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Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun: The Odyssey of an Artist in an Age of Revolution

Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
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    Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun
    Book Description:

    The foremost woman artist of her age, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) exerted her considerable charm to become the friend, and then official portraitist, of Marie Antoinette. Though profitable, this role made Vigée Le Brun a public and controversial figure, and in 1789 it precipitated her exile. In a Europe torn by strife and revolution, she nevertheless managed to thrive as an independent, self-supporting artist, doggedly setting up studios in Rome, Naples, Venice, Milan, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and London. Long overlooked or dismissed, Vigée Le Brun's portraits now hang in the Louvre, in a room of their own, as well as in all leading art museums of the world.

    This gripping biography tells the story of a singularly gifted and high-spirited woman during the revolutionary era and explores the development and significance of her art. The book also recounts the public and private lives of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, connecting her with such personalities of her age as Catherine the Great, Napoleon, and Benjamin Franklin, and setting her experiences in the context of contemporary European politics and culture. A generous selection of illustrations, including sixteen of Vigée Le Brun's portraits presented in full color, completes this exceptional volume.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13000-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    The name of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842), whose remarkably long lifetime spanned the last decades of the Old Regime, the Revolution, the Empire, the Restoration, and the July Monarchy, is familiar enough, primarily because of what has been characterized by Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin inWomen Artists, 1550–1950,as her prodigious talent” and as the much sought-after portraitist of not only European royalty and nobility, but also of notable personalities in the arts and letters of her time.¹

    Among Vigée Le Brun’s best-known works are her famous portraits of Marie-Antoinette, either alone or surrounded by...

  4. CHAPTER ONE Early Years
    (pp. 7-16)

    On April 16, 1755, during the reign of Louis XV, a baby girl was born to Louis Vigée, a minor but well-connected Parisian portraitist, and Jeanne Maissin, a handsome and pious hairdresser, daughter of amarchandlaboureur,or merchant farmer, who hailed from Rossart, in the province of Luxembourg. The couple, who had married in 1750, lived on the bustling right bank rue Coquilière, still in existence today, and the infant was baptized in the nearby imposing Church of Saint Eustache, in the Halles Quarter, which provided the capital with all its essential foodstuff and which Emile Zola would call the...

  5. CHAPTER TWO First Successes
    (pp. 17-21)

    While Elisabeth and her friend Rosalie Bocquet went about their daily task of studying their craft in Briard’s atelier, they were hardly aware of the major political and social events as well as the scandals that rocked the monarchy. In 1768 Marie Lesczynska, daughter of Stanislas I of Poland, queen of France and royal consort of Louis XV, who had borne his ten children but had led a retired existence at court and had made no attempt to rival the king’s mistresses, died. The king’s grief was of short duration, and he hastened to acknowledge his new mistress, Jeanne Bécu,...

  6. CHAPTER THREE Marriage
    (pp. 22-36)

    As a singularly gifted and attractive young painter, Elisabeth Vigée came on the artistic and social scene at a particularly propitious time for her type of pleasing and idealized portraiture. The fashionable French circles, always eager for new faces and new talent, began to seek her out and to invite her to dinners and other functions. Her beauty and natural graciousness easily endeared her to the nobility, and her stepfather’s move to the fashionable vicinity of Palais-Royal facilitated socially useful encounters. Ladies of the court, among others the Duchess of Chartres, daughter-in-law of the Duke of Orléans, who frequently took...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR Marie-Antoinette’s Portraitist
    (pp. 37-47)

    As Vigée Le Brun’s reputation grew, Versailles became increasingly aware of her existence (plate 6). She painted her first portrait of Marie-Antoinette in 1778,Marie-Antoinette “en robe à paniers”(plate 7). This is a full-length, formal representation of the queen in court regalia, wearing a splendidly decorated white satin hoopskirt. While the portrait brilliantly demonstrates Vigée Le Brun’s virtuosity as a court painter, it reveals little of its subject. But it was eminently in keeping with a tradition of formal portraiture of the spouse of a monarch. The portrait was executed for the queen’s brother, Emperor Joseph II, and Marie-Antoinette...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE Vigée Le Brun Salonnière
    (pp. 48-66)

    Just as sociability permeated the art of Vigée Le Brun, it was also an important factor that motivated her to become asalonnière. Her ideal of happiness, of easy, spontaneous, and friendly communication with kindred souls is at the root of her salon. As the wife of an ambitious art dealer she also doubtless realized that a salon would be helpful to both her own career and her husband’s business.¹ Salons were presided over by women of culture and wit who also happened to have the right connections with men of power or exceptional achievement. Among the most famous and...

  9. CHAPTER SIX 1789
    (pp. 67-76)

    In the midst of her very busy life as an exceptionally sought-after and well-connected portraitist, Vigée Le Brun could not help being aware that the brilliant world she so greatly enjoyed was a brittle one. While she seemed to have remained ignorant (perhaps willfully so) of the dire economic realities that oppressed the people, she could not ignore all kinds of ominous rumors that reached her studio or salon.

    Unrest was brewing in Paris, and indeed for Vigée Le Brun, who owed everything to the monarchy, the events leading up to 1789 and the ensuing upheaval would forever be etched...

