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

Categories: French Culture, French History


[00:00:15] Annie Sargent: This is Join Us in France, episode 486, quatre cent quatre vingt six.

Bonjour, I’m Annie Sargent, and Join Us in France is the podcast where we take a conversational journey through the beauty, culture, and flavors of France.

Today on the podcast

[00:00:31] Annie Sargent: Today, I bring you a conversation with Elyse Rivin of Toulouse Guided Walks, where we invite you to step into the world of Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun, the trailblazing female artist who defied the 18th century conventions to become Marie Antoinette’s favorite portraitist and a celebrated figure across Europe.

From royal courts to her innovative styles, Vigée Lebrun’s journey is not just an art tale, it’s a testament to resilience, talent and the indomitable spirit of women in art, because it takes a lot to be a woman in art, especially in her days.

Join us as we explore why Vigée Lebrun’s legacy is more relevant today than ever.

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You can browse all of that at my boutique,

This is new. I’ve decided to try ads on the show. I’ve been asked for years. I think it’s worth testing. Patrons get an ad free copy of the podcast as soon as it becomes available through the Patreon app.


New VoiceMap Food Tour

[00:01:49] Annie Sargent: I have exciting news for all our gastronomy enthusiasts and explorers out there. I’m thrilled to announce the launch of my brand new VoiceMap food tour of Les Halles, the historical heart of Parisian culinary artistry.

This immersive audio journey takes you through the vibrant streets of what was once known as the Belly of Paris, Le Ventre de Paris, where you’ll discover hidden gems, taste local delicacies, the rich history that makes this district so special. Grab your headphones, let’s go on a flavorful adventure together.

I make suggestions on what to buy every step of the way. I tell you about how to choose oysters. I tell you how to choose cheese. Wine, a little bit, although wine is really, really a personal choice. Anyway, bon voyage and bon appétit to you.

It’s available through the VoiceMap app. And also podcast listeners who buy through, get a fantastic discount on all of my tours.

The Magazine Segment of the Podcast

[00:02:58] Annie Sargent: For the magazine part of the podcast, after the interview today, I’ll discuss the temporary structures that will be going up in Paris for the Olympics.

Some of these will impact your trip, even if you’re visiting well before or after the games.

Introduction to Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun

[00:03:22] Annie: Bonjour, Elyse.

[00:03:24] Elyse: Bonjour, Annie.

[00:03:25] Annie: We have a fantastic topic today about which I know almost nothing. I wonder if our listeners are going to know more than I do, or if they’re going to be like me. I have heard that Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun, because that’s who we’re talking about today, is part of the official AP art program.

So in the US, if you’re doing AP art, you have to learn about her. And if that’s why you’re listening to us today, welcome to you. Keep listening. We talk about all sorts of artists and French things.

[00:04:04] Elyse: Well, that is amazing. I certainly did not know that…

The things I come up with.

So, Elyse, what is so amazing about this woman?

Elisabeth’s Early Interest in Art

[00:04:15] Elyse: Well, as you know, as everybody out there knows, I certainly have an interest and a penchant for talking about women artists. Artists in general, but certainly women artists. And we have already had podcasts about Rosa Bonheur, about Berthe Morisot.

So, people who are more or less in the 19th century going into more, what we could call the modern times, but I really loved the idea of talking about this particular artist, partly for the simple reason that I love portraits. I think portraits are really fun. And over the centuries, and centuries, and centuries of art, portraits have been one of the staples of what do you do as a subject for art?

And I was thinking about her because we have here in the Augustins, two, maybe three of her paintings. And I don’t know, one day I was thinking, oh gee, it would be fun to talk about her.

So the Augustins that you just mentioned is a museum in Toulouse, where we both live.

It’s a museum in Toulouse, which, unfortunately, is closed because they had to do structural work, to repair some things on it.

But it is our big fine arts museum that really covers medieval art and up through into the, let’s say, the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century. So they have a few pieces by Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun.

Yes, they do. They have, I think, if I remember correctly, including one of her self-portraits.

She certainly, she did a whole lot of them. So I was thinking, oh, she’s kind of a fun subject because not only was she very, very famous and successful during her lifetime, which is really extraordinary considering that really, the big chunk of her career was in the 1700s, at a time when women could be artists, but they were kind of relegated to third category. And you could do bowls of fruit, and you could do pretty flowers, and you could do pictures of nice women and babies, but you were never considered to be at the same level, or same level of skill as a man. You know, that was just not part of the deal.

And the Royal Academy, which is, you know, the France has Royal Academies: academies for painting, academies for all kinds of things, which were created by, if I remember correctly, Louis XIV, certainly did not admit women to the Royal Academy. I mean, no way, you know, no.

But this is a woman who has become associated, even for me, before I started doing the research, with the royal family and I really thought for a long time that she was probably born into nobility, you know, and… Not at all! This is a, the case of someone really making it and going up through the ranks of society and winding up being a bestie of Marie Antoinette.

Wow. Which, for a certain amount of time did her a lot of good and then at the end of it did not do her very much good at all, you know?

[00:07:06] Annie: Yeah, these were troubled times for the king. Mm hmm.

[00:07:10] Elyse: Yeah, you know, and she managed to escape with her head on and live to come back and see what happened in France after the Revolution was over. So it’s really kind of a great story.

Elisabeth’s Artistic Style and Inspiration

[00:07:25] Elyse: Her painting, if you’ve seen any of these wonderful, huge paintings of royalty, especially at the time in the 1700s, the women that were aristocrats and royals all had these ridiculous kind of wigs with, kind of climbed up to the sky on top of their heads, you know?

[00:07:41] Annie: Yeah, they were all decked out. They were all like done up, like feathers and gorgeous fabrics and… I mean, they were all… in ways that we don’t, I mean, I’m not, they probably didn’t dress like that every day either.

[00:07:57] Elyse: Well, you know what? I don’t know, but certainly for portraits, they didn’t, you know?

