Women of the ages past may not have had the wealth of opportunities that women today do, but those who strived for more found a way to make themselves known. Celebrating females of the Regency who stepped beyond the typical roles of the day, today’s post is about famed French painter Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun.
Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, (born April 16, 1755, Paris, France—died March 30, 1842, Paris), was one of the most successful women artists of her time, particularly noted for her portraits of women.
Her father and first teacher, Louis Vigée, was a noted portraitist who worked chiefly in pastels. In 1776 she married art dealer, J.B.P. Lebrun. Her great opportunity came in 1779 when she was summoned to Versailles to paint a portrait of Queen Marie-Antoinette. The two women became friends, and in subsequent years Vigée-Lebrun painted more than twenty portraits of Marie-Antoinette in a great variety of poses and costumes. She also painted a great number of self-portraits, in the style of various artists whose work she admired. In 1783, because of her friendship with the queen, Vigée-Lebrun was grudgingly accepted into the Royal Academy.
On the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789, she left France and for twelve years lived abroad, traveling to Rome, Naples, Vienna, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and Moscow, painting portraits and playing a leading role in society. In 1801 she returned to Paris but, disliking Parisian social life under Napoleon, soon left for London, where she painted portraits of the court and of Lord Byron. Later she went to Switzerland, where she painted a portrait of Mme de Staël, before returning to Paris in 1810. There she continued to paint until her death.
Vigée-Lebrun was a woman of notable wit and charm. Her memoirs, Souvenirs de ma vie (“Reminiscences of My Life”) and the English translation, Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun, provide a lively account of her life and times. She was one of the most technically fluent portraitists of her era, and her pictures are notable for freshness, charm, and sensitivity of presentation. During her career, according to her own account, she painted 900 pictures, including some 600 portraits and about 200 landscapes.