I can’t remember the first time I saw a reproduction of a portrait of Marie-Antoinette, the much-maligned Queen of France and wife to King Louis the Sixteenth. It seems like she was everywhere in history books that I read in school growing up. Hers is a face that is fairly recognizable-- that high forehead, the tiny pursed lips, the overly-coiffed gray wig. But I didn’t think too much about her, either as a historical figure or a subject of oil portraits. That is, until I saw one particular image of her. Instead of a picture of the queen, standing alone in all her finery, here she was joined by three others-- her children, daughter Marie Thérèse and sons Louis Charles and Louis Joseph. Marie Therese is leaning against her mother, gazing up at her adoringly and gripping Marie Antoinette’s red velvet-decked arm. Her youngest son, still a toddler, sits on her her lap, while her eldest boy looks directly back to us, the viewers. He does so with a purpose-- while staring at us, he sweeps back a swath of black cloth draped over an empty crib. This was the bed of his baby sister, Sophie, who died while the portrait was in process. She was not even one year old.
Looking back to the Queen, all of a sudden, I see her differently. She meets the viewer’s gaze with a stare that is unchallenging and calm. I see her as someone who cares very much, who loves her children, as we all do, and who has had to deal with unspeakable loss. And mostly, I see her as sorrowful, with very good reason. I see her not as a frivolous or careless-- Suddenly, she is wonderfully human. What a marvelous spin and an important piece of propaganda, though eventually it would be rather unconvincing to the public. But what is even more marvelous is the backstory of the artist who created it-- because the painter who was chosen to portray the highest woman in the land was… another woman. Talk about a revolution.
Sometimes people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. They might remember childhood field trips to museums stuffed with cranky old women, deathly silent galleries, and dusty golden frames hanging on the wall. But sometimes, the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Art History is full of murder, intrigue, feisty women, rebellious men, crime, insanity, and so much more. And today, we are going to introduce one of the most staggeringly successful (and crazy lucky) artists of 18th century France: Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History, this is the ArtCurious Podcast. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
Some of the earliest examples of art—and sculpture in particular—are pure representations of the female form. You see this in cave paintings and sculpture from tens of thousands of years before the modern era. Such works exaggerate the biological aspects of women, minimizing anything but their essential reproductive qualities. As we move through time, however, such totems gave way to more elegant forms of expression, ones where artists attempted to create visions of what constituted femininity. When we contemplate representation of women throughout art history, we might think of beauty, of grace; motherhood;of being a wife; we also can fall into the trap of seeing women as part of the dichotomy of the virginal, pure angel, or of the sullied fallen woman. The ideals of womanhood are vast—and, thus, so is the definition, and so are the countless artworks that represent it.
If we take a moment to consider some of the world’s most celebrated images of women, we find that they have something in common besides the gender of their subject matter—the artists who created them, of course, were almost always men. The journey from women as subject and muse, to women as artists in their own right, has not been a short or an easy road. The great news is that art historians from the past few decades have eagerly, and judiciously, sought to re-write portions of the art-historical canon to accommodate women who have been subsequently forgotten or dismissed, seen as second-class creators with lesser experience, lesser talent, or limited works of note. And many of these women artists were prolific in their representations of themselves, as well as other women in their social circles, and were savvy enough to identify themselves as artists as well as ladies. Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun is one of these highly-skilled women who successfully toed this line and broke out, incredibly, from the confines of her gender to rise among the ranks of the greatest artists of her time.
Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigée was born in Paris on April 16, 1755. Right off the bat, she had a couple of big things going for her that would highly influence her future: first of all, her family wasn’t rich, but they had money-- enough to get by. And second, her father, Louis Vigee, was a painter himself, a moderately-successful one who was able to pass on his interests and know-how to his daughter, Elisabeth. It seems that her father was rather successful in this endeavor, because by the age of six, according to her memoirs, she was already doodling all over the walls of her convent school, and subsequently getting in lots of trouble for it. As she recalled later in life, her father recognized her talent early. She wrote, QUOTE: At seven or eight, I remember, I made a picture by lamplight of a man with a beard, which I have kept until this very day. When my father saw it he went into transports of joy, exclaiming, "You will be a painter, child, if ever there was one!"
