The Artist Madame Lebrun

Regarded as the eighteenth century’s most famous female painter, Elisabeth-Louise Vigee-Le Brun was a French artist born in 1755. She is famously remembered as the court portrait painter for Marie Antoinette. She mainly painted in the Rococo style and was also known for her neoclassical works. Some of the artist’s most famous works include her 1893 Portrait of Marie Antoinette and Marie Antoinette a la Rose (1783).

Madame Lebrun was born in Paris to the artist Louis Vigee who specialized in portraiture and fan painting. She learned much of her painting skills from her father. Her mother worked as a hair dresser. After her father’s death in 1768 her mother married the jeweler Jacques-Francois Le Sevre and the entire family moved near the Palais Royal. She worked diligently to continue painting and was eventually commissioned by Paris elite such as the heiress Louise Marie Adelaide de Bourbon. She was producing professional paintings while still in her teens. In 1783 she became a member of the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture.

The artist married the renowned art dealer (and painter) Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun in 1775. His uncle, Charles Le Brun, directed the French Academy under the French king Louis XIV. They had a daughter in 1780 and soon after toured the Low Countries together to study the works of the masters. She continued to paint during this trip and produced a portrait for the Prince of Nassau among other nobles. She then worked as Marie Antoinette’s court painter until 1789.

The French Revolution and the subsequent arrest of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette prompted Vigee-Le Brun to leave France with her daughter. She traveled to Italy, Russia, and Austria where she continued to paint mostly for aristocratic patrons. Her works were particularly well-received in Rome. In Russia she famously painted the granddaughters, Alexandra and Elena Pavlovna, of Catherine the Great. She was elected to both the Roman Accademia di San Luca and the Academy of Fine Arts of Saint Petersburg. Despite her wishes to the contrary, her daughter married a Russian aristocrat.

Vigee-Le Brun’s husband was finally able to have her name removed from the notorious list of counter-revolutionary émigrés and she returned to her native country after Napoleon was crowned emperor. During her later life she continued to travel and paint in places like England and Switzerland. She famously painted a portrait of the English poet Lord Byron. Her repertoire includes more than six hundred portraits and two hundred landscapes. Her memoirs have also been reproduced several times. Other famous works by the artist include Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat (c.1780s), Portrait of the Painter Hubert Robert (1788), Portrait of Queen Marie Antoinette with Children (1787), and Self-Portrait with Daughter (1780-1789). Vigee-Le Brun died in 1842. Today her works are collected by the world’s most prestigious art museums.