The Portraits of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun: (Brush)Strokes of Female Genius

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun Portrait of a young girl in the guise of Atalanta, said to be Jeanne Julie Louise Le Brun (1780-1809), the artist's daughter oil on canvas. Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun - Portrait of a young girl in the guise of Atalanta, said to be Jeanne Julie Louise Le Brun (1780-1809), the artist's daughter oil on canvas. Est: £100,000 GBP - £150,000 GBP via Sotheby's July 04, 2007.

Achieving artistic acclaim in the 18th century was no easy task; even more challenging was seeking success as a female artist. Despite this difficult environment, French painter Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun persevered to become one of the most beloved portraitists of her generation. This article celebrates Vigée Le Brun’s female fortitude by sharing the story of her career and some of her most successful works that set her on course for artistic stardom.

Vigée Le Brun’s Path to Portraiture

Born in Paris in 1755, Vigée Le Brun showcased an artistic inclination as a young girl, however, it was thanks to her father’s profession as a pastel artist that Vigée Le Brun was afforded formal training. At the time, women were widely omitted from the artistic academies that produced notable artists. For those who had a male relative who was a professional artist, though, the pursuit of such training was possible. That said, Vigée Le Brun thrived in her training and was recognized quickly for her skill with her 1783 acceptance as a member into the Academic Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. That she achieved this landmark before the age of 30 and was one of only 15 women to be granted such membership before 1793 alludes to her incredible talent.

That same year, Vigée Le Brun began work for what would become one of the most lucrative – and controversial – patrons, Queen Marie Antoinette. Throughout the 1780s Vigée Le Brun would compose 30 portraits of Marie, some of which are still today considered the most striking of the once-beloved queen. The tides turned on the French monarchy, however, with the onset of the French Revolution in 1789. Vigée Le Brun sensed this rising foment, particularly given her associations with the royal court and her growing fears over the turmoil percolating across France. Vigée Le Brun thus fled the country, first for Italy and then on to Austria, Russia, and Germany. At each stop Vigée Le Brun continued to attract prestigious patrons, including British Lady Emma Hamilton in 1792 and Russian Grand Duchess Elizabeth Alexeievna in 1795 such that Vigée Le Brun’s return to France in the early 19th century allowed her to easily return to her earlier acclaimed status.  

The Perfection of Vigée Le Brun’s Portraits

Vigée Le Brun succeeded as a portraitist thanks largely to her ability to imbue some of the personality of her sitters into their painted likenesses. Her subjects reflected a freshness and softness that ran counter to the more stiff, formal Neoclassical portraits of Jacques Louis David or Claude-Joseph Vernet. This air of spontaneity in her work recalled some of the playfulness of the earlier Rococo era and thus revealed some of Vigée Le Brun’s clever melding of styles to conjure an approach all her own. At the same time, Vigée Le Brun expressed her technical abilities with color and paint handling across all of her works, resulting in portraits that were equally refined for the most elegant or elite of patrons.

To better appreciate her virtuosity in the realm of portraiture, let’s take a closer look at some of Vigée Le Brun’s most iconic likenesses:

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun – Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat (1782). Public Domain image.

Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat (1782)

One of her most celebrated self-portraits, Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat reveals the vivacity for which Vigée Le Brun’s paintings are known. Set against a brilliant blue sky, Vigée Le Brun glows at center, her relaxed hand and fluttering feather in her cap conveying the sense that she has just paused only briefly for her picture to be captured. Painted shortly after a sojourn to the Netherlands where Vigée Le Brun studied the work of painters like of Peter Paul Rubens, this self-portrait suggests a bit of Rubens’ influence particularly in her pose’s liveliness. Simultaneously, the fact that she shows herself with the tools of her trade – her palette and brush primed for work – exalts her pride in her profession.

Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787)

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun - Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787)

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun – Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787). Public Domain image.

One of the many portraits of the French queen that Vigée Le Brun was privileged to paint, Marie Antoinette and Her Children was commissioned by King Louis XVI and places Marie at the heart of the royal family. Emulating traditional religious scenes of the Holy Family, Vigée Le Brun’s adaptation here reveals both the elegance of the queen as well as her capabilities as a mother surrounded by her children. The energy of this painting is somewhat subdued, but it is to be expected as it is also a scene of mourning: the empty bassinet at right is in homage to the queen’s fourth child, daughter Sophie Hélène Béatrix, who died in June 1878.

Lady Emma Hamilton as a Bacchante (1790-1791)

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun - Lady Emma Hamilton as a Bacchante (1790-1791)

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun – Lady Emma Hamilton as a Bacchante (1790-1791). Public Domain image.

Though actress and dancer Lady Hamilton sat for several portraits with Vigée Le Brun, Lady Emma Hamilton as a Bacchante is undoubtedly one of her most energized. Posed in Classical garb in the role of a follower of the Roman god Bacchus, Lady Hamilton seems to dance through Vigée Le Brun’s with incredible effervescence. Her flowing locks and playful tambourine seem to counter the imposing profile of a smoking volcano in the distance, revealing Vigée Le Brun’s clever means of incorporating Neoclassical flair into her sitter’s environments.

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun – Frederick Augustus Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol (1790). Public Domain image.

Though Vigée Le Brun was prolific in her portraits of women, this portrait of the Earl of Bristol recalls that male sitters also called upon her to paint. In this scene, Vigée Le Brun captures the earl in a dignified pose, again set against a smoldering volcano yet made even more grand with the Classicizing architecture that frames the composition.

Portrait of the Countess Golovina (circa 1800)

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun – Portrait of the Countess Golovina (circa 1800). Public Domain image.

A memento of her time in Russia while escaping France’s revolutionary chaos, Vigée Le Brun’s Portrait of Countess Golovina memorializes Countess Varvara Nikolayevna Golovina, a member of the Russian aristocracy and close associate of Empress Elizabeth, wife of Emperor Alexander I. Despite her elite pedigree, the countess appears relatable: in place of an elegant gown or opulent setting, she poses against an unremarkable backdrop and seems to snuggle within the many folds of her red mantel that envelops her as if a chill has overcome her. Perhaps most striking is the directness of the countess’s piercing gaze that directly engages the viewer.

Though only a small sample of the roughly 300 paintings Vigée Le Brun completed during her career, they nevertheless showcase some of the dynamism of her work and how remarkable she was in capturing the essence of her sitters. Through such works one can see why she was such a treasured painter of her generation, and how she became a transformational figure for those following.

Vigée Le Brun the Trailblazer

Breaking down barriers for female artists working in the 18th century, Vigée Le Brun assuredly inspired subsequent women to pursue their passion for painting. Furthermore, Vigée Le Brun chartered her own course in painting. Rather than simply following the styles prescribed by some of the leading art movements of her era, Vigée Le Brun instead crafted a pastiche of styles that allowed her to create portraits that balance idealization with vivacity. Such an approach revolutionized aristocratic portraiture and secured Vigée Le Brun’s place as one of the most accomplished painters of all time.