One of the great women portraitists inspired by the art and career of Rosalba Carriera was Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842), another painter in pastels who lived in spite of interesting times.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée was born in Paris in 1755, at the height of the Age of Enlightenment in France. Her father was a painter of portraits, and apparently a highly proficient painter in pastels too, but died when she was only twelve. The following year, her mother remarried to a wealthy jeweller, but Élisabeth quickly came to hate her step-father. Thankfully, by this time she had already been learning to paint, and was friends with several masters of the day, including Joseph Vernet.
She set up her own portrait studio, but fell foul of the Guild of Saint Luke. By 1774, this had been reconciled, and she was admitted to the Académie as a member. Two years later, she married another artist and dealer, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, who was distantly related to the first director of the French Academy. With her husband promoting her work, she became sought after.
Her pastel paintings are outstanding, and helped advance the medium for both portraiture and other genres.
Her simple portrait of a baby from about 1790 takes up from where Carriera and de La Tour had made their marks: this infant’s face is softly rendered, but their clothes are sketched in a loose style which was far in advance of paintings of the day.
Her portrait of the wonderfully-named Corisande Armandine Léonie Sophie de Gramont has a natural look to it which was rarely achieved in oils. This ideally suited the sitter, given her youth.
This detail shows how painterly are the sitter’s clothes.
Vigée Le Brun was an early landscape painter in pastels, too: her View of the Lake of Challes and Mont Blanc (1807-08) spread across two sheets of green wove paper, and is perhaps a little dark and forboding, but showed how well-suited pastels are in landscape art. Having spent time painting en plein air with soft pastels in the Alps, I can only agree. Although it may seem a daunting task to carry back large and delicate pastel paintings from this sort of location, they are far easier to handle than a couple of wet canvases.
I divide my small selection of her oil paintings into three.
From her early days as an artist, she painted herself, as in this Self-portrait from about 1781.
Later, she took to holding her charged palette and brushes, as in her Self-portrait in a Straw Hat, which she painted after 1782.
The last of these is her Self-portrait from 1790, invited by the Uffizi in Florence, as it does for the most famous living painters. Here she’s allegedly working on one of her portraits of Marie-Antoinette, which form my second group of her oil paintings. Sometimes claimed to have been the French Queen’s official painter, she was never appointed as such, but managed to paint Marie-Antoinette more than thirty times.
These got off to a shaky start: in 1783, she painted the queen wearing a plain muslin dress, which caused a scandal for its informality.
Marie Antoinette with a Rose, also from 1783, recovered some ground, but no doubt there were still tongues wagging about that common muslin dress.
Her family portrait from 1787 showing Marie-Antoinette de Lorraine-Habsbourg, Queen of France, and Her Children tried to correct that image. Vigée Le Brun started work on this on 9 July 1786, her sitter choosing a red dress more fit for a queen. With her are Marie-Thérèse, the Duchess of Angoulême, Louis-Charles, who was to become Louis XVII of France, and Louis-Joseph, who became the Dauphin. The empty cradle was for Marie-Sophie-Béatrice, who died on 19 June, shortly before she would have been one.
Vigée Le Brun painted a great many other portraits in oils, forming my third group.
Madame Molé-Reymond with Muff from 1786 shows a well-known actress in the Comédie Italienne whose real name was Élisabeth Félicité Pinet (1760-1833). It was widely known that her biological father wasn’t the comic actor René Molé married to her mother, but the Marquis de Valbelle. She too led a complicated life: after her mother’s death in 1782, she became René Molé’s mistress. She seems quite happy with the arrangement.
The Marquise de Pezay, and the Marquise de Rougé with Her Sons Alexis and Adrien from 1787 is more than just a close family group. Vigée Le Brun’s rendering of the fabrics is every bit as good as that of the figures.
When the French monarchy started to unravel in what was to become revolution and terror, Vigée Le Brun knew that her life was on the line. Mobs from Paris attacked the palace at Versailles in October 1789, and she was forced to flee abroad with her nine year-old daughter. For the next twelve years, she painted the portraits of other royal families and nobility.
During her three years in Italy, she was elected to two academies, and painted Marie-Antoinette’s sister Maria Carolina of Austria. In 1792, she moved to Vienna, where she painted princesses, and the following year heard of the execution by guillotine on 16 October 1793 of her favourite sitter Marie-Antoinette.
From Vienna she went to Russia, and continued to paint nobility and aristocrats from the empire, including the former King of Poland, and the family of Catherine the Great. In France, her former husband led a campaign to have her name removed from the list of counter-revolutionaries, and she was finally allowed to return in January 1802, two years before Napoleon became its Emperor.
It’s thus appropriate to conclude this selection of her portraits with that of Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples, with her Daughter Letizia from 1807. Caroline (1782-1839) was Napoleon’s youngest sister, who had married one of her brother’s most brilliant cavalry officers and succeeded Joseph Bonaparte (the emperor’s older brother) as King of Naples the year after this was painted.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun lived through Napoleon’s abdication in 1814, and his exile to Elba. She bought herself a house in Louveciennes, where Camille Pissarro was to live fifty years later, but she still travelled into Paris. She survived the Bourbon restoration and its reformed monarchy, but died at the age of 86 in 1842, just six years before the 1848 revolution and the advent of Napoleon III. Her portraits are now in many of the world’s major collections.