Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun


The Boston Phoenix, July 19, 1991.

I have in my studio a poster of a self-portrait of the French 18th century painter Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun tenderly embracing her little daughter. As far as I know, it’s the only pre-modern portrait of an artist with her own child. Like me, Vigee-Lebrun was a working Mom; she wove together many different lives. That self-portrait is in Paris, at the Louvre Museum, but right here in Boston is another wonderful painting by Vigee-Lebrun: “Portrait of a Young Woman”, in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun

In 1797, most respectable European women were still powdering their hair and skin and wearing corsets to mold their bodies into impossible, ideal shapes. But Vigee-Lebrun painted this lovely young woman walking outdoors, with her long, curly brown hair fluttering gently in the wind. She looks soft and dreamy, natural and alive.

Madame Vigee-Lebrun (1755-1842) revolutionized the portrait. She despised the powder and stiff clothes that women wore; she let their hair down, draped them in soft, flowing shawls and painted them au naturel, walking in nature or embracing their children. She was not especially interested in psychology; what she cared about “sensibilite” — the feeling heart. Influenced by Romantic poets and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, her paintings helped to create a new look, a new style, a new attitude to life in pre-revolutionary Paris.

At a time when there were very few independent women and even fewer women artists, Vigee-Lebrun became a successful portrait painter while she was still in her twenties. She learned to paint from her father, a minor artist who recognized her extraordinary talent. She was married, very young, to Charles Lebrun, an art dealer much older than she. It was not a happy marriage, but it provided her with an entree into the Paris art world, and her painting greatly improved when she had the opportunity to study the old master paintings that her husband bought and sold. In time, she became favorite painter of Marie-Antoinette; she painted the queen en famille, affectionate and relaxed. With Marie-Antoinette’s help, Vigee-Lebrun became one of the first women members of the Royal Academy of Painting. (At one Academy exhibition, the artist Jacques-Louis David paid her what he considered the supreme compliment: he told her that one visitor had mistaken one of her portraits for the work of his hand.)

Vigee-Lebrun was vivacious and gregarious; her salon was one of the most delightful gathering-places in Paris; her “souper a la grecque” was a memorable evening, with all the guests dressed in togas, eating figs and honey. When the French Revolution broke out, she packed her paintbrushes and her daughter into a carriage, and fled to Italy, then England, and finally Russia, where she painted hundreds of portraits — and made a small fortune. When she returned to Paris after the Revolution, the queen and most of her friends were dead. Her beloved only daughter died young. During the Terror, her husband divorced her to save their small property; when she came back, he insisted that the divorce was a formality, but she kept her freedom. At the end of her long, eventful life, Vigee-Lebrun consoled herself by writing her memoirs and teaching her nieces to paint.

She believed that she possessed “an inborn passion for the art.”

She wrote,

“Nor has that passion ever diminished; it seems to me that it has even gone on growing with time, for today I feel under the spell of it as much as ever, and shall, I hope, until the hour of death. It is, indeed, to this divine passion that I owe, not only my fortune, but my felicity.”

Whenever I visit Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, I always find and admire Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun’s “Portrait of a Young Woman“. There’s a lot of air in this painting — a lot of life — a lot of light.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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