Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Elisabeth Louise Vigee le Brun: A Historical Survey of a Woman Artist in the Eighteenth Century

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Elisabeth Louise Vigee le Brun: A Historical Survey of a Woman Artist in the Eighteenth Century

Article excerpt


Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun, 1755-1842, was born in Paris during the reign of Louis XV, 1723-1774. Her life and professional career coincided with a period of profound social and political upheaval which not only led to the French Revolution but influenced almost every aspect of European life. As the painter of the Bourbons and the aristocratic circles surrounding the court of Louis XVI, the subsequent overthrow of the Monarchy with its dramatic results for the Royal family altered the course of her career. Vigee Le Brun, therefore, emerges as a painter of change whose paintings reflect the controversial social and political climate of her time. (1)

Motivated by that particular aspect of Vigee Le Brun's artistic practice, the present essay seeks to explore the historical and artistic discourses which shaped her concept of portraiture from the early years of her career to those of her major royal commissions which signaled her maturity both artistic and personal. Through her paintings the spectator is able to realize that Vigee Le Brun tried vigorously to adjust a male discourse to a feminist end. Her choice of subjects and her devotion to the art of portraiture set the paradigm for a female vision of painting the human character and physiognomy. Vigee Le Brun's work was brought to light mainly during the decade of the seventies and in so far the publications referring to her work are not as many as they should be.

The Formative Years (ca. 1770-ca. 1778)

In the catalogue accompanying the first major retrospective exhibition of the work of women artists active between the years 1550-1950, Ann S Harris has referred to Vigee Le Brun as the most celebrated woman painter of the second half of the eighteenth century. (2) Her fame can be largely attributed to her privileged position as the painter most favoured by Marie Antoinette, Louis XV1's Queen, whose portraits she repeatedly painted between 1778-1789. However this is only one aspect of her reputation which could equally be attributed to her sociable character and personal charm that helped launch her career and eventually gained her access to the Royal Household. (3) Moreover Vigee Le Brun has been credited with an ability to produce idealized portraits, images of her noble sitters, which made her one of the most sought after painters in the aristocratic society of pre-Revolutionary Paris. (4)

The origins of Vigee Le Brun's artistic career are rather difficult to trace. In an article published in 1982, (5) Joseph Baillio indicates the problems with the dating of her early works which prevent us from forming a clear image of her formative artistic education. According to the same source, (6) her father Louis-Vigee, a pastel portrait painter active between 1715-1767, taught his daughter some principles of design and initiated her in the techniques of pastel drawing. Louis-Vigee also sent her to his colleague, the minor painter Davesne, to learn how to mix oil colours (7) and thus the young artist developed a skill to work in pastel as well as in oil. (8) Unfortunately Louis-Vigee died when his daughter was only twelve. The next years and when she was still only fifteen, Vigee Le Brun is referred to as painting oil portraits in order to support her family financially. (9) At this age it was not usual for women to start a career in fine art since painting was a domain dominated by men as that was the case for so many other professional activities.

In her Memoirs, the artist also recognizes herself as a child prodigy when she refers to her enthusiasm for making drawings in the margins of her copy-books or on the walls of the boarding school which she attended from the age of six to eleven. (10) However as Ann S Harris argues, (11) many women artists in history were referred to as precocious talents and this may be explained by the fact that only those who displayed an early development received further encouragement and eventually became accomplished painters. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.