Elisabeth continued at school until she was 11 years old. Coming from the perspective of the 21st century, you might be thinking, “Wow, that’s so young-she left school so early!” But in fact, she was very privileged to attend school of any kind. Most girls in the 18th century, if they were educated at all, were schooled at home by a tutor or governess. Only girls with the familial and financial means were sent to convent or seminary schools. But regardless of their schooling location, girls were truly at an educational disadvantage. While boys were taught some basics of science, mathematics, and other useful skills, girls were taught only what was deemed appropriate for them in order to make them appealing for marriage: basic reading and writing, poetry recitation, musical skills, dancing. Sometimes, art--particularly the womanly media of watercolor and pastel-- would make a cameo appearance in school curricula. All of this was only to snag a man-- that, and having babies, was seen as the only true purpose of a woman’s life.
But clearly, these were not Elisabeth’s true goals. No-- after she completed her schooling, she returned to her family’s home in Paris thrilled at the prospect of continuing her artistic training. She spent the majority of her days in her father’s studio, learning from his craft and experimenting with his paints and pastel crayons. Her father sincerely adored her, and lavished his attention on her. This was a marked contrast to her mother, who--though she truly loved her daughter-- visibly acted with a warmer preference towards her son, Elisabeth’s younger brother, Etienne. So it is understandable that Elisabeth was crushed when her father died in May of 1768 and left her without her greatest supporter, teacher, and ally. As she wrote, QUOTE, “So heartbroken was I, that it was long before I felt equal to taking up my pencil again.” Luckily, Elisabeth’s mother was wise enough to recognize that art was her daughter’s best means to work through her grief, so she encouraged her to visit the galleries at the Luxembourg Palace to study and copy from the great artists there: Rubens; Rembrandt; Greuze. During her early teen years, Elisabeth improved so quickly that she began to garner attention from some of the most prominent Parisian artists of the day. One of them, Joseph Vernet, encouraged her to continue her training by only two means: by studying from old masters, and by studying the natural world around her. They would be her two greatest teachers-- and from there, her artistic style grew and developed naturally.
By the age of fifteen, Elisabeth Vigee was successful enough that she was able to contribute significantly to her family’s income by painting portraits by commission. She received a rather lucky break when she was summoned by the Duchess de Chartres to paint her portrait, owing to Elisabeth’s frequent spying slash scouting of the Duchess on her frequent walks through the gardens of the Palais Royal. The duchess was kindly towards the teenager and hired her-- who knows if she had heard of the girl’s talent or if she was just being generous. But it turned out that the girl could actually paint really, really well. And so the duchess told all of her friends and and fellow courtly ladies, who subsequently sought Elisabeth out in order to commission her to paint their portraits. Soon, the artists meager home studio was a hub of frequent wealthy visitors eager to be memorialized in oil and canvas.
Besides her obvious talent, Elisabeth had a few other things going for her. The first was that she herself was a beautiful girl. She had lush, shiny brown hair, deep pools of brown eyes, and a perfect rosebud mouth. Her good looks certainly didn't hurt her, particularly when it came to the opportunities to paint portraits of well-connected Parisian men. This turned out to be somewhat of an aggravation for Elisabeth, though, who, at this time, didn't want the attention placed on her face and body, but on her artwork. However, if her beauty brought more commissions through the door, so be it- let them think I am pretty, she thought.
More seriously, though, she had something else going for her that would very much influence her work and her future commissions- and this was that she was an uncompromisingly great flatterer. She used her convent schooling to true advantage here- instead of displaying her charm and wit in order to snag a husband, she turned them towards her clients. With compliments and a little bit of sweet talk, she set them at ease, allowing not only to make them comfortable enough to pose for her, sometimes for hours on end, but to also find her appealing enough, personally, to continue to recommend her to their friends. And that's just the verbal form of flattery. Perhaps more important was the second form of flattery – the visual kind. Vigée Le Brun became famous throughout her life for her ability to make all of her clients just that much prettier or more handsome. With her paintbrush, she made sallow faces turn rosy and youthful. Weak chins were strengthened, and large noses became somewhat more streamlined. All in all, she was able to constantly distill her clients’ visages down to their essences, and then she improved upon them- not enough to be considered an inaccurate depiction, but enough to make a sitter feel rather good about himself or herself. And in a world before the invention of photography and the capturing of one's actual likeness, the oil portrait was king in terms of the preservation of one's existence and as a means of self promotion. So when you find someone that makes you look better than you actually do in real life, you're going to want to hold onto that person and tell everyone you know about her.
