Show Notes for Episode 486: Exploring the Life and Art of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Categories: French Culture, French History


1755-1842 Born and died in Paris

Famous for being one of the greatest portraitist artists of the 18th century and for being close to the royal family and to Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun had an extraordinary life filled with creativity and adventure.

Her paintings are in major museums all over Europe and North America, including in the Louvre, Versaille and Fontainebleau. Her special attention to detail and to color and her skill as a portraitist made her famous and rich during her long life.

Forgotten and misconsidered because of her association with the Royal family and the monarchy, her work was only “rediscovered” in the 20th century by women art historians, although she is in all the art history books.

At her death at the age of 86 in 1842 she left over 900 paintings, many self portraits, paintings of the Queen Marie Antoinette, the royal family, and aristocrats of all the countries of Europe. The majority of them being portraits of women, with or without children. But, the consummate artist always and forever, she considered one painting to be her masterpiece, a portrait of a man, an artist, in simple clothes and with his paint brushes in his hand (Portrait of Hubert Robert 1788 in the Louvre)

It was only in 2015 that Vigee Le Brun had her first full retrospective, at the Grand Palais in Paris, yet her paintings are in all the major art museums of the world.

Proud, sure of her talent, ambitious, and obsessively devoted to her profession of artist at a time when women who painted were considered to be “amateurs”, she led a strange, itinerant life starting in 1789 and managed, in spite of being “at the mercy” of aristocrats in every country, to continue to paint and earn money wherever she was.

Here is a summary of the life of Elizabeth Vigéé le Brun in major dates.


1755: Born in Paris and placed with a “nourrice” in the countryside until the age of 6

1761: Starts school at 6 at a convent in Paris and begins art lessons with her father who is a professional “pastellist”, an artist specializing in pastel drawings. Within the year he realizes that she is very gifted in drawing and color

1766: At 8 she is making portraits and her father predicts that she will be a great artist! She leaves the convent school to concentrate on her talent at home

1767: Sudden death of her father; she is without a mentor or a guide. Her mother remarries within the year and the “step father” is not very kind or encouraging and is greedy.

An Artist:

1769: At 14 she begins to study with artists of the time who are in the Royal Academy. The quality of her portraits is noticed by two famous painters, Vernet and Grueze. She spends time in the Louvre studying and copying the Masters (Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck…)

1770: Sells first painting, at 15, a portrait of her mother, but her step father takes all her money. Begins to sell her portraits.

1775: Although as a woman she is not eligible to be a member of the Royal Academy of Painting, she is “allowed” to show two works, which impress the public.

1776: At age 21 she meets and, against the wishes of her family, marries J Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, an art dealer, restorer, merchant, and ladies’ man. From this time on, until his death, he “takes care of” her career and her money.

1776: At the age of 21 she gets her first Royal commission for a painting, from the Count of Provence – who will eventually be Louis XVIII! He introduces her to the Court

1778: She does her first portrait of Marie Antoinette, who -befriends her and introduces her to all of her friends. This same year she opens her own art academy, and begins teaching art to women

She becomes the official “favorite” painter of the Queen and thanks to the intervention of Marie Antoinette is allowed to show her work at the Royal Academy

1780: She sells all of her works, and has many many commissions. Doesn’t stop painting even when she goes into labor with her daughter, Julie. All her money is “kept” by her husband – she receives a little allowance but they live in opulence.


1780-1789: Vigée LeBrun paints everyone in the Court and is extremely productive and famous She makes a fortune and she and her husband live extravagantly and have a “salon”in their private mansion. She opens an art academy for women and teaches painting.

The rumblings in Paris and France of discontent that lead to the Revolution add to the rumors of Vigée le Brun’s decadence and her association with the Queen and the Court make her detested by a part of the population

1789: In October of 1789 after the seizure of the Bastille, and the arrest of Marie Antoinette and the King and the Court, she flees France with her daughter and nourice, and some money, aided by her husband


Put on the ‘black” list of ‘emigrés” because of her close relationships with the Court and the Royal family, Vigée le Brun seeks refuge in all the Courts of the monarchs of Europe starting in Italy. She spends three years going from Rome to Venice to Naples and Florence

Everywhere she goes, she paints portraits and sells her work for a fortune. She paints and paints to survive and to be accepted.

Austria next where the family of Marie Antoinette welcomes her and she does some fabulous portraits of the royals.

1794: Her husband, a commoner, becomes the commissaire expert of art at the new Louvre museum He helps get some of her work back into the Louvre and works hard to get her name off the list of the “unwelcome émigrés”

1795-1801: Vigée le Brun goes to the Emperial Court of Russia in St Petersburg and lives there for 6 years. Her art is a triumph in Russia as well and she never stops painting.


1801: After a petition signed by 250 artists and politicians, she is taken off the blacklist and is able to go back to Paris and France. But she is not in favor with Napoleon and the Bonaparte Court and so soon leaves with her family for England.

She stays in England, very good friends with Louis XVIII and the Prince de Condé, and works there for several years.

1809: Finally, at 54, she returns to Paris and lives and works in Paris and in the countryside.

1815: With the Restauration she is brought back to Court, but all that is short lived. And by  this time her style of painting, very Rococco and opulent, is no longer really in fashion. But she still sells her works.

She continues to paint and do pastels and her works are re-instated in all the museums and chateaux.

1835: She writes her memoirs with the help of a niece.

1842: She dies, in Paris, at the age of 86, having lived her whole life for painting.


She was one of the most wonderful portrait painters to work in the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. Vigée le Brun challenged the masculine hierarchy of painting, daring to make a few “allegorical” paintings, which were FORBIDDEN to women

By her own admission she lived to paint and was terribly disappointed when her daughter chose not to become an artist as well

At her death, she left a colossal fortune, and over 900 works, 660 which were portraits.

Like Berthe Morissot a little later, she used the ‘accepted” themes for women artists to show her talent and her finesse as an artist.

The love of painting and the love of her subjects comes through in looking at her works, which are now receiving their just rewards for the quality of her art.

She was a determined artist, a survivor, a great beauty, and a highly colorful artistic figure of her times.

Take a look at her paintings, from the great queens to the simple mothers and children, and you can see how great her talent was. From the age of 14 to the age of 80 she never stopped doing what she loved: painting !

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Categories: French Culture, French History