Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun

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Self-Portrait, 1790
Signature É.  Vigee Le Brun

Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (also Le Brun ; born April 16, 1755 in Paris ; † March 30, 1842 there , buried in Louveciennes ) was a French painter who made numerous portraits of European nobles. Her works can be assigned to the Rococo and later Classicism .


Childhood and youth

Portrait of her mother Jeanne Maissin

Louise-Élisabeth was born as the daughter of the painter Louis Vigée (1715–1767) and the hairdresser Jeanne Maissin (1728–1800) in the Rue Coquilliere in Paris and baptized in St-Eustache . When she was three months old , she was taken to farmers in Épernon near Chartres , where she stayed for five years. Back in Paris, she was in 1760 in the convent boarding Couvent de la Trinité in the Rue de Charonne housed. There, the young Louise-Élisabeth's drawings in her notebooks and on the walls were soon noticed . The father was also enthusiastic about the drawings of his six- or seven-year-old daughter and predicted her future as a painter. In 1767 she left the boarding school to live with her parents again. She received her first art lessons from her father. After his death on May 9, Elisabeth immersed herself in drawing and took lessons from Gabriel Briard, member of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture , and later from Claude Joseph Vernet . In the same year, her mother married the goldsmith Jacques-François Le Sèvre .

The family moved to Rue Saint-Honoré across from the Palais Royal . During visits, Elisabeth copied old master paintings from private collections. She is said to have been one of the most beautiful women in Paris at a young age. At the age of 15 she already earned her money through professional portraits . She rejected orders from suitors who only had a meeting with her in mind. After her studio was closed in 1774 for lack of a license, she applied to the Académie de Saint-Luc , where they agreed to exhibit her work. On October 25, 1774 she became a member of the Académie de Saint-Luc . After their stepfather retired, the family rented an apartment in the Hôtel Lebrun on Rue de Cléry , which belonged to the painter and art dealer Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Lebrun .

Relationship with the royal family

Self-portrait, around 1783

On January 11, 1776, Elisabeth Vigée married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Lebrun. Their business flourished; she painted numerous members of the nobility . In 1778 she was finally called to Versailles to make a portrait of Marie-Antoinette . The Queen was so impressed that Vigée-Lebrun received commissions for numerous other portraits of the royal family. On February 12, 1780, their only child, Jeanne Julie Louise (1780-1819) was born.

From May to June 1781, Elisabeth traveled with her husband through Flanders and the Netherlands , where the works of the Flemish masters prompted her to try new painting techniques. She also painted portraits of some nobles, including the Prince of Nassau .

On May 31, 1783, Vigée-Lebrun became a member of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture , Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture with the title of "portrait painter". Adélaïde Labille-Guiard was admitted alongside her on the same day . Those responsible were against the admission of Vigée-Lebrun, but were finally by Louis XVI. overruled after Marie-Antoinette asked her husband to do so.

In August she exhibited her work for the first time in the Salon of the Académie; opinions about their works were divided. In 1784 Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun suffered a miscarriage. In the summer of 1785 she exhibited a number of paintings at the Académie Royale, most of which were positively evaluated. The following exhibitions were also enthusiastically received. In 1788 she organized the souper grec , one of the social events during the reign of Louis XVI.

Over time, however , the previously successful artist was attacked more and more often. In the press she was accused of a relationship with the then finance minister, Calonne . In 1789 the publication of a fictitious letter between her and the minister ruined her reputation. Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun sought refuge with the family of the architect Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart . Since 1787 she maintained a close friendship with Joseph de Rigaud de Vaudreuil (1740-1817), Lieutenant General and member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts .

Self-portrait with daughter Jeanne Julie Louise, 1789

In exile

Julie Lebrun as a bather, 1792

After the storming of Versailles during the French Revolution , Vigée-Lebrun fled to Italy on the night of October 6, 1789, accompanied by her daughter and her governess . It was her intention to return to France after law and order were restored. On the way she made stops in Lyon , Turin , Parma (where she was admitted to the Academy on November 3rd) and Florence before arriving in Rome in late November . There Vigée-Lebrun continued to move in aristocratic circles. Her works aroused admiration, so that in early April 1790 she was admitted to the Accademia di San Luca . The following year she made a total of three trips to Naples .