    (pp. 77-87)

    The experience of the sublime through the discovery of the Alps was a galvanizing moment for Vigée Le Brun. It snapped her out of her depression and restored her naturally optimistic frame of mind. She now eagerly looked forward to discovering Italy and its rich cultural heritage. After all, had she not long dreamed of seeking a better understanding of the classical sources of art by visiting and even making a prolonged stay in Italy, as was customary for any serious artist?

    In 1789 the area that is now known as Italy comprised several small independent kingdoms and duchies which...

  11. Color plate
    (pp. None)
  12. CHAPTER EIGHT Naples, Venice, Milan
    (pp. 88-112)

    Upon arriving in Naples on April 9, 1790, Vigée Le Brun immediately sensed that it was unique in its attractiveness and a world apart from other Italian cities, Rome in particular. InSouvenirsshe aptly evokes her first powerful impression of the city: “That brilliant sun, that stretch of sea, those islands perceived in the distance, that Vesuvius from which rose a great column of smoke, and the crowds so animated and noisy and who differ so markedly from those of Rome that one might suppose they were a thousand miles apart” (I, 196). Everything about Naples intrigued and enchanted...

  13. CHAPTER NINE Vienna
    (pp. 113-126)

    When Vigée Le Brun arrived in Vienna, Austria had recently entered into war with revolutionary France. Maria Theresa, the powerful mother of Marie-Antoinette, had, among her other accomplishments, increased the reputation of Vienna as a center of the arts, and especially of music. After her death in 1780, her son and successor, Joseph II, impelled by the ideals of the Enlightenment, somewhat impetuously carried forward the reforms she had cautiously undertaken. When he died in 1790, he was succeeded by his brother Leopold II, who at first seemed receptive to the French revolutionary cause and hoped to avoid a war...

  14. CHAPTER TEN The Russian Experience
    (pp. 127-151)

    Vigée Le Brun had reached her fortieth birthday when she arrived in Saint Petersburg in the summer of 1795, but she had lost none of her enthusiasm, energy, and eagerness to test herself in the face of challenging new adventures and experiences.

    The city itself was a creation by the sheer willpower of Peter the Great at the dawn of the eighteenth century in order to provide for Russia an outlet to the sea and a port of trade through the Baltic. More importantly, he wanted it to be not only the new Russian capital and a modern metropolis, but...

  15. Color plate
    (pp. None)
  16. CHAPTER ELEVEN Homeward Bound
    (pp. 152-164)

    Accompanied by the ever loyal Auguste Rivière (her sister-in-law’s brother), who had faithfully followed her in her peripatetic career all the way to Russia, Vigée Le Brun was in a state of physical and emotional exhaustion as she embarked on her lengthy and arduous voyage back to Western Europe. But she gradually recovered as she eagerly took in the new sights afforded to her in the course of her journey.

    Her first stop was Narva, a well-fortified little town in Estonia, edged with picturesque houses and English gardens, the Baltic sea within view. She noted that both men and women...

  17. CHAPTER TWELVE The English Interlude
    (pp. 165-174)

    Vigée Le Brun expected to stay a few months in England. She ended up remaining there for more than two years, until July of 1805, retained not only by professional commitments but also by the warm hospitality extended to her by the English. Besides, with its brilliant social life and thriving art market, London had a great deal to offer an enterprising, resourceful visitor like Vigée Le Brun. That she did not know the language did not present a significant obstacle, for she would move primarily in the exclusive circles of English aristocrats, who were generally conversant in French, as...

  18. CHAPTER THIRTEEN Return to Imperial France
    (pp. 175-189)

    When Vigée Le Brun left France in 1803, it was under the Consulate. When she decided to return to her homeland in 1805, it was under the Empire. In the meantime, Bonaparte had consolidated his power by proclaiming himself Emperor of the French in May 1804 before a subservient senate. After confirmation by a plebiscite on December 2, 1804, in a solemn ceremony at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, he seized the crown from the hands of Pope Pius VII and placed it on his own head, thereby proclaiming the French Empire as a uniquely personal achievement that...

  19. CHAPTER FOURTEEN An Active Old Age
    (pp. 190-201)

    Soon after Waterloo and the 1815 Restoration Vigée Le Brun experienced a cruel personal loss. In early December 1819 she learned that her daughter, Julie Nigris, was ailing and hastened to her side at her Paris apartment on 39, rue de Sèvres. Mother and daughter had long had a difficult, tense relationship, due principally to Julie’s headstrong ways, and especially to her ill-advised and ill-fated marriage to Nigris. But they had occasionally seen each other in Paris after Julie’s separation from her husband, although Julie stubbornly rejected her mother’s repeated offers to come and live with her. But all resentments...

  20. Afterword
    (pp. 202-204)

    Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun presents the unique case of a great woman artist who consistently subscribed to all the political, social, and religious values of Old Regime France, yet was a revolutionary in the way she fearlessly pursued an independent career as a self-taught, selfsupporting painter and as an exile wandering on her own in a Europe torn by revolution and war. She managed, after fleeing from Paris in 1789, to continue painting and setting up studios in Rome, Naples, Venice, Milan, Vienna, Saint Petersburg, and London. Against all odds, she doggedly pursued her calling as an artist and was...

  21. NOTES
    (pp. 205-220)
    (pp. 221-222)
  23. INDEX
    (pp. 223-237)