When I was doing some research on the life of Catherine Talleyrand I inevitably came across the portrait of her during the time when she was perhaps the most famous courtesan in Paris; her 1783 portrait by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun.
I was surprised that the painter was a woman and I couldn’t think of any other women artists of the period. But it turns out that was hardly a surprise. In many European countries the national “academies” were all powerful in the artistic sphere. They were responsible for artistic training, exhibitions, and inevitably artistic promotion through being the arbiters of style. Membership of the academies was closely controlled and most were not open to women. For example, in France, the Academy in Paris had 450 members between the end of the 17th century and the French Revolution; only fifteen were women and, of those, most were daughters or wives of existing members.
Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was born in Paris on April 16, 1755. Her father was a successful artist who encouraged her interest in art. She had a natural talent and, when still a teenager, began to attract wealthy clients to have their portraits painted. When, still only 19 years of age, she was accepted into the painters’ guild of the Académie de Saint-Luc, this increased her professional exposure significantly. In 1776 she married Jean-Baptiste Le Brun, an artist and art dealer, with whom she had one daughter, Jeanne-Julie-Louise.
Vigée Le Brun soon became a popular portraitist among the French aristocracy and, in 1779, went to Versailles to paint her first portrait of Marie Antoinette. She became the queen’s favorite portraitist and painted her a total of 30 times over the next decade. It was through the queen’s influence that, in 1783, Vigée Le Brun was accepted into the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, France’s most prestigious professional association for artists, which admitted very few female artists.
In 1789, with Revolution breaking out, Vigée Le Brun fled France with her daughter though her husband remained behind. For the next sixteen years she travelled widely, firstly in central Europe, then spent six years in Russia and finally two years in London before ultimately returning to France in 1805.
She had continued to work throughout this time, it being her only means of independent support, and her paintings were prolific; in her time in Russia alone she produced 44 portraits, her subjects including Tzar Alexander and his wife.
Back in France she suffered no apparent effects from being an emigre in exile and, within months, Napoleon had commissioned a portrait from her of his sister, Caroline, the wife of Marshal Murat. Though Vigée Le Brun describes the sittings as being nothing but a trial due to her sitter’s capricious temperament. In her memoirs she makes no bones about her annoyance. One day when she had been made to wait interminably for the lady to appear she commented to one of her attendants:
…loudly enough for her [Caroline] to hear, “I have painted real princesses who never worried me, and never made me wait.” The fact is, Mme. Murat was unaware that punctuality is the politeness of kings, as Louis XIV so well said.
Vigée Le Brun continued to paint until the late 1820s. She died at her Paris residence on March 30, 1842.