The Female Portraitist of Paris

Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, after 1782

When we think of women in the eighteenth century, we don’t often think of professional success and freedom. Yet between 1780 and 1810, many French women defied the domestic stereotype, reaching artistic success despite being denied admittance to classes on life drawing or the artistic academies. Some of them achieved admittance to and exhibited their works at the prestigious Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, including Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842).

Élisabeth was initially taught painting by her father, a hairdresser and portraitist, until being sent to a convent at the age of five. She remained there for seven years to receive an education, which abruptly ended when her father died in 1767. Her mother remarried the next year, and Élisabeth went to live with her mother and new stepfather in Rue Saint-Honoré, close to the Palais Royal, where she met and was mentored by painters Gabriel Francois Doyen, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, and Joseph Vernet. Why Élisabeth was encouraged in her love of painting is unclear, but by her early teens, she had begun to paint professionally.

Élisabeth rose quickly in the French art world, exhibiting works and achieving entry to the male-dominated Académie de Saint-Luc by the age of 19. She married a fellow painter two years later, and the couple exhibited their work and held salons at their home in Paris. By age 28, Élisabeth was among one of the few women admitted to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture and had gained patronage from Queen Marie Antoinette (for whom she would paint over 30 portraits).

Comparison of the Kentucky Museum’s miniature (top) with the original portrait by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (bottom). Top image is miniature portrait of Madame Molé-Reymond (date unknown), a French actress, after the portrait painted by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun in 1786. Held by the Kentucky Museum at WKU, catalog number 1929.5.165.

Élisabeth later toured Flanders and the Netherlands, which inspired her to try new techniques in portraiture. These are evident in her self-portraits, especially the public scandal caused by Self-Portrait with Her Daughter Julie (1787) because it showed Élisabeth smiling and open-mouthed (neither of which was acceptable in French portraiture). Earlier, Élisabeth’s work caused another scandal, when Queen Marie Antoinette commissioned her to paint Marie-Antoinette en gaulle (1783) which depicted the queen in a simple, informal white cotton garment.

The controversy was both in the garment and what it symbolized. Marie Antoinette was known for her over-the-top fashions, but her 1783 portrait of airy, loose white fabric, without any jewels or embellishments, which Marie often wore while at her private estate (the Petit Trianon), brought this reputation to a full pause.

“The backlash was immediate. Salon visitors demanded the portrait be removed from public view, but the damage was already done. As Mary D. Sheriff states in The Exceptional Woman: Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun and the Cultural Politics of Art, “Vigée-Lebrun unwittingly showed her [Antoinette] as an immodest woman, providing enemies with yet more evidence against the queen.” There were many who saw the garment as alarmingly scandalous. It closely resembled a chemise — the simple dress that served as a base garment for women at the time. In other words, the queen appeared to be posing in her underwear. This accusation gave the cotton gown the name by which it is now most commonly known: the “chemise à la reine,” or the “chemise of the queen.”

Beyond the shocking nature of the gown’s design, the fabric itself was a source of major uproar. Many of her fellow aristocrats saw the queen in such an inexpensive textile as a breakdown of the barriers between the classes. More importantly, though, cotton was seen by the French as a very English fabric, since India was a British colony. Cotton chintz had risen in popularity throughout the century in Britain, and was a fashionable choice on that side of the Channel by the 1780s. Therefore, it was perceived as incredibly unpatriotic for the French queen to so openly wear cotton. Her loyalties were already under question due to her Austrian heritage, and this dress only confirmed her lack of French allegiance. The queen’s many critics were concerned that this choice would destroy the French silk industry.”

Caroline London for Racked.com, 2018
Marie Antoinette en chemise, 1783 portrait by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.
 Photo: Wikipedia/Public Domain. Original held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Despite controversy, Élisabeth continued to enjoy patronage and acclaim in the art worl. But her career was cut short. After the arrest of the royal family in 1789, Élisabeth fled to Italy with her daughter. She later lived and worked in Austria, Russia, and Germany. Élisabeth continued to paint, gaining election to the Academy in Parma, the Accademia di San Luce in Rome, and the Academy of Fine Arts of Saint Petersburg in Russia. She continued to paint portraits for exiled French royals while expanding into allegorical portraits of historical figures.

Élisabeth returned to France in 1802, though she continued to travel throughout Europe. She died in Paris in March 1842, aged 86, having recently published her memoirs.

Today, two copies of Élisabeth’s works, in miniature, are held by the Kentucky Museum. The first (shown previously) is a copy of French actress Madam Molé-Reymond’s portrait (1786), catalog number. The second (picture unavailable) is a miniature copy of Marie-Antoinette à la Rose painted by Élisabeth in 1783. If you would like to support conservation of these works, please consider making a one-time or installment gift to our Adopt-an-Artifact fund of $250. (Gifts may be made by one individual or groups of individuals. Please contact tiffany.isselhardt@wku.edu to learn more.)

Published by kentuckymuseumwku

The Kentucky Museum is located in the Kentucky Building on the campus of Western Kentucky University. The Museum houses several changing exhibits. There are a variety of partnerships, services, opportunities, workshops, camps and other outreach provided to the public each year.

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