Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun; Italy in Exile

by 
Georgia Modi

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, “Self Portrait in a Straw Hat” (after 1782), oil on canvas, 38.5” x 27.7”, National Gallery, London
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, “Self Portrait in a Straw Hat” (after 1782), oil on canvas, 38.5” x 27.7”, National Gallery, London

 

When we last left Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), during Marie Antoinette Years, it was at the cusp of the French Revolution, an event that many of us know was not kind to Queen Marie Antoinette and many of the members of the French nobility.

Vigée Le Brun chose to leave France with her daughter Julie in October of 1789. It proved to be challenging to put this plan into action, however. During this time she was unable to paint due to the emotional strain from the horrors going on around her. Nevertheless, the number of painting commissions piled up. Vigée Le Brun left behind several paintings she had begun “…but it was no longer a question of success or money – it was only a question of saving one’s head.”[1]

With her carriage packed and plans to leave the following day, Vigée Le Brun was blindsided when a group of drunk National Guardsmen entered her home cursing. They repeatedly told her that she was unable to leave, chanting, “You will not go, citizeness; you will not go!”[2]. This was a cruel move and one that troubled her greatly. It nearly sent her into a state of panic when two of the men had returned, but it was only to warn her as they were her neighbors. They informed her that she needed to leave as quickly, as she could no longer live there. These men advised Vigée Le Brun that it would be wise to book a stagecoach to ensure her safety. Leaving in her own carriage would draw too much unwanted attention. Nearly two weeks passed before Vigée Le Brun was able to secure safe passage for herself, her daughter, and governess.

On the morning of October 5th King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were taken from their palace in Versailles to Paris surrounded by a militia carrying weapons with a sharp pointed head called pikes. Vigée Le Brun left Paris later that night and recounted in her memoirs that the events of the day had left her in a dreadful state of mind.[3]

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, “Julie Le Brun Looking in a Mirror” (1787), oil on canvas, 28.75” × 23.37”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, “Julie Le Brun Looking in a Mirror” (1787), oil on canvas, 28.75” × 23.37”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

As Vigée Le Brun’s journey to Rome was fraught with heighten emotion. The man who sat opposite her told them outright that he had stolen watches and other things, but when their reactions did not seem to satisfy him, he delved deeper into his exploits. “…the thief talked incessantly of stringing up such and such people on lamp-posts naming a number of my own acquaintances.”[4] It was only when Vigée Le Brun begged the man to cease talking of killing for the sake of her daughter that he stopped.

Vigée Le Brun no longer felt fear for herself but for her mother, her brother, and the many friends that she left behind. She even continued to sympathize with the royal family despite hearing men all along their route exclaim how they had been killed and Paris was on fire.[5]

The Beauvoisin Bridge separates Isère and Savoie, marking the point in which Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun could finally breathe freely as she no longer needed to fear for her life in quite the same way. A man even recognized her while she attempted to go up Mount Cenis. Vigée Le Brun claimed to be a workwoman and could handle the walk without a mule, as he had suggested, but this stranger immediately saw through her ruse. “The lady is no work-woman; we know who she is! – You are Madame Lebrun, who paints so well, and we are all very glad to see you safe from those bad people.”[6] This interaction showed Vigée Le Brun just how far-reaching the Jacobins, a member of the democratic club established in Paris, really was and just how happy she was that she had no reason to fear them again.

The arrival in Rome marked a new chapter for Vigée Le Brun, a place where the pleasures of the city could console her over the horrors that were happening back home. She sought comfort with her countryman as the town was filled with other French nobility and refugees from 1789 to 1790.[7]

Soon after arriving and getting settled, Vigée Le Brun completed a self-portrait for the Florence Gallery, the one in which she painted herself with a palette in hand, dawning a straw hat. She continued, making quick work of several other pieces as they were her only way of survival when she lived abroad. Back in Paris her husband was squandering away the money she had earned gambling.[8] When she did not keep herself busy with her art, she would be found going alone to galleries and piazza’s where statues lined the edges. She enjoyed this time to herself as it gave her an opportunity to relish in these masterpieces without the “…enjoyment spoiled by stupid remarks or questions.”[9]

During the period in which Vigée Le Brun lived in Rome, she took part in Holy Week, the grand celebration of Easter in the Catholic religion. She spent time residing in the home of the renowned Belgium landscape painter Simon Denis and his wife. She learned that Italian women carry a dagger with them everywhere they went, something that she scoffed at being a tall tale until Madame Denis showed her the one she kept on herself.[10] Rome’s sensibilities were vastly different from that of Paris and the royal courts. With the continuous arrival of so many people into the city, it often played with the Vigée Le Brun emotions, feeling sad many days and others feeling cheerful.