Elisabeth soon became the talk of the town, and members of the highest ranks in society requested her services. But life for Elisabeth wasn't perfect. Though she was making a credible and decent living through her work, her home life was still shattered due to her father’s death. Out of financial need, her mother had remarried, and Elisabeth's new stepfather was a brute who began squandering Elisabeth’s earnings- so instead of helping her family and herself, her money was going nowhere but the hands of her stepfather. So it was at this time, in her late teenage years, that Elisabeth began seriously thinking of a way out.
That opportunity came in 1774 when two significant events took place. The first was that she was elected to the Academy of St. Luke, one of the painters guilds throughout Europe. In particular, the academy of st. Luke was especially enjoyed by artists who were unable to access the prestigious and selective Royal Academy of painting and sculpture, which, at that time, very rarely admitted women. This gave her career even more credibility and respectability, as well as allowing her to work in an official capacity- it turned out that she had been considered an illegal business holder previously, as she did not have an official painting guild affiliation. This newfound affiliation also led to the second big event of 1774, which was her meeting with a local art dealer and connoisseur named Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun. As you can guess from his familiar surname, he was the man whom Elisabeth would end up marrying two years later, in 1776.
Let me save you some curiosity and tell you now that this marriage, for both parties, was mostly one of convenience and not a love match. She wanted, more than anything, a way out from under her stepfather’s shadow, and having her own household would have given her more control over her finances. Plus, her mother strongly persuaded her to follow the route towards marriage- for stability, sure, but mostly for money, as she was under the mistaken assumption that Le Brun was a wealthy man. And on Le Brun’s part, he was surely hoping to benefit monetarily from Elisabeth’s burgeoning career, since he wasn't as well off as others would have believed. This would later escalate into a squandering of funds that echoes Elisabeth’s stepfather. It seems that, with the men in her life, she couldn't win. About marriage, Elisabeth was rightly very torn, as she wrote in her memoirs, stating, quote “so little did I feel inclined to sacrifice my liberty, that even on the way to church I kept saying to myself: 'Shall I say yes, or shall I say "no"?' Alas," she adds, "I said 'yes,' and thereby merely exchanged present troubles for others.”
Of course Elisabeth wrote the previous statement with the wisdom of hindsight. She obviously could not have know at the time that her marriage was not going to be pure bliss. And really, at the beginning, even with the full acceptance of it as a Marriage of convenience, her union with Le Brun proved beneficial to her career. First of all, Monsieur Le Brun took his new wife around Europe, particularly to Holland to Flanders (or present day Belgium) to continue her education and study of the great Dutch and Flemish masters, particularly her old favorite, Rubens. But most importantly, as a prominent art dealer, he had access to the very top of Parisian society as well as to the art world in general. How better to further your artistic career than with those two doors swung widely open for you? And we certainly can't forget that this isn't the 21st century that we are talking about- it is the late eighteenth century, and women didn't have the same access, education, and abilities afforded to their male counterparts. It feels awful to admit and sexist to say, but Elisabeth may have benefited from her her husband’s access in order to become the painter we know today. But knowing these sexist limitations just makes her accomplishments, and particularly what happened next, all the more fascinating.
Two years after Elisabeth officially became Madame Le Brun, she received a rather shocking but very welcome request- could she please come at her earliest convenience to Versailles at the request of Queen Marie Antoinette? The queen’s mother, empress Maria Theresa of Austria, had requested a full length portrait of her daughter, and so, for this official commission, Marie Antoinette could have complied and gone with one of the usual court painters who served her husband, for example. But she made an independent decision to instead choose a young rising star in the Parisian art world- the woman who was known as Madame Le Brun. She definitely had a fair reason to make this decision – as she wrote to her mother in November of 1776, quote "painters are the death of me and drive me to despair.” She was so devastated by poor and unflattering likenesses that she knew she needed someone really great for this important familial request. She needed someone who could flatter. She needed someone who could make her look even better than in reality. She needed Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun.
Think how revolutionary this request must have been at the time. Instead of trodding the path assigned to you, Marie Antoinette broke free and made her own choice. And it must have felt, to her advisors and courtiers, like a risky move. Madame Le Brun was a portraitist on the rise, but she surely wasn't a known entity to the court, really. And second of all, she was a woman, for goodness sake. You can almost hear the derision and unfounded concern in their voices. Would Vigée Le Brun’s work be any good, compared to that of her male counterparts from the royal academy of painting?
