Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun: Prodigy, Paint And Princesses

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun's work can be found in many museums all over the world, reflecting the fact that Le Brun was extremely prolific and well traveled.  Her body of work consists of approximately 800 paintings.  Like Adelaide Labille-Guiard( the subject of several of my previous blog posts) Le Brun became an important and distinguished artist in France During the latter half of the 18th century. She became Marie Antoinette's official portraitist by the time she was 25 years old- ultimately painting more than 20 portraits of the Queen.

"Marie Antoinette", 1783,  by Elisabeth Vigee Le Burn

"Marie Antoinette", 1786, by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun
Le Brun was born in Paris in 1755.  Her father, Louis Vigee, was a pastel portraitist, who taught at the Academie de Saint-Luc in Paris.  Elisabeth learned much about art from him at an early age. Unfortunately, he died in 1767 due to a wound he acquired, while accidentally swallowing a fishbone. It was in this year, at the age of 12, that Elisabeth took over her father's studio.  The young girl was noticed by the painter Greuze (famous for his rustic group scenes) and remained a good friend throughout Vigee Le Brun's life. Young Elisabeth received encouragement and guidance from Greuze and other notable painters of the era. Her early talent and reputation attracted enough portrait commissions to support her family by the time she was 15.  
In 1776 Vigee Le Brun married the art dealer Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, a great nephew of Charles Le Brun, who was appointed the Director of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1663 and had been declared by Louis the XIV the "greatest French painter of all time".  Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun misled Elisabeth into believing that he was wealthy, when in reality he did not even own the house he lived in.  However, he was well connected in the French Art world and specialized in Old Master paintings.  She soon realized that Jean Baptiste was a handful, he was a womanizer, gambler and a "big spender".  To help "finance" his lavish tastes, he encouraged Elisabeth to take on pupils for additional income.  Teaching, however was not her passion.  One of Elisabeth Vigee's notable pupils was Marie Guilhelmine Benoist (also known as Marie Guilhelmine de Laville Laroux).  She received several commissions from Napoleon Bonaparte and was awarded a gold medal and stipend from the Napoleonic regime.

 One of Vigee Le Brun's pupils, Marie Guilhemine Benoist  (1768-1826):

"Self Portrait", 1790, by Marie Guilhelmine Benoist , Sandiego Museum of Art

"Portrait of A Lady", 1799, by Marie Guilhelmine Benoist
"Portrait of Elisa Bonaparte", 1805, by Marie Guilhelmine Benoist

In 1780 Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun's marriage produced one child- Jeanne-Julie Louise, referred to as "Julie".  Julie was the subject in many of Elisabeth's paintings.  Maternity or "Madonna and Child" was a topic Vigee Lebrun used repeatedly in her paintings.

"Self Portrait with Daughter Julie", 1786, by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, Collection of the Louvre
"The Bather (Julie Le Brun)", 1792, by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun
In 1789 the French Revolution and its hostility towards the monarchy, forced Vigee Lebrun-painter of the royalty-- to flee to Italy and relocate there.  Her husband stayed behind to protect his art collection.  His personal ties with Jacques-Louis David saved him from persecution (David was a powerful figure in the French art scene).  Elisabeth's stay in Italy lasted from 1789 to 1792.  Among the cities she visited were Rome, Florence, Naples and Milan.  She enjoyed and enriched her artistic senses by visiting the great masterpieces of Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo Da Vinci and many others found in Italian museums. 
Highlights of her stay in Italy:
.  Invitation to submit a self-portrait for the collection of the Grand Ducal Gallery in the Uffizi in Florence
"Self-Portrait", 1790 by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, Gallery of the Uffizi, Florence

.  In 1790 was elected a member of the Roman Accademia di San Luca
.  Her many notable portrait commissions include:  Countess Skavronsky and Lady Hamilton ( Lady Hamilton was the subject of a movie starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier), Queen Maria Carolina of Naples and Composer Giovanni Paisiello.
. She met with famous Swiss born painter, Angelica Kauffman, who had much in common with her.

After her stay in Italy, Vigee Le Brun traveled and lived in Vienna for two and a half years.  She received a warm welcome there, Maria Theresa of Austria (1717-1780) was Marie Antoinette's mother and patron of the arts.  While in Austria, she received many portrait commissions from the aristocracy.  Her paintings develop a romantic use of landscape backgrounds.
In 1795 Vigee Le Brun decided it was time to travel to Russia. She arrived in St. Petersburg in the summer and thought that it was a beautiful city. Once again, because of her fame as Marie Antoinette's official portraitist, she was summoned by Empress "Catherine the Great". 

Highlights of her stay in Russia:

 She developed a friendship with the Empress Catherine the Great and was commissioned to paint her two granddaughters, Alexandra and Elena Pavlovna.

"Portrait of Duchess Alexandra and Elena Pavlovna"1795-97 Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun
Elisabeth was about to start painting "Catherine the Great's" portrait, but she died suddenly.

Among other interesting portrait commissions while in Russia, was that of Princess Catherine Feodorovna Dolgorouky, the host of a very fashionable salon.  She paid Vigee Le-Brun for the portrait, with a carriage and a diamond  bracelet inscribed with the phrase "Adorn her who adorns her century".
. Vigee Le Brun was made an honorary free associate of the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg.
 She finally returns to Paris in 1802, where she was greeted by friends and family who survived the Guillotine. By this time the  Napoleonic regime was in power. Vigee Lebrun's France was gone and melancholy set in, so Elisabeth decided once more to make a journey and she left to England.  
Highlights while in England:
. She paints a portrait of the Prince of Wales ( the future King known as "George IV")
. Meets the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, who greatly admired her work.

Vigee Le-Brun finally returns to France in 1805 and paints a portrait of Napoleon's Sister, Caroline Murat.
"Portrait of Napoleon's sister, Caroline Murat", 1807, by Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun

Vigee Le Brun settled in France, but still traveled to Switzerland and at the age of 65 traveled to Bordeaux and the Loire Valley.  After the death of her daughter and brother, she became close to her two nieces and found great joy in them.  She also wrote her famous autobiography "Souvenirs".
Here is a link to more of her work:
Paintings by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun

**Recommended book and resource: "Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun- The Odyssey of an Artist in an Age of Revolution" by Gita May

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