On April 14, 1792, she left Rome for Paris, making stops in Spoleto , Foligno , Florence , Siena , Parma, Mantua , Venice , Verona and Turin. She found that her name had been put on the emigrant list and that she had lost all French civil rights . All of their property was held for confiscation. Her husband's request to remove her from the list was unsuccessful. Realizing that the situation was too uncertain for her as a royalist , she decided to stay in Italy. In Milan , the Austrian ambassador advised her to settle down as a portraitist in Vienna . There she rented a house on the outskirts.

Meanwhile, Lebrun published the pamphlet " Précis historique de la vie de la Citoyenne Le Brun " in defense of his wife . However, he was ignored and briefly detained in November. A month later, Elisabeth's brother Etienne was also arrested; he was detained for over half a year. Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Lebrun eventually filed for divorce to protect his property.

On April 19, 1795, Elisabeth Vigée traveled to Saint Petersburg , where she arrived in late June and rented an apartment near the Winter Palace . There, too, her experience with aristocratic clients proved useful. She was sponsored by the tsarist family so that she was able to amass a considerable fortune during her six-year stay. She painted numerous portraits of the family members of Catherine II and was accepted into the Academy of Fine Arts. During a meeting of the Directory on July 26, 1799, a petition signed by 255 artists, writers and scholars was presented in favor of Elisabeth Vigée. The following year her mother Jeanne Maissin (1728–1800) died. Less than a month later, on June 5, 1800, Vigee's name was finally deleted from the list of emigrants. This opened the way for her to return to France. In the same year Julie Lebrun married, against her mother's wishes, the director of the Imperial Bolshoi Theater in St. Petersburg Gaëtan Bertrand Nigris (* around 1770), from whom she was divorced in 1804. After a short stay in Moscow , Vigée returned to Paris. On the way back, she stayed in Berlin for six months , where she came into contact with the Hohenzollern family.

Self-Portrait, 1800

After returning

After a total of 12 years in exile, Élisabeth Vigée arrived in Paris on January 18, 1802 and moved back to the Hôtel Lebrun . Later she rented a country house in Meudon , where she completed some paintings that she had begun in Russia and Germany. Now known and loved all over Europe as a portrait painter, she visited London after the Peace of Amiens and painted portraits of numerous British personalities such as Lord Byron . In July 1805 Vigée returned to Paris via Holland and Belgium .

In 1807 she received the first and only commission from the imperial court for a portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte's sister Caroline . A year later she made two trips to Switzerland , where she was made an honorary member of the Société pour l'Avancement des Beaux-Arts. In December 1809 she bought a large country house in Louveciennes and lived alternately there and in Paris until her country house was occupied by the Prussian army in 1814 during the wars of liberation . Her husband died on August 7, 1813. Her daughter Julie Nigris died on December 8, 1819, and her brother Etienne Vigée (1758-1820) died a year later . Etienne's daughter Caroline became Vigée's sole heir. On June 30, 1827, Élisabeth Vigée was appointed a member of the Académie de Vaucluse .

In 1835, with the help of her nieces Caroline Rivière and Eugénie Le Franc, she published the first volume of her memoirs , which provide an interesting insight into the training of artists towards the end of the monopoly of the royal academies. The second and third volumes of her souvenirs followed in 1837 . In 1841, Élisabeth Vigée suffered a stroke that left her with permanent paralysis. She probably died of complications from arteriosclerosis on March 30, 1842 in her apartment in the Hôtel Le Coq , Rue Saint-Lazare in Paris at the age of 86. She is buried in the Louveciennes cemetery near her old house.


About 660 portraits and 200 landscape paintings by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun have survived, which can be assigned to classicism. In addition to private collections, several larger European and American museums (in Germany including Charlottenburg Palace ) house her works.