Well, Marie Antoinette wasn't concerned in the slightest. In fact, she had already enjoyed Vigée Le Brun’s work firsthand, as her brother-in-law, the Comte de Provence, had already been painted by Elisabeth. And there was also the fact that the queen knew that Elisabeth was of similar age- in fact, they were born in the same year. It isn't hard to imagine that having a painter of one's own age and gender would make for a much more comfortable experience, as well as a possibly more beneficial one. Could Elisabeth, Marie Antoinette wondered, paint her in a more flattering and pleasing light- understanding her on a different level as wife, woman, and mother, if not queen?
Marie Antoinette was right not to worry- because Elisabeth surely knocked the commission out of the park. The official portrait, titled Marie Antoinette in Court Dress, was sent to empress Maria Teresa, who loved it so much that she immediately wrote her daughter to tell her so. Marie Antoinette herself so enjoyed the picture that she immediately requested a replica made so that she could hang it in her own chateau, and various other replicas were sent around the world to other royal courts – one was even sent to the US Congress. The painting, per the Austrian empress’s request, presents Marie Antoinette in full regalia, draped in a silvery satin dress with a full train and an even fuller skirt. She is portrayed in full majesty- standing nearly spot lit in a room filled with heavy drapery, thick carpets, and one towering, huge column. If there ever was a very queenly portrait of the queen, it is surely this one. so pleased was the queen, then, that she made Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun her official court portraitist. One painting was all it took- and Vigée Le Brun’s life changed forever.
Elisabeth’s memoirs include some truly beautiful writing about her relationship with the queen. years after the queen's death, she wrote lovingly of Marie Antoinette's beauty and grace, which in itself shows an extraordinary devotion, particularly when Marie Antoinette's beauty was never something that was particularly celebrated. Of her, the artist wrote, quote, “Marie Antoinette was tall and admirably built, being somewhat stout, but not excessively so. Her arms were superb, her hands small and perfectly formed, and her feet charming. She had the best walk of any woman in France, carrying her head erect with a dignity that stamped her queen in the midst of her whole court, her majestic mien, however, not in the least diminishing the sweetness and amiability of her face. To anyone who has not seen the Queen it is difficult to get an idea of all the graces and all the nobility combined in her person. But the most remarkable thing about her face was the splendour of her complexion. I never have seen one so brilliant, and brilliant is the word, for her skin was so transparent that it bore no umber in the painting. Neither could I render the real effect of it as I wished. I had no colours to paint such freshness, such delicate tints, which were hers alone, and which I had never seen in any other woman.”
Throughout the 1880s, Elizabeth completed multiple royal commissions for portraits of the queen, as well as smaller commissions for portraits of the queen's children. And then, like others had before her, Marie Antoinette happily recommended Elizabeth's services to her close friends within the Royal circle, thereby ensuring Elisabeth’s livelihood. And once Elisabeth started officially painting for the queen, everyone from the upper crust wanted to have their portraits done by the queen's official portraitist, too. From that point forward, the Le Brun couple, as well as their only child, a young daughter named Julie, lived in high style. But this didn't mean that Elisabeth was going to sit back and rest on her laurels. No way. Thanks to the queen's intervention, she sought and was allowed entry to the Royal Academy in 1783, which not only confirmed her status as a member of the upper echelon of French artists, but also afforded her the right to enter her works at the most important state-run art exhibitions. However, like anyone or anything that has gained such a stunning amount of success and popularity, she began to experience a fair amount of backlash from high-minded detractors. Surely some were jealous of her talents, but many were derisive of her ability to enter the academy at all, since her husband's career as an art dealer would normally have precluded her from entry. And on top of all of that, the queen – a not universally loved figure in France- had stepped in to insist on Elisabeth’s inclusion. And then there was the painting that Elisabeth submitted as her so called reception peace – a monumental work titled piece bringing back abundance. Many artists and critics considered it to be overreaching, as the subject matter-- which fell into the highest category of artistic production, known as history painting-- was traditionally seen as being under the purview of quote unquote real artists – by which they meant male artists, first of all, but certainly not portraitists, who were considered lesser artists. But again, to her credit, Vigée Le Brun’s work stood on its own merits… maybe even a little too well. In fact, it was during this time that rumors began to spread that her paintings were so well-executed that Elisabeth must have been assisted by another artist who, at best, helped her finish her works, and at worst created them entirely. Because surely a girl couldn't paint this well, they said. This would end up being a theme that unfortunately dogged Elisabeth long after her death- and even until the latter part of the 20th century, some Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun works were still being labeled as part of the oeuvre of the neoclassical master Jacques-Louis David.