[00:08:02] Annie: Yeah, for portraits, they went all out. Like they would just, and they’re very stately. They’re very like, you know, and they probably had to hold the pose for… did I say that wrong?

[00:08:14] Elyse: No, no, no, that’s right. Hold the pose.

They had to hold it for a long time because they just liked your name.

Right. I don’t know. So for those of you who are not looking, I’m trying to do a royal… She’s trying to do royal. She’s, oh, no, no, no, no smile, no smile.

You’re not supposed to smile?

No, because one of the things it’s funny that you do that because of, we’ll talk later on about the fact that she did it, she dared later on in her career, do a couple of portraits where somebody is smiling and you can see the teeth and it was forbidden to show teeth, because teeth were, if you look at paintings from the 1700s and 1800s, when you have a picture of somebody with teeth, it looks sinister.

It looks like they’re carnivorous, you know, so it was only, it was only used for showing somebody who was evil or nasty or like lower class or something like that.

[00:09:06] Annie: Well, they do say when you have, when you show a full row of teeth, you’re also like baring your teeth, really. I mean, it could be either way.

You’re happy, smiley or baring your teeth. Right. So, yeah.

Elisabeth’s Personal Life and Family

[00:09:17] Elyse: Anyway, so this is really the story of Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun, who had the good fortune of living a very long life. She died at the age of 86, in 1842.And really her life was absolutely an adventure. And she was someone who like a couple of the other women artists we know about and we’ve talked about, partly because of the attitude in general in society, her obsession her entire life was to paint and to prove, up until the last minute, that she was a great artist. So she was born in 1755 in Paris. And again, I think it’s not by chance because this is true of a lot of the other women who have been able to, who have come down through history as being artists, at the time when it was really dominantly, absolutely dominantly men, her dad was a painter. Her father was a, what they called a pastelist, which meant that he made his career, and a good career, making beautiful pastel paintings and drawings. They were from an upper middle class family. He was successful enough to have a certain amount of money, but just that, you know, I mean, nothing, nothing more than that.

[00:10:31] Annie: He was proficient at his craft, but his career didn’t take off.

[00:10:36] Elyse: No, his career didn’t take off, but they were comfortable off, you know, in terms of being a comfortable middle class family. And interestingly, she was sent, and apparently this was typical of every family, middle class and up, certainly up from then.

Believe it or not, from the moment she was born until she was six years old, she was sent out to be with a farm woman who nursed her, and they never saw her for the first six years of her life. Oh. Oh. Which is weird, but apparently this is really what they did. It was like, I don’t want a nurse, I don’t want to do this, you know, so her dad went and brought her back to Paris at the age of six.

And they enrolled her in what was considered to be a very good girls convent school. It wasn’t to become a nun, but that was where the better education was, was in a convent school in the center of Paris. She was born right in the center of Paris in the 1st, 2nd, arrondissement area, you know, right around there.

But what happened was at the age of six, he discovered that she already was really good at drawing. This is even without him being around as an influence on her. So it was clearly in her genes. So he started giving her lessons, even though she was going to this convent school. And by the time she was eight, he decided that there was no reason for her to stay in the convent school, that he could bring her back to the house, she had just a younger brother, and he would teach her and become her tutor and mentor, because her talent was so incredible at the age of eight.

She was good at drawing faces, she was good at color, she was really great at just the idea of drawing things, and so at the age of eight, he decided that she was going to be an artist, and it turns out that he was absolutely right.

I mean, she was really gifted from the beginning, and clearly she was happy doing this with her dad.

[00:12:23] Annie: Yeah, I think it’s, it’s true of a lot of children, some kids just love to doodle and draw, and some people like me never get beyond like geometrical shapes or something really simple-stupid, like I can draw the face of Garfield. I can do a competent Garfield, that’s it. I learned that one. That was my one trick pony. But some kids will just draw and doodle and do all sorts of things. And I suppose if you encourage them and if you help them learn, it would, it could bloom into something serious.

[00:13:00] Elyse: Oh, absolutely. And really, this is the case of Elizabeth.

So, when she was 10, her dad actually made a prediction that she would grow up to be a great artist. Oh.

Elisabeth’s Rise to Fame

[00:13:12] Elyse: And unfortunately, what happened was that a year later, when she was 11, her dad died very suddenly.

And her mom, this is one of those, like, mm, there must have been a little bit of something going on, she remarried within six months to a man who apparently was not very nice to Elizabeth.

And what happened was, since she started actually working as an artist at the age of 13, and at the age of 14 started actually selling some of her work, not very important amounts of money, but whatever it is she made, her stepfather took the money.She never got a penny from anything until she actually was,until she actually married at the age of 21. And then what did she do? She married, by this time she was already successful, and how she became successful is also the amazing story, but she simply married a man who was an art dealer, who was a restorer of art, who was really an expert at art, but he did basically the same thing, except that he took care of her. That is, when she started making a fortune with her paintings, and she did indeed make a fortune, he “took care of”, I like to put quotation marks around it, of her money.

She got a little allowance, but since apparently he didn’t worry about spending, she lived a fine life and never worried about it. And she said, basically, she couldn’t have cared less about the money, it was fine that he took care of it, as long as she could paint. That was all that mattered to her.

[00:14:39] Annie: Yeah, yeah, well, I mean, being married to an art dealer also helped, I’m sure. But I have, one of the few things I read about her is that her husband was a gambler, he gambled away a lot of the money she made.

[00:14:56] Elyse: He gambled, he was a philanderer, but he was also really good at promoting her art.

So, you know, I think she, she basically kind of made a pact with the devil because what she really cared about was just doing her thing.

[00:15:09] Annie: Did they have any children?

