Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun:  The Marie Antoinette Years

by Georgia Modi

 

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, “The Artist’s Brother” (1773), oil on canvas, 24.25” x 19.875”, St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, “The Artist’s Brother” (1773), oil on canvas, 24.25” x 19.875”, St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis

 

To keep the company of royals is a privilege very few have ever had, yet, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) seemed to do so with ease throughout her life.

Born in 1755 in Paris, France, Vigée Le Burn began her painting career at a young age, with her first instruction from her father, a fellow portraitist.

Her early teen years proved to be fruitful for her as she was already painting portraits professionally and was a member of the Académie de Saint-Luc by the age of 19. To become an artist of this caliber was no easy feat for anyone, let alone an 18th-century woman. It was no doubt this proficiency with a brush that drew the attention of notable nobility throughout France. However, it was the ongoing patronage of Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) that cemented Vigée Le Burn amongst their ranks.

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 
 

Vigée Le Burn recounts in her memoirs the first time she and the queen met walking in a park. Maire was with several ladies of the court, all of whom had been dressed in white, looking “...young and pretty for that moment.”1 At that moment, it was unknown to either woman the extent of what their relationship would become. Vigée Le Burn would eventually paint more than 30 portraits of the queen and her family, giving her the perception of being the official portraitist of Marie Antoinette.

The first of these portraits began in 1778 when the queen was “...in the heyday of her youth and beauty.”2 Vigée Le Burn recounts the physical appearance of the queen as being admirably built with her superb arms and her small and perfectly formed hands. “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....”3 In the end, the most remarkable thing about the queen was her complexion. Vigée Le Burn details how difficult it had been to render the effect that she had hoped because the queen’s skin was brilliant and transparent. “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.”4

These vital features of the queen only seemed to add to the imposing air that frightened Vigée Le Burn during this first sitting; however, she says how Marie Antoinette spoke to her so kindly that the fear that she had dissipated.

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, “Marie Antoinette in Court Dress” (1778), oil on canvas, 107.5” x 76”, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, “Marie Antoinette in Court Dress” (1778), oil on canvas, 107.5” x 76”, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

 

Vigée Le Burn often illustrates the queen in a kind and positive light throughout her memoirs. She even mentions that on many occasions, the queen and her would sing duets by André Grétry (1741-1813) together. There was a day when Vigée Le Burn missed one of their appointments for a sitting due to becoming unwell. Upon the next day, she went to Versailles “...to offer my excuses”5 even though the queen was not expecting her. She even “...had her horses harnessed to go out driving,”6 which was the first thing that Vigée Le Burn saw upon entering the palace yard. She was met with hostility from one of the chamberlains on duty who believed that the queen would not give any sitting that day; however, according to Vigée Le Burn, she only came to take “...Her Majest’s order for another day.”7 Hearing this, the chamberlain went to the queen, who at once had Vigée Le Burn brought to her room. Knowing that she was in the wrong, Vigée Le Burn tried to apologize for her absence and request an order for when to return, but to her astonishment, the queen replied, “No, no! Do not go! - I do not want you to have made your journey for nothing!”8

Vigée Le Burn’s artistic approach to her work seemed to circumvent the lightness seen within the late-rococo period and neo-classicism’s ploy. She often preferred to paint the queen in a plain gown and no hoopskirt, a far departure from how royalty was habitually depicted during this period. One painting, in particular, drew the crude remarks of a few. “One of them shows her with a straw hat on, and a white muslin dress, whose sleeves are turned up, though quite neatly. When this work was exhibited at the Salon, malignant folk did not fail to remark that the queen had been painted in her chemise, for we were then in 1786, and calumny was already busy concerning her.”9 Despite everything, the portrait was still a success which I believe is a testament to the mastery of Vigée Le Burn.


Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, “Marie Antoinette in a Muslin Dress” (1783), oil on canvas, Hessian House Foundation, Collection of the prince Ludwig von Hessen und bei Rhein, Wolfsgarten Castle, Germany
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, “Marie Antoinette in a Muslin Dress” (1783), oil on canvas, Hessian House Foundation, Collection of the prince Ludwig von Hessen und bei Rhein, Wolfsgarten Castle, Germany

Their last sitting took place at Trianon; a grand Château nested within the Domain of Versailles. This painting would be one where the queen appeared with her children, Dauphin, Madame Royale, and the Duke de Normandie. Vigée Le Burn describes how this was to be a large picture and how she not only had to do a study on the queen’s hair but on each child as well. “...I busied myself with my picture, to which I attached great importance, and I had it ready for the Salon of 1788. The frame, which had been taken there alone, was enough to evoke a thousand malicious remarks. “‘That’s how the money goes.’”10 Vigée Le Burn presumed that the public would poorly receive the piece and couldn’t bring herself to go with it after sending it off. So much so that she made herself sick from fear and would not leave her room. She was praying for success when her brother and a flock of friends burst in, saying that the portrait was met with “universal acclaim.”

Once the Salon had concluded, the piece was moved to the halls of Versailles by the King himself, Louis XVI. Vigée Le Burn was then presented to the King by M. d’Angevillers, the then minister of fine arts and director of royal residences. “Louis XVI vouchsafed to talk to me at some length and to tell me that he was very much pleased. Then he added, still looking at my work, ‘I know nothing about painting, but you make me like it.”11

Every mass, the queen would pass the portrait of herself with her children, but after the death of Dauphin in early 1789, she could no longer stand the sight of it since it “...so keenly of the cruel loss she had suffered.”12 The painting was swiftly removed after that, and Vigée Le Burn was notified of the queen’s motive behind the action. Something that she felt showed the queen’s sensitiveness because if not for the removal Vigée Le Burn was sure that the portrait destruction would have occurred when fishwives raided the palace during the French Revolution.

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, “Marie Antoinette and Her Children” (1787), oil on canvas, 108.2” x 84.6” Palace of Versailles
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, “Marie Antoinette and Her Children” (1787), oil on canvas, 108.2” x 84.6”, Palace of Versailles

It was not long after that Vigée Le Burn laid eyes on Marie Antoinette for the last time, at the final court ball at Versailles. She observed the queen’s excitement in asking the young men of the court to dance; however, many refused the offer. Conduct that seemed “exceedingly improper” to Vigée Le Burn. She felt as if the refusals were a revolt, a “...prelude to revolts of a more series kind.”13 The French Revolution began in May of 1789 and would last for ten and a half years. It marked the end of the French monarchy and the life of Queen Marie Antoniette. She was found guilty of depletion of the national treasury, conspiracy against the internal and external security of the State, and high treason. The queen was sentenced to the guillotine and was executed on October 16th, 1793.

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun fled France after the royal family was arrested; she spent twelve years away, where she lived and worked in Italy, Austria, Russia, and Germany. She was fortunate enough to have painted almost every royal family member except Count d’Artois during her years as part of French high society. Her decision to ultimately leave the country would not be her downfall. These opportunities to work in other countries would lead her to lend her talents to queens once again.

 

Source

  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.13
  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.20
  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.20
  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.20
  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.22
  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.22
  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.22
  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.22
  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.21
  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.23
  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.23
  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.24
  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.24

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