Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was one of the foremost portraitists in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century and during the first three decades of the nineteenth. She belonged to the long succession of European courtier-artists that began with Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) and closed with John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). It is not an overstatement to claim that she was self taught, although she did receive a few lessons from minor painters such as Gabriel Briard (1725-1777) and Pierre Davesne (active 1764-1796). When she was nineteen years old, she became a member of the Académie de Saint-Luc, where her father, the pastelist Louis Vigée (1715-1767), had taught.
Her early success attracted the attention of the foremost dealer in Paris, Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun (1748-1813), whom she married in 1776. He readily lent her paintings from his stock so that she could copy them. In 1780 the artist gave birth to her only child, a girl christened Jeanne Julie Louise (1780-1819), upon whom she doted and whose likeness she was to draw and paint frequently, either alone or in her mother's embrace. By any standards, the Le Bruns lived on an opulent scale. The artist's stylish salon became one of the most popular in Paris and was attended by artists, writers, foreign visitors, and prominent figures of Parisian society and the court of Versailles, where her connections allowed her to recruit a wealthy and often high-born clientele.
After her contact with certain works by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), which she saw during a trip to the Low Countries with her husband in 1782, Vigée Le Brun became a bold colorist, refined her technique in oil painting to an exquisite degree, and adopted wooden panels as supports for some of her finest easel paintings. She had her sitters assume poses of her own invention or based on prototypes of Greek and Roman antiquity, the Italian Renaissance, and the baroque age, and she would frequently devise picturesque costumes for them. Clients who flocked to her studio were delighted to have their features commemorated in a lively, flattering, and seductive way.
In 1778 Vigée Le Brun painted from life an official, full-length portrait of Marie Antoinette, whose consistent patronage she enjoyed until the outbreak of the French Revolution. The queen's direct intervention was responsible for her election in 1783 to the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture over the strong objections of the powerful First Painter to the King, Jean Baptiste Marie Pierre (1713-1789), who claimed that Madame Le Brun's husband's profession as an art dealer effectively disqualified her. Thereafter, she was able to exhibit her works in the Académie's biennial Salon, where they attracted considerable attention. In these exhibitions Vigée Le Brun had to outperform her rivals, notably another woman artist, Adélaïde Labille Guiard (1749-1803). Her fame was spread throughout Europe by critics and foreign travelers alike.
Vigée Le Brun fled France in October 1789, and she returned in 1802. During that time, she traveled and worked in the courts of Italy (1789-1792), Austria (1792-1795), Russia (1795-1801), and Germany (1801), where she was hailed for her talent, treated like a prima donna, and earned a considerable fortune. Except for a sojourn in England (1803-1805) and short trips to Switzerland (1807-1808), her days of wandering had virtually come to an end.
The three volumes of her memoirs were published between 1835 and 1837 under the title of Souvenirs. They contain a personal account of the last years of the ancien régime and the then-prevalent art establishment and a chronicle of her travels during her years of exile from France. These writings, to which she appended lists of her works and a short treatise on portraiture, contain fascinating glimpses into the often glamorous and sometimes dramatic life she led and brief anecdotes concerning many of her better-known sitters. They constitute the magnum opus of her old age and are vivid testimony to the overriding passion of her life, the art of painting. The eighty-seven-year-old Madame Le Brun died in 1842 in her Paris residence and was buried in the cemetery of the church of the village of Louveciennes, where she kept a country house.
[Joseph Baillio, in French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue, Washington, D.C., 2009: 435-436.]
Conisbee, Philip, et al. French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2009: 435-436.