Arts Everyday Living: Self Portrait of a Woman Artist—A Royal Favorite



For the Art Circle class meeting tomorrow.




At 7 or 8, I remember, I made a picture by lamplight of a man with a beard which I have kept until this very day.  When my father saw it he went into transports of joy, exclaiming, “You will be a painter, child, if ever there was one!”

Elisabeth Louise Vigee-Le Brun, Memoirs

Le Brun

Elisabeth Louise Vigee-Le Brun, Self-Portrait, c. 1800, oil on canvas, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia


Elisabeth Louise Vigee-Le Brun (1755-1842) was a child prodigy, Marie Antoinette’s portraitist and friend, escapee of the French Revolution, and created an estimated 600 works.*  Her clientele included, in addition to the doomed French ruler, the family of Russia’s Catherine the Great, Queen Caroline of Naples, the last King of Poland, and the Prince of Wales (George IV)  as well as countless  members of the nobility across Europe.

Her memoirs, published between 1835-1837, when she was already 80, is a who’s who of royalty she encountered both in her native country and during the 12 years she spent in exile, after the downfall of the French monarchy in 1789.  Here are a few excerpts from her personal, sometimes gossipy account:

QUEEN OF FRANCE:  I do not think that Queen Marie Antoinette ever missed an opportunity of saying some pleasant thing to those who had the happiness of being presented to her, and the kindness she always bestowed upon me has ever been one of my sweetest memories.

CATHERINE THE GREAT:  When her majesty had taken her place all the ladies sat down to the table, and according to universal custom, laid their napkins on their knees.  While the Empress fastened hers with 2 pins just as napkins are fastened on children.

PRINCE OF WALES:  He was elaborately elegant—magnificently so, to the extent of prodigality.  At one time he was reported to have debts to the amount of 300,000 pounds which were finally paid by his father and parliament.  As he was one of the handsomest men in the United Kingdom, he was the idol of the women.

Yet, Vigee-Le Brun’s self-portrait done in 1801 when she was in Russia, has a directness and spontaneity that, at least for me, surpasses her more conventional portrayals of her blue-blooded subjects.

*From website of The National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Excerpts from Memoirs of Madame Vigee-Le Brun, translated by Lionel Strachey, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York, 1903.

Originally published on February 16, 2015.

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