In September of 1785, four years before the onset of the vicious and violent French Revolution, Marie Antoinette’s reputation had begun to fall precipitously. She was never vastly beloved to begin with, owing to her Austrian nationality- with Austria being a sworn enemy of France for many years. But in the 1780s, she began to be seen as a spendthrift and out of touch. the King’s court opted for a little propaganda and came to Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun with specific instructions- paint a monumental canvas featuring the queen and her children, as a way of restoring the public's good favor towards the queen- and what better Way to do that than to show her as a devoted mother?
Motherhood was actually all the rage at this point in time, and Vigée Le Brun knew it. In fact, she had carved a small niche for herself as a portraitist to French noblewomen who wished to be depicted with their young children. Believe it or not, this was a fairly new concept, because prior to the 18th century, children were basically viewed as tiny adults- and were expected to act that way. And mothering was seen, in many ways, as being a poor person's job. It was considered very low class to breastfeed, for example, so any child from the upper class or nobility was sent away to the care of wet nurses for their infancy, but most ended up being raised away from home for the first few years of life. It wasn't until the eighteenth century, when philosophers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau began extolling the uniqueness and virtues of a so-called natural childhood, that children began to be cherished as integral parts of a loving, happy, and close family. Perhaps not coincidentally, the rise of the cult of childhood, as it was called, coincided directly with the rise of the cult of domesticity, which celebrated wifely and motherly duties as the true calling of a woman's life. Women, philosophers noted, should only stay at home and should never work. Raising children was to be their greatest duty.
Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun wasn't immune to the effects of these new modes of thinking. And as a woman who not only had a successful career but who was also connected to the royal court, she was probably vilified by some men who perceived her as being outside of her supposed natural realm. As a move of smart propaganda on her own part, Elisabeth would create numerous portraits of her small daughter Julie, as well as two gorgeous canvases depicting her embracing Julie in a shower of maternal affection- these are two of my personal favorite works by Vigée Le Brun. Her aim, in part, was to say, see? I am an artist and a mother. And I can do both very well.
The monumental portrait of Marie Antoinette with her children, however, wasn't so successful. Technically it is a tour de force on Elisabeth's part, based on traditional Madonna and child images from the Italian Renaissance, and from my perspective, it admirably meets its goal of humanizing the reviled queen. But it is easy for me to look Marie Antoinette's sad eyes and feel pity and sympathy for her. For the Parisians of the late 18th century, though, the damage had already been done – and no oil painting, regardless of its size and technical prowess, was going to change their opinion of the woman they referred to as "the Austrian bitch.” Of course she couldn't have known it, but Marie Antoinette's days were numbered, and as the months ticked ever closer to 1789, public opinion continued to sour.
Unfortunately, Elizabeth's connection to the Queen, the royal court, and the access she received to the upper echelon of society also made her a prime target for slander and invasive diatribes. By the time that the Revolution burst forth in July of 1789, Elisabeth had suffered a great deal of character assassination in the myriad newsletters and small presses of Paris and its environs. She had considered the queen to be a friend- and so when the mobs of violent and angry citizens marched on Versailles later that year in order to capture the royal family and install them forcibly back in Paris, Elisabeth actually feared for her own safety. Her meteoric rise had been too closely linked to the monarchy, and she, too, would have been brought down with it if she hadn't made a drastic decision. Thus, on October 6, 1789, Elisabeth packed up her daughter, Julie, and her governess, and together the three women fled, under cover of night, to safer locales.
You might be tempted to think that Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s career was over, or that it was sure to go downhill now that she no longer had French Royal commissions on which to rely. That would be completely wrong. In fact, Elisabeth was supremely lucky to have gotten herself away from Paris and into exile- not only did it possibly save her life, as well as the lives of her loved ones, but it ushered in a whole new clientele, as the nobility of other European nations suddenly became fair game for artistic capture. Over the next twelve years of her life, she would move between Italy, Austria, England, Germany, Switzerland, and finally, Russia, where she spent a significant amount of time. And in each location, Elisabeth did what she did best- charmed and flattered and wisely used her talents to continually serve her clients best interests. She may no longer have had the ability to paint her beloved queen-- and as we know, Marie Antoinette met her terrible fate at the guillotine in 1793-- but Elisabeth nevertheless painted dukes and princes, ministers and musicians, writers, actresses, and ambassadors. As it had in France, her reputation preceded her, and she was celebrated around the continent for her beauty, brains, and especially for her artistic talent.
