"The passion for painting was innate in me. This passion has never failed, perhaps because it has always increased with time; even today, I experience all its charm, and I hope that this divine passion ends only with my life."
--Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Souvenirs, tome 1, lettre 1
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun's words ignite my soul; I'm completely fascinated by her. She was a wife, a mother, and a successful eighteenth-century painter, long before feminism became a word. During her long life (she lived to be 87 !) she painted 660 portraits and 200 landscapes. I am in the middle of reading her memoirs, called Souvenirs, from which I have obtained all of the italicized quotations in this post.
Her paintings are now on display in a special exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: "Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France." It opened last week, on Monday, February 15th, and it will hang through May 15th. I'm so excited to go and see some of her paintings in person! Inspired by this anticipation, I have decided to write about her this week, because I wish more people knew about her!
Vigée Le Brun was born in France in 1755. Her father, Louis Vigée, was a fan painter, and he was his daughter's first art teacher, as well as her staunch supporter. When she was about seven or eight, she made a drawing of a man.
"When my father saw it he went into transports of joy, exclaiming, 'You will be a painter, child, if ever there was one!'"
Vigée Le Brun's mother also encouraged her, and exposed her to the art of the Old Masters when she was a young girl. They went to the Luxembourg Palace to see the work of Rubens, then in a gallery there, and to various private collections of pictures.
"As soon as I entered one of these galleries, I immediately became just like a bee, so eagerly did I gather in knowledge that would be of use to me in my art, and so intoxicated with bliss was I in studying these works of the great painters."
When Vigée Le Brun was twenty, she married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, a mediocre painter and art dealer. Although he was not a cruel man, he had a terrible weakness for gambling. Legally, his wife's income was at his disposal, and he took full advantage of this.
"...in 1789, when I quitted France, I had not an income of twenty francs, although I had earned more than a million. He had squandered it all."
Despite her marital disappointment, Vigée Le Brun found a great deal of joy in motherhood. In 1780, she gave birth to her only child, a little girl named Julie.
"I will not attempt to describe the transports I felt when I heard the first cry of my child. Every mother knows what those feelings are."
Her career blossomed. She became a member of the Académie de Saint Luc, although many artists did not want to admit her because she was a woman. She worked constantly, painting portraits of the nobility of France. Her skill made her popular in the highest social circles, and she attended endless balls and banquets. Eventually she became the court painter for Marie Antoinette.
During the French Revolution, Vigée Le Brun and her five-year-old daughter fled France in the middle of the night, in disguise as commoners. They barely escaped with their lives. Vigée Le Brun's husband also survived, even though he stayed behind, having somehow befriended the Revolutionaries. But sadly, many of their good friends were killed in the Terror of the Revolution, including Vigée Le Brun's patroness and friend, the Queen.
Exiled from their beloved France, mother and daughter traveled around Europe: Italy, Austria, Russia, England, and Switzerland. Everywhere they went, the famous artist received portrait commissions. Some of her subjects included Napoleon I, Lord Byron, and Catherine the Great's granddaughters.
Eventually, Vigée Le Brun was able to return to France, although she never really reunited with her husband. She spent her final years in Paris, where she died in 1842, shortly before her 88th birthday, after a long, productive, and art-filled life.
Her tombstone states "Ici, enfin, je repose…"
(Here, at last, I rest…)