as the goddess of flowers, Flora, including her daughter, shown here with a basket of flowers on her head. In mythology, Zephyrus, the god of the wind, was the lover of Flora, and in this portrait her clothes are being stirred by the wind. (Julie Le Brun as Flora, 1799, St. Petersburg Art Museum, Florida)