[00:15:10] Elyse: Yes, she had two children. She had one, unfortunately, who died very soon after birth. And then she had her daughter, Julie, and that’s part of the more tragic aspect of her life story, is that she spent almost her entire life traveling around with her daughter, and then she wanted her daughter to also be an artist. She thought she would have the same talent, but her daughter did not want to, and she wound up, her daughter that is married somebody in Russia when she was in exile, which is, comes later in her life. And so they had a certain amount of conflict. And unfortunately, Elizabeth outlived her daughter, but she did have what they call posterity.

She had a grandchild, a granddaughter. So there are somewhere descendants of her. Huh. So what happened was at the age of 14, she started being noticed for her portraits. And she would do what most people did, whether they were men or women, she went to the Louvre, which was available, interesting, you know, because by this time, of course, the court was living in Versailles and the Louvre was not a residence, a royal residence anymore, and it was filled with art.

And she would go to the Louvre and she would study and make copies of all of the greats. And interestingly enough, she was very attracted to the Northern artists, that is the artists from Flanders and Holland like Rembrandt, and Rubens, and Van Dyck, who was famous for his portraits. So clearly, she went to the artists that she knew would be a good source of inspiration for her.

[00:16:45] Annie: Yeah. I have to interject here that going to the Louvre to copy is still something that is done. Yes. My friend, Jennifer Gruenke, who is one of the administrators of the Facebook group for Join Us in France, she goes to the Louvre to copy pieces and she’s hoping to enroll in the Beaux Arts in Paris.

And she needs to get her French good enough to be B2, so go Jennifer, go!

[00:17:17] Elyse: Yeah, it’s actually a kind of interesting thing. I honestly have never done it, but I’m always fascinated to see the people who, because you have to concentrate with all these masses of people around you, you know, just sit there and concentrate and everybody’s looking at what you’re doing and everything.

So, it’s not that easy to be a copyist now. In the old days, it was typical, you know, this is just what people did.

[00:17:39] Annie: But you see, when you visit the Louvre, you will see a few of them anyway, at any given point. But, they’re not, I mean, they’re not copying the Mona Lisa, okay? If that’s all you’re going to visit, you’re not going to see the copyist, but if you go to more of the statues, the areas where they have statues or things like that, you will see people copying and drawing and all of that.

[00:18:01] Elyse: Absolutely. Yeah. So Elizabeth sells her very first painting, which is a portrait that I actually sent a copy of to you because it’s really kind of a neat painting, at the age of 15. And it’s the portrait of her mom, but of course her stepfather starts taking all the money. But what’s interesting is that she starts the buzz around Paris is that this is an artist who is wonderful for doing portraits. So she starts making a lot of money between the ages of 15 and 21 when she gets married and sort of emancipates herself from one man to sort of be, be connected to another, you know.

[00:18:40] Annie: That’s a tragedy that hopefully will stop happening. I’m not sure, many countries are not there yet, but hopefully by now in France anyway, a young woman who has talent can take care of her own affairs without her dad, or her husband. Absolutely. You know, I mean… hopefully.

[00:19:02] Elyse: She winds up, by the age of 21, having a really, really good reputation for being a wonderful portrait painter. And so just, in fact, it’s just a couple of months after she gets married, she’s contacted by the Count of Provence.

Now, the Count of Provence is a title, of course, it turns out to be one of the king’s brothers, this is Louis XVI. and this Count of Provence, who is pretty much the same age she is, you know, this is young people, you know, he has seen her work and he asks her to do a portrait of him and they actually become friends. Now, I mean, I don’t know how, I’m using modern terms, you know, this is the king, one of the king’s brothers who winds up eventually, in the new century becoming Louis the XVIII, you know, at that time of the restoration of the monarchy. I don’t know what level we can say that they become friends, but enough friends so that he introduces her to everybody in the court at Versailles.

And at the age of 23,she gets to meet Marie Antoinette, who is exactly the same age as she is. They were both born in 1755. And she, Marie Antoinette, having seen her paintings, asks her to do a portrait, and eventually, of course, she does many, many portraits of Marie Antoinette, and they actually really become friends.

Marie Antoinette, I mean, is someone we really should do a podcast about because with all the rest of whatever goes on in history, I mean, this is a young person who was pretty miserable at the court in Versailles for a long, long time, you know. And so she surrounded herself with people that she liked.

Marie Antoinette designates ElisabethVigée Lebrun, who is now Lebrun with her marriage, as her official favorite painter. Well, you know what that means. That means that everybody, absolutely everybody else at the court, and all of the aristocrats want to have a portrait done by the same artist.

[00:21:07] Annie: Of course. Yes. Yes. All of a sudden she’s the top of the list for people wanting to hire her to do things. Yes.

[00:21:16] Elyse: Basically, from the age of 15 on until the Revolution, which is of course 1789, at which point she is 34 years old, so we’re almost talking 20 years, she doesn’t stop painting. She paints hundreds and hundreds of portraits and becomes super famous and very, very, very rich. Even though it’s her husband who’s taking care of the money, she lives a life of the rich.

They have this private home in the center of Paris. They have a salon. She manages to actually open up an academy of art for young women and starts teaching. The story is, you know, you never know if this is just one of those stories or not, that she painted until she went into labor with her children.

I mean, she was still sitting there with the brush in her hand when the contractions started. This is, this was how obsessive she was about being an artist.

[00:22:10] Annie: And I think that a lot of people who are very successful at their craft, that’s what it is, is they are obsessed with doing this thing.

You know, Rodin never stopped producing things. Oh, what’s her name? The horse and cattle person? Rosa Bonheur. Rosa Bonheur. She never stopped. She was, you know, she just worked. Now, I wonder, did Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun, did she have people around her that she was training, that painted for her, in a sense?

[00:22:43] Elyse: No, no, not at all. She really was, I mean, having on a very small scale, attempted to do portraits, all I can say is, it is really hard. Doing a really good portrait, capturing the essence of somebody, and of course, she was part of what is really considered to be a style called Rococo, which is very much a style of the second half of the 1700s, which means you use beautiful color, there’s a lot of detail, it’s very opulent inside the paintings.

