A Lady Painter shows all her talent

Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun with her daughter Jeanne-Lucie

Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun with her daughter Jeanne-Lucie. “La Tendresse maternelle”, 1786. Photo : RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Franck Raux

72dpi_Charles Alexandre Calonne

Finance minister Charles Alexandre de Calonne, 1784,  one of her masterpieces, is kept at Windsor Castle.© Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015


Ever since her father, the pastellist Louis Vigée, told her she would become a painter, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun had wanted to prove that she could paint as well as a man. And she did ! With 150 portraits exhibited at Grand Palais, she definitely makes her point.This adventurous lady, who lost her father at age 12, fled the 1789 Revolution in the middle of the night and became a fashionable portraitist in Rome and Naples, then in St Petersburg, Berlin and London, after having conquered Versailles, is very impressive.

Baronne de Crussol

Baronne de Crussol de Florensac holding a page of Gluck’s opera  “Echo et Narcisse”. © Photo : Daniel Martin

Born in 1755, the most famous French lady painter was not only talented and beautiful, she was, as Joseph Baillio, one of the two curators of the show told us, a queen at marketing herself. She always travelled with a portrait of Marie Antoinette and managed to constantly get commissions from the aristocracy wherever she travelled.

She had to get specula permission to paint the Muslim Ambassador from Mysore

She had to get special permission to paint Mohammed Dervich Khan, a Muslim and Ambassador from Mysore, 1788 © collection privée

Her husband, Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, a famous art dealer, was the great grand nephew of Charles Le Brun, painter at Versailles and Hôtel Lambert. She started painting the Queen Marie Antoinette as early as 1778 when she was 23, and joined the French Royal Academy of painting and sculpture in 1783.

She managed during her long career to paint a few men, painter Hubert Robert, the fourth Earl of Bristol, Joseph Caillot, two Muslim ambassadors from the Kingdom of Mysore, and many ladies of the court in pastel and in oil. I had the happy surprise to find my ancestor, Aglaé de Polignac, duchesse de Guiche, twice in the course of the exhibition. But the greatest surprise was to see, at the very end, a beautiful Swiss landscape « La fête des bergers à Untspunnen, le 17 août 1808 » which shows the variety of her talents.


The scenography by Loretta Gaïtis is elegant and simple

The hanging, very nicely designed by Loretta Gaïtis, can feel a little repetitious at times and all of these paintings would be better admired in a large “salon” of any 18 th century castle. But it is fun to compare all these ladies looking right or looking left and showing their best hats or “coiffes”. The show goes on till January 11, 2016 at the Grand Palais, and will travel to the Metropolitan Museum until May and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa until September. Long live Madame Vigée Le Brun! (The latest read on Vigée Le Brun is “Mundus Muliebris”, by Marc Fumaroli, Ed. de Fallois, 2015)


Frederike Dorothea Louise Philippine von Hohenzollern, Princess Radziwill, 1802

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3 Comments on “A Lady Painter shows all her talent”

  1. Graeme Clark

    I enjoyed the exhibition but it was almost too much of a good thing (160 works on display). And I prefer the pre-revolutionary portraits – the latter works seem too chocolate boxy…

  2. Theodora Zemek

    She is an extraordinary artist and a fascinating woman. I can’t wait to see the exhibition . As for chocolate – boxy ….it’s an interesting problem for artists. Someone has to pay for the sitter’s bill, and so a fair amount of gloss is required to keep the wolf from the door. Her clientele was wiped out during the Revolution; she had to re-create her “business” abroad and then in a very different context . And she succeeded.

    I have always loved the Calonne portrait……

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