A Feminist in Revolutionary France: Artist Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun at the Met

Self portrait-Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, 1782

Self portrait-Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, 1782

When I attended the exhibition of the artist Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun at the Met with an old friend, I found it very moving on many levels.  I guess it’s not surprising that I was blown away by her technical aptitude since Vigee Le Brun is  considered one of the most important female artists of all time.  You can almost smell the rose in this detail of a portrait of her most famous patron,   Marie Antoinette.


Today her skills as a colorist are widely admired, seen in this detail shot of a sublime combination of mustard, plum and blue.


And swoon, you know how obsessed I am with the portrayal of textiles in art–that veil, those ribbons!


Equally as fascinating, however, was what I learned about Vigee Le Brun’s life.  She was an exceptionally strong and independent woman.

Vigee Le Brun  vaulted to the top of her profession at the young age of 15 with a portrait of her mother.  Despite the fact that two of the most important men in her life (her stepfather and her husband) absconded with her earnings, she ultimately triumphed and continued to a paint nobility throughout her long life (she died at age 86).  She was the first woman to achieve the rank of painter to the king.

I admire her quiet confidence in her work.   Some said her work wasn’t good enough to justify her fees, while others claimed it was so good that a man had to be responsible, accusing her of having  a lover execute her paintings, but that didn’t stop her.

Vigee Le Brun ignored the criticism and soldiered on, establishing an  empathetic relationship with her sitters.  You can see that here in this detail shot showing  the friendly smile of this prominent nobleman holding a document inscribed “Au Roi” (To the King). 


At one point she caused a public stir for painting the teeth of a sitter, considered vulgar at the time.  Vigee Le Brun simply didn’t care and continued to paint full smiles throughout her career.


What I admired  most of all, however, is that she accomplished  her professional stature while being a single mother at a time when most women were not seen outside the home.  She left her spendthrift husband, taking her young daughter, to flee France when the Revolution and her association with Marie Antoinette became life threatening.

Vigee Le Brun lived outside of France on  a constant journey throughout Europe plying her craft for 13 years.  It had to be a struggle, yet she never lost the tenderness of motherhood.     There is a palpable sense of compassion  in every single portrait she painted of a child, as you can see in this detail of a portrait of her beloved daughter Julie.


To learn more about the artist’s life and see more highlights from the Met’s exhibition, head over to my article on Vigee Le Brun for the blog Hadley Court.

Self portrait from Wikipedia.  Other paintings by Vigee Le Brun sourced from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition.   Detail shots by Lynn Byrne.

CultureLynn Byrne