A lot of times when you look at some of these paintings, especially the ones of the princesses, you know, because she did, she did do men, by the way, she didn’t just do women. But of course, she became famous for doing Marie Antoinette with her ridiculous hairdos. And for all of the ladies in waiting, you and with the red on their cheeks and everything, she apparently did a little bit of “photoshopping”, you know, on Marie Antoinette at times, you know.

[00:23:37] Annie: Well, I mean, you want your patrons to look good, right?

[00:23:41] Elyse: Right, right.

It’s very interesting because if you go through the catalog and look at some of the paintings she did of the men, she also did some of the princes and the counts, and she apparently had a couple of very nice looking lovers along the way. And since her husband was of that kind anyway, it sounds like she didn’t care one way or the other.

But they’re a little bit more natural, you know, and they don’t have these ridiculous dresses. They don’t have the ridiculous things on top of their heads, you know.

[00:24:07] Annie: It’s not as opulent because they’re not kings and queens, they are regular people, I guess.

[00:24:13] Elyse: Well, they were counts and ministers, but the men, you know, she was able to really just concentrate almost more on capturing the essence of their faces and their expressions, because the men didn’t wear ridiculous clothes like the women were, you know, at the time. And what’s wonderful, and I’ve, you know, I’m, okay, this is me, the artist speaking, and I really get it, you know, is that of the over 900 works that are left that are attributed to her,and probably she did more than a thousand in her lifetime, the one work she considered to be her great masterpiece is a portrait of an artist, a man. It is one of the more simple, more realistic of her paintings. You see his face, you capture the essence of what this guy looked like. He looks like this really nice guy.

And he’s got his paintbrushes in his hand. To me, it’s like, she’s painting herself in the form of a guy. This is the painting she preferred of all the paintings she ever did, except for two she did of herself as self portraits with her daughter. There’s a lot of, I think there must have been a lot of emotion involved in certain paintings more than in others.

But in any event, by the time we get to the French Revolution and she is 34 years old, she is fabulously successful, fabulously wealthy, and in demand so much that she never ever stops painting. I mean, this is just, you know, this is the workhorse, this is the woman who does it.

However, the other part of what happened to her, and this is the second half of her life, is that because of the discontent in France and the rumblings, you know, that presage the actual revolution, she’s just in the same basket as Marie Antoinette and all these other people. And so there’s lots of nasty rumors about her and about the decadence of her life, which probably was not too off the truth.

But at the same time, she worked probably 10, 12 hours a day painting. And so, there were comments that really were very insulting to her, and she was, she was not outside of the upper circles, you know, of the nobility and the aristocrats. Even though she was welcomed into the Royal Academy, thanks to Marie Antoinette and all of this, she was not that well liked in sense by the general public who couldn’t have cared less, I suppose, about portraits of royal people anyway, you know.

[00:26:46] Annie: Yeah. And also she was rich. So, you know, there is a thing in France about not liking the rich. Absolutely. It’s even today, like we, Americans put their millionaires on pedestals and will accept anything so long as you’re wealthy. French people are the opposite. We don’t like our wealthy people.

We don’t think we should trust them. I mean, if you listen to the people who are critical of our current president, Emmanuel Macron, most of them, one of the first thing they will mention is that he made a lot of money in banking.

[00:27:26] Elyse: That’s exactly right.

[00:27:27] Annie: And they don’t like him for that. No. You’re not supposed to make a lot of money by yourself in banking, or in painting, or in anything else.

You’re supposed to, if you make money, you’re supposed to keep it quiet.

[00:27:39] Elyse: And she did not. And she did not. Right.

The Exile of Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun

[00:27:41] Elyse: So comes time for the seizure of the Bastille. We are in the summer of 1789. Ta ta. And guess what? She is actually in a town called Louveciennes, which is a, I think at this point, not far outside of the outskirts of Paris.

She is at the home, the château of Madame du Barry, who was the last mistress of Louis XV, because she’s in the process of doing her portrait. Yeah.

Andshe finds out that the Revolution is in the process of happening. This is a woman who really, politically, if she had any real politics, she was a royalist.

I mean, she, I don’t think she could have cared less about politics in general, but she liked the royalty and she believed in the monarchy. And so what happens is that her husband, who interestingly enough, really obviously took care of her in spite of all the crazy other things that he did as well.

In Exile

[00:28:41] Elyse: He basically said to her, look, you know, you probably should not come back to Paris. And so he arranged in the, she stayed outside of the city, and in October of 1789, he arranged for her to meet up with her daughter and the daughter’s nounou.And gave her a sack full of gold coins, and put her in a, I don’t even know what we’d call it these days, you know, a coach, and said, get out of here, basically get out of here.

And this began a period of over 13 years of Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun being in exile. And in that period of time, you imagine, oh my God, the poor thing, she was in poverty. What did she do? No, no, no, no. This is what she did.

Elisabeth’s Journey Across Europe

[00:29:31] Elyse: She went from court to court. She started off by going to Savoy, then she went to Rome, and then she went to Venice, and then she went to Naples, and then she went all around the Italian Peninsula, and she went from court to court, well received in every single one.

And in every single court, she was given an opulent apartment to live in and painted portraits of everybody in the royal family and every aristocrat, and continued to make oodles and oodles of money. So she went, she spent three years basically traveling around Italy, then she went to Austria. Now, this is already after Marie Antoinette has lost her head.

But she’s taken in by the royal family of Austria, because of course, Marie Antoinette was the last little child of the emperors of Austria.

Life in Russia and Return to France

[00:30:23] Elyse: And then she does something absolutely incredible, she gets invited to go to St. Petersburg. And she spends six years living in Russia in St. Petersburg, and she said later on that it was the place she preferred outside of Paris more than any other place she’d ever been to. I can’t even imagine spending six years in the cold in the beginning of the 1800s.