This isn't to say that things always went smoothly for her. But she had the smarts and guts to make the right decisions to minimize the damages. For example, she desperately missed her home and her Parisian coterie. So, in 1792, she left Rome, where she had set up a very popular painting studio specializing in portraits of wealthy noblemen from Italy and abroad who were enjoying the Grand Tour of the continent. She hoped to travel back to Paris, but was deterred when she began to hear the horror stories of the capital’s streets running red with blood from almost-daily massacres foreshadowing the transition from French Revolution to the reign of terror. The monarchy had been abolished, and the King and Queen were both to meet their deaths the following year. Plus, Elisabeth was well aware that, as a royalist, she was going to be considered a counter revolutionary, and would most likely be taken to the guillotine herself. So, she made the logical decision to make an about face and continue her self-imposed exile as she traveled first to Milan, and then onward to Vienna, and then finally to Saint Petersburg, where she spent six of her twelve years away.
Elisabeth's self-imposed exile soon turned official, meaning that her name was included in circulated lists noting her status as an emigre whose property left behind in France could be confiscated and redistributed. This posed a big problem, not necessarily for Elisabeth herself, but for her husband, Monsieur Le Brun. He had been living off of his wife’s fortunes and good luck for so long that everything in their Parisian home basically had belonged to her- and so he stood to lose everything if he was still connected to her. For better or for worse, then, he made the rash decision to divorce his wife in June of 1794 so that he could continue living in their home and amongst their finery.
Not that it made a huge difference to Vigée Le Brun at this point. When she settled in St. Petersburg, she quickly got to work and began to claim ridiculously high prices for her portraits. It is clear that some felt her prices to be practically exorbitant, and as one count mentioned in a letter to a colleague, quote, Madame Le Brun is paid a thousand, two thousand rubles for a portrait, as one would be paid two Guineas in London.” At the end of the 18th century, she had amassed enough of the fortune that she was able to rent her own huge apartment overlooking the gorgeous Winter Palace of the Russian monarchy. Not that the monarchy was very interested in Vigée Le Brun. Empress Catherine the great was still alive when Elisabeth made her transition to St. Petersburg, and she took almost an immediate dislike to the French painter, primarily because, well, she was French. But Elisabeth's lack of imperial commissions did not affect her in the slightest, as the Russian nobility welcomed her nonetheless.
In 1799, Elisabeth was met with the first of several personal tragedies. her daughter Julie had fallen in love with a man named Gaetan Nigris, a French secretary to the Russian count Chernyshev. Julie, against the wishes of her parents, married Gaetan in St. Petersburg, when she was 19 years old. Elisabeth was distraught at the news, but her daughter was independent and rather stubborn, so there was nothing she could do to stop the union. A few years later, in 1802, Elisabeth was finally able, for the first time since 1789, to return to Paris, after her ex-husband had lobbied unfailingly to allow her to be granted re-entry and French nationality after so many years living in exile. But Paris had changed utterly since the dawn of the revolution- we can imagine that she probably barely recognize the city she so deeply loved. And then there was her relationship with her ex-husband. It wasn't full of animosity, exactly, but remember that there wasn't a whole lot of love there, either. Combined, these two factors incited in Elisabeth another round of wanderlust. Onward she went again, moving between England and Switzerland and back again to France, making portraits of many of the greatest minds of her day along the way- the prince of Wales, famous opera singers, and writers like Lord Byron and Madame de Stael.
In the early 1800s, Vigée Le Brun lost all those who were particularly close to her- first, her husband, who died of cancer in 1813, and later her brother, who died as an alcoholic in 1820. But the biggest and most terrible blow came in 1819, when her only child, Julie, died- probably from complications from syphilis. Mother and daughter had had a strained relationship for a few years, since Elisabeth approved neither of Julie’s husband nor her friends, and when Julie eventually separated from her husband, she began to fight with her mother over financial issues. Soon, Elisabeth and Julie had stopped speaking to one another, and I have been unable to verify if the relationship was patched up before Julie's untimely death.
