Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Painting the Rich and Famous - the French painter Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

16 April 1755, the French painter Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun was born in Paris.

“Painting and living have always been one and the same thing for me.” (Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun)

A self portrait of her, dating from 1800, probably painted in St Petersburg


The French Revolution came as a bit of a shock for Elisabeth, already an accomplished paintress, sought after as portraitist by the local aristos, ill-fated Queen Marie Antoinette among them and her downright PR work for the latter monarch gave a point to her taking her daughter and step on it towards Italy. Her popularity and live expectancy in France had zeroed overnight, but brave Elizabeth kept her chin up and was soon moving in upper-class circles again, always one step ahead of the armies of the Revolution, first in Florence, then portraying in Rome, Milan, Vienna, St Petersburg and Berlin until it was safe enough for her to return to Imperial France. “I will not attempt to describe my feelings at setting foot on the soil of France”, she wrote, “from which I had been absent twelve years. I was stirred by terror, grief and joy in turn. I mourned the friends who had died on the scaffold; but I was to see those again who still lived. " and painting, of course, the rich and famous.


Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun's controversial "Marie Antoinette and her Children" (1787)


With an oeuvre encompassing more than 600 portraits and 200 landscapes, Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s first two decades as a paintress still bear reminiscences of the Rococo style that was slowly replaced by the Neoclassical movement and by the turn of 18th century, she had fully embraced this new outlook. She never got out of the line, accommodating to the now classicist tastes of her clientele, Prinny of England, Napoleon’s sister Caroline Murat, Lady Hamilton, Madame de Staël as well as Austrian, German and Russian nobility. However, her portraits all bear as a signature tune a distinct liveliness, in expression, looks, the blinking of an eye that rises above the common, detached pantomime of typical neoclassicist painting. Besides being one of the few highly honoured female artists of her age and one of the most famous and successful ones of all times.