[00:30:48] Annie: That’s true. It would be very cold, much colder than Paris, for sure. Yeah.

[00:30:52] Elyse: But in fact, she had a wonderful…

[00:30:54] Annie: Opulent. I mean, opulent. Yeah, opulent. Yes. Yes.

[00:30:57] Elyse: So she, there’s a wonderful, I mean, I sent you a couple of paintings, but there are paintings of the royal imperial family of Russia that she did. I mean, they’re just so amazing. First of all, the faces in them, you know, you can see them, but the thing is the clothing that they wore, you know, the opulence of all of this.

And she managed all through these years, taking her daughter with her wherever she went, giving her daughter an education, to live this very strange, at the same time opulent life as an exile.

The Blacklist and the Revolution

[00:31:28] Elyse: And she was one of the people that, I had to look this up to make sure, this is what they called the list of émigrés.

Not émigré, but émigré. That is basically the Revolution made a blacklist of all those people who fled France at the time of the Revolution, which included the Count of Provence, the brother of the king. He, himself went to England, like the Prince de Condé, and it turns out that it wasn’t just the royals who did it.

It turns out that there were lots of upper-middle class people, and people who were just against what was happening in the revolution, who fled. And there were thousands, thousands who fled.

[00:32:06] Annie: I mean, when you see the revolutionaries are chopping heads, right, I think that’s why you, you get out.

[00:32:12] Elyse: Which of course came up, you know, two or three years later, but it turns out that, so if you were on this list, your civic rights were taken away, but also if you went back to France, you risked being put into prison and then being executed.

So she was condemned to do this, this itinerant life for all these years.

And then in, during this time, see, it would be interesting…

[00:32:33] Annie: Well, it’s not so itinerant. I mean, she went to Italy, and then Austria, and then Russia. Austria and Russia. Yeah.

[00:32:38] Elyse: But, you know, I mean, she couldn’t go back. She couldn’t go back when her mom died.

Her husband, this is really fascinating…

[00:32:45] Annie: Yeah, did she divorce him at any point?

[00:32:47] Elyse: Well, he did this thing, in 1794, which is just five years after she left, he divorced her to save her. There’s a complicated kind of civil law thing involved, but basically by getting divorced, she was put into a less dangerous category. I’m not even sure exactly how that worked. But he did, he did this, he was in touch with her all the time. He kept sending her also some money, although I have a feeling after a while she sent him because she was making a fortune. And basically he got, he was a commoner, but his work as an art expert made him someone who was veryesteemed for his reputation in judging art.

And so he became one of the experts at the Louvre. Which of course became a real art museum after the Revolution. And he was responsible for her paintings staying in the Louvre. Because she was considered part of the nasty royals, so let’s get rid of her work, you know, she’s just not an artist.

She’s, you know, one of these people contaminated by Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI and all. But he worked very hard to make sure that her work stayed in the public eye, in the Louvre.

Returning to France

[00:33:56] Elyse: And in 1801, she finally came back to France because they had, a petition had been signed by over 250 politicians, and artists, and writers, and people saying, come on, okay, it’s enough is enough.

Elisabeth’s Relationship with Bonaparte Family

[00:34:12] Elyse: She’s an artist, her only sin was being associated, you know, this way with the Court, and so she came back to France. And then this is what is even more strange in a way. At 1801 is when Bonaparte is basicaly in town…

[00:34:28] Annie: And she starts painting Bonaparte?

[00:34:30] Elyse: And she starts painting his family, but she hated, she hated them.

And it turns out that, but one of, you know, Bonaparte put all of his brothers and sisters all over the Europe, you know.

They all had big positions. They all had big positions.

[00:34:44] Annie: He positioned, like even cousins twice removed, he gave them all great positions, all over strategic places in the government and all of that, yeah.

[00:34:56] Elyse: I mean, he put them in Sicily, he put, you know, he put people everywhere. So it turns out there’s this picture, that I actually saw, she was commissioned to do a portrait of his sister, Caroline, who was married to, I don’t know who, but who was considered to be, she had suddenly become a princess, you know, because by being married to this guy, somebody in Naples or Sicily, someplace down there.


Exile to England and Return to France

[00:35:16] Elyse: Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun wrote and said, I had spent my life painting everybody at Versailles, everybody who was an aristocrat, I have never met anybody so obnoxious as this woman who takes, who considers herself to be above everything else. She said, I will not, so what she decided because she could not stand the Bonaparte family, to leave again.

And what did she do this time? She went to England because this is where all of the people she knew were, who were still alive, were exiled, they were in England. Yeah. So she went to England and lived the next few years in England and hung out with the man who became Louis the XVIII and all of the other aristocrats and nobles, who saved their skin by fleeing, you know?

And she continued to paint, and she continued to make portraits, and she didn’t come back permanently to France until 1809.So she was actually out of the country pretty much 20 years,and painting, so that’s why there are paintings by her in every major museum in every country in Western Europe.

[00:36:25] Annie: Okay, so seeing her art is not like difficult to… No! Yeah. You will see it in a lot of places.

[00:36:33] Elyse: You will see it in Paris, the Louvre, the Louvre, at Versailles…

[00:36:38] Annie: I’m pretty sure I saw a couple of hers at Versailles, as a matter of fact.

[00:36:42] Elyse: Yeah. Right.

[00:36:43] Annie: Yeah. I mean, they were taken down, they were put back in, you know, that kind of thing. But they were never destroyed. So she came back, and of course it’s, you know, this is inevitable, by the time she comes back to France in 1809, her style of painting is not so much in fashion anymore. This is really a style that, it’s inevitable, this is just, you know, the art world works. But she continues to paint. Yeah, because her contemporaries were doing very different work.

[00:37:10] Elyse: Well, if you think about it, she was really in her art, she was really part of the 18th century. The 19th century is a century of more experimentation, more innovation, you know, lots of different things, but she continues to paint, and her paintings and her portraits are still in demand. And she decides to do a lot of pastel work. Interestingly enough, smaller works in pastel and on paper, and she still has a lot of money, and she has a house outside of Paris, and she has a house in Paris, and she continues her life.