One particular bit of news from the French king especially touched Vigée Le Brun – “I was told, for instance, that a little while after my departure, when the king was begged to have his picture painted, he had replied: ‘No, I shall wait for Madam Lebrun to come back, so that she may make a portrait of me to match the queen’s.’”[11]

Naples caught the eye of Vigée Le Brun next, and she arranged to make the trek down through the Italian countryside to the seaside town. Once again, she had hardly arrived in this new place before she was asked to paint. Her next door neighbor, Count Pavel Skavronsky, a Russian Ambassador, made Vigée Le Brun promise to do his wife’s portrait before anyone else’s. She began only two days after her arrival.[12]

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, “Countess Ekaterina Vasilievna Skavronskaya” (1790), oil on canvas, 53” x 38.37”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, “Countess Ekaterina Vasilievna Skavronskaya” (1790), oil on canvas, 53” x 38.37”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Vigée Le Brun described Countess Yekatarina Shavronskaya as a sweet and pretty woman, the niece of the famous Grigory Potemkin, a Russian military leader and Catherine the Great’s lover. He had set his niece up with a vast wealth for which she used none. She lounged most of her days away, clothed in only a large black cloak. The countess had even been sent a case of dresses made from very dressmaker that Marie Antionette had employed. Yet, they sat in their boxes, unworn.

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, “Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante” (1790-1792), oil on canvas, 52” x 41.5”, National Museums Liverpool
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, “Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante” (1790-1792), oil on canvas, 52” x 41.5”, National Museums Liverpool

 

With word of Vigée Le Brun’s arrival in Naples, it was not long that the British Ambassador, Sir William Hamilton, approached the painter to beg for her first portrait to be of Madame Emma Harte, soon to be Lady Hamilton. While she was indeed famous for her beauty and previous acting profession, Vigée Le Brun had promised the count that she intended to keep.

What originally was meant only to be a six-week stay in Naples extended itself to nearly six months as the body of work that Vigée Le Brun was able to accomplish was some of her best. One morning during her stay, the French Ambassador, the Bardon de Talleyrand, arrived at her doorstep to bring her the news that the Queen of Naples, Maria Carolina, wished for her to do portraits of her two eldest daughters.[13] These portraits could be used to mark the successful marriage matches that the queen had made while away in Vienna.

Since Vigée Le Brun’s daughter was still years away from her own marriage proposal, she made sure to make the most of their time abroad. “I had resolved to give her the best education possible, and to this effect, I had engaged at Naples masters of writing, geography, Italian, English, and German … There were some signs in her of a talent for painting, but her favorite pastime was to compose novels. Returning from evening parties to which I had gone, I would find her with a pen in her hand and another in her cap.”[14] Her daughter was only nine years of age, yet she had such an aptitude for writing that her mother found it remarkable.

It was only when Vigée Le Brun returned to Rome that she was once again summoned back to Naples by the queen, as she wanted a portrait done of herself. “It was impossible to refuse, and I complied with her wish at once.”[15] And just like that, yet another painting for a queen was underway.

 

 

“Portrait of Maria Carolina of Austria (1752-1814), Queen Consort of Naples” (1791), oil on canvas, 13.7” x 11”, Conté Museum, Château de Chantilly in Chantilly, Oise, France
“Portrait of Maria Carolina of Austria (1752-1814), Queen Consort of Naples” (1791), oil on canvas, 13.7” x 11”, Conté Museum, Château de Chantilly in Chantilly, Oise, France

Maria Carolina, the Queen of Naples and Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, did resemble one another, they were indeed sisters; but Vigée Le Brun did not think the Queen of Naples was as pretty as her younger sister. She did, however, have hands and arms that were perfect in both form and color, according to Vigée Le Brun. She continues to write about how the queen showed an affectionate nature and an exemplary character, both critical traits to have as she “…bore the burden of government alone.”[16] King Ferdinand IV of Naples was not one to be hands-on with his subjects and spent most of his time in the town of Caserta, away from where his duties were. 

