Arts and Culture

Elizabeth Vigée-LeBrun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France

Elisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun (1755-1842) is one of the finest 18th-century French painters and among the most important of all women artists.

1790 --- Self-Portrait by Elisabeth Louise Vigee-Lebrun --- Image by © Summerfield Press/CORBIS
1790 — Self-Portrait by Elisabeth Louise Vigee-Lebrun, Image: Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (French, Paris 1755–1842). Self-portrait. 1790. Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 31 7/8 in. (100 x 81 cm). Galleria degli Uffizi, Corridoio Vasariano, Florence (1905)— Image by © Summerfield Press/CORBIS

An autodidact with exceptional skills as a portraitist, she achieved success in France and abroad during one of the most eventful, turbulent periods in European history. Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France is the first retrospective and only the second exhibition devoted to this artist in modern times. The 80 works on view at the Metropolitan Museum will be paintings and a few pastels from European and American public and private collections.

Artist Bio: Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun

Born in Paris during the reign of Louis XV, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was the daughter of a professional pastel portraitist who died when she was 12 years old. Precocious and largely self-taught, in her teens Mademoiselle Vigée, chaperoned by her mother, was already working independently as a portraitist and contributing to the support of her family. It became necessary for her to join the artisanal guild in 1774, and she exhibited publicly for the first time when she was 19 at the Salon of the Académie de Saint-Luc.

The Evolution of the Artist

1783. Oil on canvas. 87 x 130 cm (34.3 x 51.2 in). Musée de l'Histoire de France, Versailles, France. --- Image by © Corbis
1783. Oil on canvas. 87 x 130 cm (34.3 x 51.2 in). Musée de l’Histoire de France, Versailles, France. — Image by © Corbis

In 1776 she married the principal art dealer and expert in 18th-century Paris, Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, with whom she had a daughter, Julie. Theirs was largely a marriage of convenience, beneficial to both, although his profession at first kept her from being accepted into the prestigious Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. At 23, Vigée Le Brun was summoned to Versailles to paint Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), who was a few months younger than she. The earliest of three full-length life-size portraits of the queen in the exhibition will be Marie Antoinette in Court Dress (1778, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), which was delivered to her mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, in 1779. The most important painting of the queen, commissioned as a propaganda piece for the monarchy and shown at the Salon of 1787, is Marie Antoinette and Her Children (Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon), in which she is presented as a regal mother with the dauphin and his two siblings.

Lecture on the work of French Artist Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun by Genevieve Davis M.F.A

The art of painting was fostered in France by the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, established in Paris in 1648 under the leadership of Charles Le Brun (1619–1690). Women were barred from the school of the Académie because the students learned anatomy and the principles of drawing by studying and sketching from the nude male model. The Académie royale also controlled access to the Académie de France in Rome, where young male artists were afforded the opportunity to study the sculpture and monuments of antiquity. Women were afforded only the most limited access to the Salons of the Académie, where members brought their work before connoisseurs, critics, and potential patrons. (Of the 550 members of that organization during its 150-year history, only 14 were women.) Denied entry to this august organization because her husband was a dealer and association with the trade was prohibited, Vigée Le Brun was able to gain access only when Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI intervened.

About the Exhibition

The exhibition is made possible by the Sherman Fairchild Foundation, the Gail and Parker Gilbert Fund, the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, and the Diane W. and James E. Burke Fund.Corporate support is provided by Bank of America. Additional support is provided by gifts made in memory of Parker Gilbert. The exhibition is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Réunion des Musées Nationaux – Grand Palais, and the National Gallery of Canada, with the exceptional participation of the Château de Versailles. www.metmuseum.com

Exhibition Dates: February 15–May 15, 2016. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street

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