And whenthe Count of Provence becomes Louis the XVIII, she is brought back to the Court, which of course is very short lived, you know. But these are her buddies, you know, I mean, it’s strange, because she was an absolute commoner.

In terms of her background, she had nothing in common with them, except that they liked her for her art and they liked her because she basically thought, I think the same way that they did. And she said that the only thing she couldn’t stand coming back to France was still seeing remnants of posters saying, you know, basically: ‘Off with his head’, you know, for the king and stuff like that. There were these remnants of the Revolution all around her.

And later on in her life she had a couple of hard things happen.

Elisabeth’s Later Life and Legacy

[00:38:26] Elyse: Her daughter died relatively young in her thirties, and she started to lose her sight. So she, by the time she was in her mid seventies, she was still doing little drawings and things like that, but obviously the bulk of her career was over. But she lived to be 86 years old, and died peacefully in her home in Paris.

Rediscovery and Recognition of Elisabeth’s Work

[00:38:49] Elyse: By that time, of course, by 1842, we’re in a totally different world in terms of art. What I think is interesting in terms of posterity is that she’s forgotten. And she’s also not only forgotten, but she’s purposely not talked about because she’s associated with the Revolution, with the monarchy, so she’s dismissed in a way, even though her works still exist, her works are still in the Louvre and places like that.

And nobody at the end of the 19th century really thinks about her work one way or the other, and it isn’t until the mid 20th century, and thanks to American Women Art Historians, and this is true for most of the women artists, all through the century, starting with the medieval renaissance in Italy, it’s thanks to the Women Art Historians in the United States who start searching for women artists in the past, you know, to talk about them that she’s put back into the art history books. And she is in all of the books that talk about the history of paintings, she’s there, you know.

And it isn’t until 2015, which is really quite remarkable, but that I think has more to do with the fact that her painting is considered to be so old fashioned because of the subject matter, but that’s the year she has her first big, big retrospective in the Grand Palais in Paris. I know her work because of my background, I know her work because I’m interested in the history of portraits at the same time. When you look at her paintings, they are, from a point of view of skill, they’re absolutely fabulous. The work that goes into them, the skill that goes into capturing the faces, capturing the opulent fabric on the cloth of the dresses and everything is wonderful. But of course, it is a style that is not really in favor anymore. Right, right.

[00:40:38] Annie: Yeah, she went from the Rococo to the Neoclassical periodin her lifetime and other people who painted at the time, you know, you have Jacques-Louis David, who is very famous for his grandiose, very large, oversized historical paintings that you can see in the Louvre, that are just splendid. I mean, they are really fun to sit and watch. And those are so large that you really need to sit and watch for a while. Otherwise, you don’t get the whole story that he’s telling, you know, a lot is happening.

[00:41:19] Elyse: She was friends with David. It’s interesting because she was friends with a group of the neoclassical artists who were the part of the 1800s.

But I think that maybe it was just that, you know, I mean, it’s hard after a while to sort of shift when you’re not young anymore to a new style of painting, you know. Her works from a point of view of the quality of portraits are absolutely fabulous and incredible. And they give you an idea of what was important at the time.

One of the reasons I like seeing some of the work she did of the men is because you can forget about the distraction of the ribbons and the thousands of kilometers of ribbon and whatever on the dresses. And you focus more on the faces and the character of the person.

And it’s interesting that that’s the biggest difference between the portraits she did of the men and the portraits she did of the women.

[00:42:13] Annie: She was a woman of her time.

[00:42:14] Elyse: She was a woman of her time, you know.

[00:42:16] Annie: Yeah, the other big painter at the time was Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Right. So he’s, you know, known for the reading lady, she’s on in yellow and she’s reading sideways.

Jean-Antoine Houdon, which I don’t really know. Oh, he’s a sculptor. He sculpted Voltaire, and Rousseau, and George Washington. I’m not as aware of him.

Angelica Kauffman was, she’s one of the few females of the Royal Academy in London, and she was a friend of Vigée Lebrun, and she did historical paintings and portraits and landscapes and things like that.

Oh, another lady Adélaïde Labille-Guiard.

[00:43:01] Elyse: Yeah. She was the rival. She was her rival.

[00:43:04] Annie: Oh, she was her rival. Okay.

[00:43:06] Elyse: They were contemporaries and they were the two women who dared submit work to the Royal Academy. What the Royal Academy would do is you could not be admitted as a member if you were a woman, but if they considered your work to be of a certain quality, they would give you the opportunity to show your work in their space, you see.

Uh huh, uh huh.

The biggest difference between the two is that it was Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun who became friends with Marie Antoinette. And Marie Antoinette used her influence to have her admitted eventually into the actual academy.

[00:43:46] Annie: Aha! So Adelaide was admitted through other sources, I guess?

[00:43:52] Elyse: Later on. Yeah.

Contemporary Art and Portrait Painting

[00:43:53] Annie: Yeah. Yeah. Interesting. And Francisco Goya, the Spanish painter, was also a contemporary.

I’m just listing those so that we have an idea of what else was being made at the time and that it’s not so surprising that her paintings were so flamboyant, lush, I don’t know how to describe it, but lots to look at.

And, you know, I think in general, people like me who are not into art that much, I didn’t grow up thinking, oh, I want to go see art, you know, that wasn’t my thing. But, now that I do go see art, I think it’s best if you can sit a while, or stand a while, whatever the case may be, and try and look at the details other than the obvious face or the obvious, you know, look at the things that surround the person or whatever.

And see what story is being told, because there’s always a story in a painting, really. Absolutely. It’s not like a photo. Photos also tell stories, but not in the same way. And if I think about today, we take pictures of everything today, we don’t have portraits made, right? Do people hire painters today to make, I don’t know, paintings of their, portraits of their pets?