Vigée-Lebrun made a total of 37 self-portraits. Twenty of them are copies from their own hand. The best known is probably the self-portrait with the straw hat from 1782. Your model for the self-portrait was a portrait of Peter Paul Rubens , which probably shows his sister-in-law. In 1790 she was commissioned to make a self-portrait for the Museo degli Uffizi in Florence. With painting utensils and a canvas, she presents herself here as a painter, as she does in another self-portrait from 1800. The loving mother in a mother-child relationship, in line with Rousseau's ideal , is presented in the self-portraits of 1786 and 1789 with her daughter Julie.


  • Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun: Souvenirs. 3 volumes. Fournier, Paris 1835–1837 (numerous re-publications).

Secondary literature

- chronological -

  • Joseph Baillio: Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1755–1842. University of Washington Press 1983, ISBN 0-295-96012-4 .
  • Lida von Mengden (ed.): The beauty painter… memories of Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun (= Luchterhand collection. 553). Luchterhand, Darmstadt et al. 1985, ISBN 3-472-61553-2 .
  • Inès de Kertanguy: Madame Vigée-LeBrun. Perrin, Paris 1994, ISBN 2-262-00006-9 .
  • Mary D. Sheriff: The Exceptional Woman. Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and the Cultural Politics of Art. University of Chicago Press, Chicago IL et al. 1996, ISBN 0-226-75275-5 .
  • Angelica Goodden: The Sweetness of Life. A Biography of Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Andre Deutsch, London 1997, ISBN 0-233-99021-6 .
  • Stephanie Hauschild: Shadow - Color - Light. The portraits of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Dissertation Freiburg 1998, as CD-ROM: Darmstadt 2001 (accessible as online text on the Freiburg document server).
  • Gerrit Walczak: Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. An artist in emigration 1789–1802 (= Passerelles. 5). Deutscher Kunstbuchverlag, Berlin et al. 2004, ISBN 3-422-06457-5 .
  • Gita May: Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. The odyssey of an artist in an age of revolution. Yale University Press, New Haven CT et al. 2005, ISBN 0-300-10872-9 .
  • Catherine R. Montfort: Self-Portraits, Portraits of Self. Adelaïde Labille-Guiard and Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun, Woman Artists of the Eighteenth Century. In: Pacific Coast Philology. Vol. 40, No. 1, 2005, ISSN  0078-7469 , pp. 1-18, JSTOR 25474166 .

Fiction representations

  • Hermann Clemens Kosel : Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. Artist novel from the fateful days of Marie Antoinette. Bong, Berlin 1925.
  • Renate Feyl : Set lights over a bright background. Novel. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne 2011, ISBN 978-3-462-04335-8 .
  • Renate von Rosenberg: The emigrant. Europe's first female painter. The life of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Scholz Film TV ABC Fachverlag, Hamburg 2011, ISBN 978-3-941653-12-2 .



  • The rise and fall of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. (OT: Le fabuleux destin d'Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, peintre de Marie-Antoinette. ) Docu-drama , France, 2014, 94:15 min., Book: Jean-Frédéric Thibault and Arnaud Xainte, directors: Arnaud Xainte, production : Illégitime Défense, RMN-Grand-Palais, Méroé Films, arte France, Musée des beaux-arts du Canada, first broadcast: October 3, 2015 by arte, table of contents by arte. Docu-drama with interviews with art historians on the occasion of their retrospective of works at the Paris Grand Palais from 23 September 2015 to 11 January 2016.

Web links

Commons : Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun  - Album with pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Généalogie Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. In: geneat.org , accessed October 24, 2015.
  2. ^ Généalogie Jeanne Julie Louise Lebrun Brunette. In: geneat.org , accessed October 24, 2015.
  3. ^ Catalog of the works exhibited in the Salon du Louvre 1789, p. 19 ( digitized version ).
  4. Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Self portraits. In: batguano.com , accessed October 24, 2015.
  5. Élisabeth Décultot: Review of Gerrit Walczak, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. In: H-Soz-u-Kult , December 9, 2005 (French).