Before Vigée Le Brun departed from “…Naples for good, the queen presented me with a box of old lacquer, with her initials surrounded by beautiful diamonds. The initials are worth ten thousand francs; I shall keep them all my life.”[17] A gift that not many would ever think to give, let alone receive, yet Vigée Le Brun managed to leave such an impression with her skill that she continued to surround herself with royalty, even in exile.

While Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun may have attempted to write off her exile in Italy as nothing more than a period of reflection and growth within her art; it was however this blatant escape from France that certainly spared her neck from the guillotine.  

 


About the Author

Georgia Modi is a Chicago based photographer, writer and social media expert. She holds an honorary double degree – a B.F.A. from Lake Forest College in photography and English. 

For more information
Georgia Modi's photography –  https://www.georgiamodiphoto.com


Sources

[1] Vigée-Lebrun, Marie Louise Elisabeth (Author), Strachey, Lionel (Translator), The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun, Doubleday Page & Company, Copyright 1903, Printed by Manhattan Press, New York, NY, p.43

[2] Vigée-Lebrun, Marie Louise Elisabeth (Author), Strachey, Lionel (Translator), The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun, Doubleday Page & Company, Copyright 1903, Printed by Manhattan Press, New York, NY, p.44

[3] Vigée-Lebrun, Marie Louise Elisabeth (Author), Strachey, Lionel (Translator), The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun, Doubleday Page & Company, Copyright 1903, Printed by Manhattan Press, New York, NY, p.44

[4] Vigée-Lebrun, Marie Louise Elisabeth (Author), Strachey, Lionel (Translator), The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun, Doubleday Page & Company, Copyright 1903, Printed by Manhattan Press, New York, NY, p.44

[5] Vigée-Lebrun, Marie Louise Elisabeth (Author), Strachey, Lionel (Translator), The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun, Doubleday Page & Company, Copyright 1903, Printed by Manhattan Press, New York, NY, p.45

[6] Vigée-Lebrun, Marie Louise Elisabeth (Author), Strachey, Lionel (Translator), The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun, Doubleday Page & Company, Copyright 1903, Printed by Manhattan Press, New York, NY, p.46

[7] Vigée-Lebrun, Marie Louise Elisabeth (Author), Strachey, Lionel (Translator), The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun, Doubleday Page & Company, Copyright 1903, Printed by Manhattan Press, New York, NY, p.50

[8] Vigée-Lebrun, Marie Louise Elisabeth (Author), Strachey, Lionel (Translator), The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun, Doubleday Page & Company, Copyright 1903, Printed by Manhattan Press, New York, NY, p.45

[9] Vigée-Lebrun, Marie Louise Elisabeth (Author), Strachey, Lionel (Translator), The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun, Doubleday Page & Company, Copyright 1903, Printed by Manhattan Press, New York, NY, p.47

[10] Vigée-Lebrun, Marie Louise Elisabeth (Author), Strachey, Lionel (Translator), The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun, Doubleday Page & Company, Copyright 1903, Printed by Manhattan Press, New York, NY, p.49

[11] Vigée-Lebrun, Marie Louise Elisabeth (Author), Strachey, Lionel (Translator), The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun, Doubleday Page & Company, Copyright 1903, Printed by Manhattan Press, New York, NY, p.50

[12] Vigée-Lebrun, Marie Louise Elisabeth (Author), Strachey, Lionel (Translator), The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun, Doubleday Page & Company, Copyright 1903, Printed by Manhattan Press, New York, NY, p.52

[13] Vigée-Lebrun, Marie Louise Elisabeth (Author), Strachey, Lionel (Translator), The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun, Doubleday Page & Company, Copyright 1903, Printed by Manhattan Press, New York, NY, p.56

[14] Vigée-Lebrun, Marie Louise Elisabeth (Author), Strachey, Lionel (Translator), The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun, Doubleday Page & Company, Copyright 1903, Printed by Manhattan Press, New York, NY, p.57

[15] Vigée-Lebrun, Marie Louise Elisabeth (Author), Strachey, Lionel (Translator), The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun, Doubleday Page & Company, Copyright 1903, Printed by Manhattan Press, New York, NY, p.57

[16] Vigée-Lebrun, Marie Louise Elisabeth (Author), Strachey, Lionel (Translator), The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun, Doubleday Page & Company, Copyright 1903, Printed by Manhattan Press, New York, NY, p.58

[17] Vigée-Lebrun, Marie Louise Elisabeth (Author), Strachey, Lionel (Translator), The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun, Doubleday Page & Company, Copyright 1903, Printed by Manhattan Press, New York, NY, p.58