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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun Self-portriat,
When we think of great portrait artists down through history, names like Raphael, Titian, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Rubens, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Ingres, Sargent, and even Van Gogh come to mind. All of them were males. When you think of great female portrait artists, whoa...we draw a blank. Those with very good memories might recall Rosalba Carriera, Angelica Kauffman, Judith Leyster, or maybe Artemesia Gentileschi. There are others, but none of them, or these, are at all in the realm of household names.  For those really attuned to the feminine side of art history, perhaps you've noticed an important name missing, and probably the best female portrait painter of all time--Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun.

Her best customer, Marie Antoinette,
 1783, Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun

She was born in 1755. Her father was the respected portrait artist, Louise Vigee, her mother a peasant hairdresser. Both professionals, neither of them appear to have had time for her as a child. She was shunted oft to relatives in the country until the age of five when she returned to Paris and began taking drawing classes from her father. He died when she was twelve but by that time she was well on her way to stepping into his shoes. In fact, she was so successful, that by the time she was fifteen, she was making respectable sums painting very respectable portraits, so much so that she was threatened with arrest for...get this..."painting without a license." She quickly joined the Academie de Saint Luc. She was nineteen. And if a lifetime store of some forty self-portraits are to be believed, she was also very pretty, vivacious, witty, smart, charming, and talented. At the age of 21, she married an art dealer, J.B.P. Le Brun--something of a gambling playboy given to living off his family's wealth and her considerable earnings as an artist.

Alexandra and Elena Pavlovna,
Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, the granddaughters of
Catherine the Great painted during
her stay in Russia
Elizabeth was prodigious if nothing else. She is credited with painting over 800 portraits during her 87 year life span. Twenty of them were of her best friend and client, Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France. Her influence (or more precisely, her husband's) was responsible for Vigee Le Brun's acceptance into the French Academy in 1783 against the will of its almost exclusively male membership. But when the queen's fortunes fell into disarray in 1789 following the fall of Versailles to a French revolutionary mob, so did hers. She was forced to flee with her nine-year-old daughter, Julie, first to Rome, then Austria, and finally to St. Petersburg, painting hundreds of portraits along the way. Moreover, her private life was not without discord as well. Against her wishes, her daughter married a Russian nobleman and meanwhile, back home, because of her close ties to the monarchy, she was branded an emigre by the revolutionary French government. Her dismal excuse for a husband divorced her to protect his property from seizure.

Prince Heinrich Lubomirski
Posing  in Allegory of Alexander I,
1814, Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun,
one of her more unusual portraits
painted after her return to Pais.
Twelve years she spent in exile, allowed to return only after a petition signed by 255 international artists was presented to the French government. She continued painting prodigiously after her repatriation, her work becoming an important influence for a new breed of Neoclassical artist such as Jacques-Louis David and his student, Jean-Auguste Ingres. David noted, when Vigee Le Brun's work was compared along side his, that her portraits appeared to have been done by a man, while his own looked like that of a woman. I think that was a compliment (not sure). She took it that way at least. No less a portrait expert than Sir Joshua Reynolds termed her "...the equal of any portrait artist living or dead, including,"  he added (the Flemish portrait idol of his day), "Sir Anthony van Dyck."

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