Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun
Biography of Portrait Court Painter to Queen Marie-Antoinette.

Pin it

Portrait of Queen Marie Antoinette
(1778) Chateau de Versailles.

Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun (1755-1842)


Early Life and Training
Court Painter to Queen Marie-Antoinette
Leaves France, Tours Europe
Reputation as a Portrait Artist

Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat (c.1785)
National Gallery London.

For details of the pigments
used by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun,
see: 18th-Century Colour Palette.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.


One of the great contributors to French painting, Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun specialized in portraiture during the successive periods of Rococo art and Neoclassical painting. Ranked among the best portrait artists of the 18th century, she became - along with the Swiss painter Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807) - one of the most successful of all women artists, being particularly noted for her portraits of women, as well as her self-portraits. The soft flattering style, which made her so sought after by Europe's ruling classes, is especially evident in the dozens of portraits which she painted of Queen Marie-Antoinette, her most important patron. In addition to her label as one of the most talented Rococo artists, Vigee-Lebrun is also associated with Neoclassical art: a description she also shares with Kauffmann.

Vigee-Lebrun's most famous works include Portrait of Joseph Vernet (1778, Louvre), Portrait of Queen Marie Antoinette (1783, Musee National du Chateau de Versailles), Portrait of Hubert Robert (1788, Louvre), Portrait of Baron Grigory Strogsnov (1793, Hermitage, St Petersburg),Portrait of Princess Alexandra Golitsyna and Her Son (1794, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow), and Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat (c.1785, National Gallery London).



Early Life and Training

Born Marie-Louise-Elisabeth Vigee in Paris, she learned the basics of drawing from her father, the pastel portraitist Louis Vigee (1715-67), after which she studied under Gabriel Doyen, Gabriel Briard, Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-89) and Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805). In addition, she visited museums to study Baroque portraits by Old Masters such as Rubens (1577-1640), Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) and Rembrandt (1606-69). Her precociousness soon became evident in an unconventional, personal style of oil painting, which made her famous as a portraitist by the age of 15. She was to devote herself to portrait art for the rest of her life, for most of which she was in great demand by High Society in Paris and numerous other capital cities of Europe. Needless to say, her workshop was one of the busiest ateliers in France, and she relied on several assistants to complete her commissions. She produced her greatest portrait paintings after 1776 - the year of her marriage to Jean-Baptiste Lebrun, the wealthy painter and art dealer.



Court Painter to Queen Marie-Antoinette

Her great opportunity came in 1778 when she was summoned to the enormous Palace of Versailles to paint a portrait of Queen Marie-Antoinette. The two women became friends, and in 1779, at the tender age of 24, Vigee-Lebrun was appointed official painter to the queen. Over the next decade she painted at least 25 portraits of the Queen in a great variety of poses and costumes. See, for instance, Portrait of Queen Marie Antoinette (1778, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna); or Marie Antoinette (1788, Palace of Versailles). It was largely due to Vigee-Lebrun's powerful royal patron that she had the freedom to compete in the male-dominated world of fine art painting.

In 1782, she travelled to Flanders, where she studied Flemish painting, notably works by Peter Paul Rubens as well as Flemish painters of the Netherlandish Renaissance. In 1783, due to her deserved fame, she was elected to the French Academy of Fine Arts, which entitled her to exhibit her works each year in the Salon of the Louvre.

Leaves France, Tours Europe

In 1789, together with her daughter, she fled the French Revolution, leaving behind her husband Jean-Baptiste Lebrun from whom she was estranged. She resided first in Rome (1789-93), then Dresden and Vienna (1793-4), and St Petersburg (1795-1801), all the while continuing her work as a portraitist, while playing a leading role in society. In 1802 she returned to Paris, then visited London (1803-5) - where she painted portraits of the court and of Lord Byron - before finally returning to Paris in 1806 as a highly eminent portraitist of the European aristocracy. Later, for a few months, she went to Switzerland where she painted a portrait of Madame de Stael. A highly cultured woman, with a reputation for beauty and charm, she gained distinguished patrons wherever she worked, and became a member of several Academies of Art across Europe.

Reputation as a Portrait Artist

She painted nearly 900 pictures of great elegance, including 200 items of landscape painting and more than 600 portraits, of which the vast majority were pictures of women. Outstanding examples include those of Queen Marie Antoinette, Comtesse de Brionne, Duchess d'Orleans, the Prince of Wales, Lord Byron, Lady Hamilton, and Madame de Stael. Vigee-Lebrun was one of the most technically fluent portraitists of her era, and her Rococo portraits are noted for the freshness, charm, and sensitivity of their presentation. She dispensed with the standard aristocratic props to reveal her subjects as naturally as possible. In addition, she completed a number of self-portraits, such as Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat (1782, National Gallery, London) and Self-Portrait with Red Sash (1790, Uffizi, Florence). In 1835-7, she published "Reminiscences of My Life" a lively three volume set of memoirs on her life and times.

Paintings by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun can be seen in some of the best art museums throughout the world.

• For more biographical details about famous painters, see: Homepage.
• For an evaluation of important pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Visual Artists, Greatest
© visual-arts-cork.com. All rights reserved.