[00:45:11] Elyse: Mm. I know someone who is, I mean, I’ve met her once, I wouldn’t say that I really know her, but I did meet, it’s an English woman, actually, who lives in the Pyrenees. That’s what she does, believe it or not. She actually does portraits of animals and pets, you know.

[00:45:26] Annie: So you send her a photo, your favorite photo of your..?

[00:45:29] Elyse: I haven’t got, I don’t know, I honestly don’t know, I don’t know if she goes to meet the horse, or the dog, or whatever. Well, you know, there’s the whole question of photography versus painting. I mean, it’s a whole other subject, but I think the difference is that, you know, one of the things about being a painter, which is true now, I mean, it is, it wasn’t true at the time that Elizabeth Vigée Lebrun painted, it wasn’t true even for David, you know, who did the Coronation of Napoleon.

Their job was to try to reproduce what they saw. And even if they added and adjusted the colors and made people a little bit more beautiful than they, you know, really were, their work was really connected to a reproduction of the world that they saw in front of them, which is no longer, since the middle of the 19th century, in Western art. I think it’s really important to say in Western art, and now, of course, I think everywhere in the world, that is no longer the case, that is no longer the importance. The importance is no longer to reproduce reality, it is to express your feelings and how you see things, which can make things very unrealistic. It depends on what style, you can have unrealism or not realism, it’s not really a word, by concentrating on certain colors that are not the real colors, but you can also have eventually people like Picasso who flatten out the forms and do all kinds of weird things.

But this is the liberty that has come about since the middle of the 19th century. She, David, even the neoclassicists, they were still part of a world that needed to reproduce the human form in its real proportions. And their fantasy starts to be in the choice a little bit of the colors and, and how they use the brushes and stuff like that.

So it’s another world, you know, it’s a world that doesn’t exist anymore in a sense.

[00:47:21] Annie: Yeah, well, but if, I don’t know, if I hired someone to paint a portrait of my dog Opie, I would not want them to give me three swashes of color and say, this is the essence of Opie. I would want something that reminds me of Opie, you know.

Because, well, perhaps I’m old fashioned, I don’t know.

[00:47:41] Elyse:

That becomes a choice. The question is, do people still get hired to do painting portraits of people? You know what? I don’t even know. I don’t know. I don’t know either.

[00:47:51] Annie: I know that people get hired to do portraits of pets. Yeah. But I don’t know about people.

[00:47:57] Elyse: Well, look, I mean, Obama and…

[00:47:59] Annie: Presidents, of course they have the official… painting.

[00:48:02] Elyse: But it is still, it is still a style of painting. It is still a, not a style, it’s a wrong word, it’s a category of painting. There are still artists. I know several British artists who are alive today who do, that’s what they do, they do portraits.

But even if you get the resemblance of the face, the objective of the work is not so much the absolute reality.

[00:48:25] Annie: Last time I was in Utah, I went to visit the Supreme Court of Utah, and in the halls, they have paintings of all the Supreme Court justices, that are made by an official painter.

So, official people like that will get their portrait done to display in an official building or something like that, or offices, or something like that.

[00:48:52] Elyse: I mean, portrait painting still exists.

It’s just that it’s more, you know, I mean, among the other contemporary painters today, there’s a famous woman painter in England who does things like rock stars and everything, but she doesn’t do them from them posing. She does them, she will take a photograph, and then when you look at her paintings, you see who these people are, but it’s not, but it’s re interpreted with color and things like that, basically.

So portrait painting will never disappear, I don’t think so. Just like landscape painting will never disappear.

There are two categories. It’s a form. It’s a form. The thing that we don’t do anymore, interestingly enough, is the old kinds of historical paintings of huge battles that were considered to be the noblest form of art. Now we have too much reality with the news, and you know. Yeah, we don’t want to see this.

We don’t want to see it anymore, but a beautiful portrait or a beautiful landscaping. Yes, indeed. Yeah. Yeah.

[00:49:53] Annie: Wow. Thank you so much, Elyse. I learned a lot. That was really interesting to hear about this famous and very rich woman in art. And she was very beautiful too. And she was very beautiful too, which helps.

[00:50:05] Elyse: She had everything. Yeah. We should, we’re going to post a couple of her pictures so that people get to see what she looked like and what her paintings looked like because she did some great silk portraits. The catalogue counts 900 works left. That’s a lot. Over 600 that are portraits, because she did do other things, and of the over 600 that are portraits, probably about 20 percent are self portraits.

With children. She’s interested in her own face.

Yes, because it’s, listen, if you have nobody to pose for you, just go take a look in the mirror. Yeah. There’s a human there. I’ll paint that. There’s a human there. Yeah.

Merci beaucoup, Elyse.

De rien. Au revoir.


Thank you, patrons

[00:50:55] Annie Sargent: Again, I want to thank my patrons for giving back and supporting the show. Patrons get several exclusive rewards for doing that, including ads free versions of the podcast. You can see them at

Thank you all for supporting the show. Some of you have been doing it for a long time, you are fantastic!

New patrons

[00:51:14] Annie Sargent: And a shout out this week to new patrons: Lisa Agent, Laurie Koelbel, Susan Paces, Stan Scardino, and Kathy. It’s wonderful to have you on board in the community of francophiles who keep this podcast going. And thank you Vera Lappano for upgrading to yearly support. When you do that, you get two months free for the year, so that’s a great deal for you, and for me as well, because I can count on your support for the whole year. And that’s worth a lot to me. And thank you to Michael and Nancy Armstrong for upgrading your support as well.

How do you become a patron? You go to and to support Elyse, go to And if you do, please do not click on ‘Join for free’, because it won’t help you, or me. Instead, choose your membership level. For $5 a month or $50 per year, you get a monthly Zoom, extra French history content, the occasional French recipe, a monthly casual convo between Elyse and I, and etc. I mean, there’s a lot more.