But if there was a survivor, it was Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. She always transcended- she rose above her own social class, her education, heck, even her gender- to become one of the most famous women of her time, one who was able to independently run and manage her own finances, time, and affairs. And surely she knew this- understanding that she was in a truly fascinating and unique position. So, in 1825, she began writing her memoirs, which would eventually be published in two volumes in 1835 and in 1837. In it, she not only detailed her life, beginning with her childhood and family life through her old age, but she also dedicated segments of it to her own instructions and details for artistic training. Essentially, it acts as a small manual for her theories on painting, technique, and portraiture. And from it, you can glean information about the methods she used to become such a highly sought-after artist. For example, Vigée Le Brun wrote, quote, “Before you begin, talk to your model. Try several different poses. Choose not only the most comfortable but also the most fitting for the person's age and character, so that the pose will only add to the likeness.” And remember all that talk earlier about flattery and charm? Elisabeth directly speaks to the importance of this in her memoirs, writing quote, “You should try and complete the head, or at least the basic stages, in three or four sittings; allow an hour and a half for each sitting, two hours at the most, or the models will grow bored and impatient and their expression will change noticeably, a situation to be avoided at all costs; this is why you should allow models to rest and aim to keep their attention for as long as possible. My experience with women has led me to believe the following: you must flatter them, say they are beautiful, that they have fresh complexions etc. This puts them in a good humour and they will hold their position more willingly. The reverse will result in a visible difference. You must also tell them that they are marvelous at posing; they will then try harder to hold their pose.” An artist who actually cares about the comfort of her sitters, and who knows the importance of their mindsets and how it could affect their experience, as well as her business? No wonder she was so popular. I'd want to hire an artist like that.
Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s popularity continued unabated. She lived a long life, and was 87 when she finally died, in Paris, in 1842. But, time inevitably marches on, and tastes and styles change with the seasons. By the second half of the nineteenth century, brushwork started becoming looser, and colors brighter, as artist began shifting towards experimentation that would eventually bring us the impressionists and onward. Eighteenth century portraiture fell out of fashion, and for the majority of the generations that followed, Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun was forgotten or purely unknown name. Ask anyone on the street- surely they have heard of Leonardo da Vinci and Pablo Picasso. But ask them to name a woman artist- especially one who isn't from the 20th century, like Frida Kahlo or Georgia O’Keeffe- and they will probably come up short. And they're probably not going to pull the name Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun out of thin air.
In 1971, art historian Linda Nochlin, in the midst of the tumult of second wave feminism, published an iconic essay in the journal ArtNews titled "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists.” if you are a student of art history, you're probably nodding right now. This article aimed to answer the question stipulated in the title, and elucidated the many reasons- educational, gender-based, and so forth- as to why, according to Nochlin, there haven't been any great women artists. But it seems to me- and I know I am not alone here- that Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun was- and is- a great woman artist. It also begs the eternal question- what is greatness? How can you define it? If you define it simply by popularity, then that would mean that Thomas Kinkade, the quote-unquote painter of light whose schmaltzy canvases you could buy at nearly every American mall, would surely be called one of the greatest artist of the 20th century. (Sorry, fans of Thomas Kinkade- no offense). Or do you define greatness by financial success? Is it in standing the test of time? What is standing the test of time,really , when art and culture are constantly being reappraised. Or does it all simply come down to personal opinion? This is a huge question- far too big, really, to be discussed here. But if we base greatness on any of these factors here, then let me tell you- in my opinion, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun is truly one of the greats. In a time and place that was hospitable to neither women nor especially women artists, Elisabeth did more than flourish- she soared.
Thank you for listening to this episode of the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, narrated, and edited by me, Jennifer Dasal, with production assistance from Kaboonki Creative. For images that relate to today’s story, as well as links to further information about this episode and our previous episodes, please visit our website at artcuriouspodcast.com. I have some truly excellent book recommendations for those of you art history nuts who want to know more about Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, art in the 18th century, Queen Marie Antoinette, and the French Revolution- so check out our website for those goodies and so much more. And for those of you who love hearing about artists directly from the artist, you'll be pleased to hear that Vigée Le Brun's memoirs- the entirety of them- is fully available online for free. I'll post links to this on our site, too. If you liked this show, let us know! You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find us on Twitter and Instagram at artcuriouspod. Got an idea or a request for an upcoming episode? Feel free to let us know that, too. And, most of all, please subscribe and rate us on iTunes and recommend us to your friends and fellow art aficionados, so that we can find more listeners and share the love. Please check back in a couple of weeks for a new episode as we continue to bring you the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in art history.