Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France

Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun
Historically, women have often faced exclusion from participation in the arts, their desire to establish themselves as professional artists curtailed or suppressed by a culture that deemed a career in painting or sculpture unsuitable for the “fairer sex”.

This is usually discussed in the context of personal hardship, individual women whose potential careers as artists were denied by the restrictions of society.

I tend to think of this as a much broader tragedy, in terms of how many potentially great women artists our short-sightedness and misogyny have denied us as a culture.

For examples, we can look to those women who managed to overcome the hurdles of their times and establish themselves as artists of note, making their contribution in spite of the odds.

As a prime example, I might suggest the brilliant 18th century French painter Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, a major figure in 18th century art and a personal favorite of mine among portrait painters, if not painters in general.

Encouraged and trained by her father, portrait painter Louis Vigée, she began her study of painting at an early age. She married painter and art dealer Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, through whom she had additional access to the art world and potential clients. His position, however, denied her access to the French Royal Academy, as it was considered a conflict of interest.

Vigée Lebrun’s elegant style and technical mastery made her a favorite of the French Queen, Marie Antoinette, whose intercession allowed the artist to be accepted as one of only four women academicians.

Vigée Lebrun’s career was tied to the state of the French aristocracy, and she was forced to flee the country with her nine year old daughter when the French Revolution caught up with the aristocracy’s extravagant ways and disdain for the needs of the common people.

Traveling and living in various cities, Vigée Lebrun painted portraits of aristocracy in Italy, Russian and Germany, before being able to return to post-revolutionary France.

I think she flattered her sitters, not so much in the way of changing their features, but in the extraordinary liveliness and vitality present in so many of her portraits. Even those who are older seem aglow with the vibrancy and energy of youth, especially her female subjects.

Vigée Lebrun’s touch in rendering the delicate nuances of color and value in skin tones and the ability she had to bring out the character of her sitters, particularly in the more casual portraits of friends and family, made her one of history’s most fascinating portraitists. (The images above at top and at bottom are self-portraits.)

There is currently a major retrospective of her work — organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in cooperation with the Grand Palais, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Château de Versailles — that has brought together over 80 of her paintings, drawings and pastels.

Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France” will be on display at the Met until May 15, 2016.

It then moves to the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

There is a book accompanying the exhibition, simply titled Vigée Le Brun (Amazon link). There is also a gallery of work on the Met’s site.

The images of the borrowed pieces are somewhat small, but you can see high-resolution versions of the three in the museum’s permanent collection.

We’re fortunate that Élisabeth Vigée Lebrun’s circumstances permitted her to pursue her art. Her legacy numbers over 600 works, including numerous drawings and pastels.

For more, see the Artcyclopedia listings and my related posts, linked below.

3 Replies to “Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France”

  1. Les femmes artistes et la Révolution française
    Soutenons les artistes femmes !

  2. Hi there! Thank you so much for this Vigee-Lebrun page ! I’ve just discovered her work and she’s jumped in at about No 2 in her category on my list of all-time greats :-).
    Lovely blog, and a great source of inspiration for all us budding wanabes!

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