I also want to thank Dana Bradford for going to yearly support. Thank you, thank you.

I published a reward for patrons just recently before I went to Paris, it was casual convos with Elyse and I’m about to talk to them about all the details of my trip to Paris. I discovered some new places that were very exciting.

And my thanks to Patricia Perry, who hosts me when I go to Paris. She is a wonderful friend, a very generous friend, and I’m very, very lucky to have her. Patron Laurie Koelbel sent me a message where she shares why she enjoys visiting France so much. And let me quote her: “Sorry to ramble on, but as you can see, we love our trips to France. The biggest problem I have with your podcast is that you have introduced me to so many other places I would love to go to, how to decide?” I don’t know. I have the same problem. When I hear about the places my listeners have visited that sound good, I wonder how can I possibly get to all of them? But it’s a really good problem to have, isn’t it? Wishing for more trips to visit beautiful places. Who wouldn’t want that?

My thanks also to Jennifer Rantala for sending in a one time donation using any of the green buttons on JoinUsinFrance.Com that says: ‘Tip your guide’. Jennifer wrote: “Hello from New York City. I love this podcast so much. I think of you and Elyse as my French friends. And you know what? If we lived in the same country, we probably would be friends, which is one of the things I love most about producing this podcast.

Reviews of the VoiceMap Tours

[00:54:00] Annie Sargent: I got several reviews of my VoiceMap tours. Somebody wrote about my Marais tour: “Brilliant, clear, humorous, informative, merci bien.”

Another person went into details about what they enjoyed about my Montmartre tour, and I appreciate that. They wrote: “I wanted to do a tour around the Montmartre area the Sunday morning before we left Paris. The positive reviews of this tour encouraged us to try it. It was definitely worth the money. The attention to detail as you walk around, the very clear instructions about where to turn are highly accurate, so I rarely needed to look at the map. As it was Sunday morning, some of the galleries that were mentioned were closed, but it also meant that we were walking around streets that were comparatively empty. The narrative was very enjoyable, mentioned things that we would have been oblivious to if we wandered around ourselves. My wife and I shared AirPods, not because we are cheap, but it meant that the audio was in sync for both of us. We would definitely give this five stars, a very strong recommendation.”

Thank you very much. Yes, sharing AirPods is totally fine. I recommend people do it all the time. It doesn’t work when it’s really loud environment, but you were there on a Sunday morning, it was quiet, that’s perfect.

And one more praising VoiceMap:

“I have just discovered VoiceMap as first time visitors to Paris. We are so excited to use this resource to wander purposefully with articulate and informative dialogue to guide us. It’s super exciting. I will definitely be looking into all the possibilities of other cities with VoiceMap in our travels. This takes it to a whole new level and all at a really economical price point. Well done, VoiceMap.”

Yes, VoiceMap is wonderful. It’s a great tool. I have walked VoiceMaps produced by other people in other parts of the world and I love them all. I mean, some, I can tell, put lots more attention to detail than others, but you know what? It’s always better than walking around without a clue what you’re looking at. And I have to say, as someone who writes tours on the VoiceMap app, working with them is fantastic. So, if you know your town really, really well, and you want to share something that you do, I recommend you reach out to them because it’s a great way to do it.

Bonjour and VIP service explained

[00:56:23] Annie Sargent: I just got done doing two itineraries planning services, one was a Bonjour service and the other was a VIP. And to explain the difference briefly, I talked to the people for about the same amount of time. The difference is when I’m done with the VIP, I sit down and I send them a very long, written list of suggestions. So it’s easier for them to remember.

And if you want to book any of these services, go to

Olympics sites

[00:56:53] Annie Sargent: All right. Let’s talk about the Olympic sites going up for the Olympics. There are many, seven sites at the heart of Paris during the Olympics. You have Trocadéro, Eiffel Tower, Champs de Mars, which is right behind the Eiffel Tower, L’Esplanade des Invalides, so that’s the big grassy area in front of des Invalides. Over the bridge Alexander III, Place de la Concorde et Place de l’Hôtel de Ville. So these are all places where they’re going to set up things. These are the seven sites in the center. There’s also going to be places somewhat different for the Paralympics. Anyway, there’s going to be a bunch of places.

But for right now, this is what they are planning on. In March, Place de la Concorde is already being worked on. Between March and the 1st of June, they will completely remove all access to cars to Place de la Concorde, and after the 29th of October, they will start to remove this stuff. So if you’re visiting any time between now and October, Place de la Concorde is, well, it’s not completely off, but a lot of it is not accessible.

For the Trocadéro, and Eiffel Tower, and Champs de Mars, they are already working on putting together stadiums, they will slowly be closing areas off.

Thankfully, none of that will have any impact on my walking tour of the Eiffel Tower, but you know, the later you go closer to July, the less access you’re going to have around this area.

And then you have the Grand Palais, the Alexander III, the banks of the river, all of that is going to be taken up with areas that are reserved for people who have tickets.

And so Les Invalides, they’re going to start in the middle of April, and then it’s going to grow in various directions. I mean, if you want all the details, you can see them online, but I’m just giving you the gist of it, so you’re not surprised that when you visit Paris, there are some things that you won’t have access to. Okay?

All right. My thanks to podcast editors, Anne and Cristian Cotovan, who produced the transcript for this podcast.

Next week on the podcast

[00:59:18] Annie Sargent: And next week on the podcast, a trip report with Howard Kantoff. He did a self-guided bike tour in Burgundy. And I remember this was really interesting because we hadn’t talked about biking in Burgundy, an excellent episode.

Thank you so much for listening. And I hope you join me next time so we can look around France together. Au revoir.


[00:59:39] Annie Sargent: The Join Us in France travel podcast is written, hosted, and produced by Annie Sargent and Copyright 2024 by AddictedToFrance. It is released under a Creative Commons, attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives license.


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Categories: French Culture, French History