|Self Portrait by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Lebrun, 1782, France|
"Born in Paris on 16 April 1755, Marie-Louise-Élisabeth Vigée was the daughter of a portraitist and fan painter, Louis Vigée, from whom she received her first instruction. Her mother was a hairdresser. She was sent to live with relatives in Épernon until the age of 6 when she entered a convent where she remained for five years. Her father died when she was 12 years old following an infection from surgery to remove a fish bone lodged in his throat. In 1768, her mother married a wealthy jeweler, Jacques-Francois Le Sèvre and the family moved to the rue Saint-Honoré close to the Palais Royal. She was later patronised by the wealthy heiress Louise Marie Adélaïde de Bourbon, wife of Philippe Égalité. During this period Louise Élisabeth benefited from the advice of Gabriel François Doyen, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Joseph Vernet, and other masters of the period.
"By the time she was in her early teens, Louise Élisabeth was painting portraits professionally. After her studio was seized, for her practising without a license, she applied to the Académie de Saint Luc, which unwittingly exhibited her works in their Salon. On 25 October 1783, she was made a member of the Académie.
"After the arrest of the royal family during the French Revolution, Vigée Le Brun fled France with her young daughter Julie. She lived and worked for some years in Italy, Austria, and Russia, where her experience in dealing with an aristocratic clientele was still useful. In Rome, her paintings met with great critical acclaim and she was elected to the Roman Accademia di San Luca."
Lebrun 1782 Self Portrait (detail)
(Colors on Lebrun's palette are taken from her dress and hat.)
"By choosing to depcit themselves in the role of women painters, Vigée-Lebrun and Labille-Guiard establish a notion of authorship of their art formerly reserved for male artists. Women artists in Revolutionary France asserted their role as creators, not mere conduits, of art.
"Recognition of women as respresentative of an independent artistic movement was not limited to the artists themselves, as female patrons coalesced around the burgeoning continuity of women artists. Patronage was not restricted to one social class or political system; rather it extended all the way from fellow artists and architects to Marie Antoinette herself, whose recommendation was insturmental in assuring Vigée Lebrun's admission to the Academie, albeit for only a few years before Louis XVI was deposed. The existence of such a network of women patrons supporting women artists underscores the emerging concept of a woman artist as one who does not merely follow in the traditon of her male peers but, rather, seeks to represent the persepective of her sex."
Head of a Young Girl (detail), n.d.
"Between 1780 and 1810, many French women painters reached impressive heights of artistic achievement and professional success. Despite a cap on the number of women admitted to France's prestigious Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, and restrictions that barred women from the life drawing classes attended by young men aspiring to paint historical narratives, women ranked among the most sought-after artists in Paris in the 1780s. Three of the Académie's four female members — Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749–1803), Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744–1818), and Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) — regularly exhibited at the biennial Salons.
Royal women were the most important patrons for many women artists. Vallayer-Coster, who joined the Académie in 1770, painted portraits and scenes from everyday life, but was chiefly admired for her still lifes of flowers, seashells, and fruit. However, it was her figural painting that won her the patronage of Queen Marie Antoinette and Mesdames Adélaïde and Victoire, the powerful daughters of King Louis XV. These same patrons supported Labille-Guiard and Vigée Le Brun, who were both admitted on May 31, 1783; Marie-Antoinette played an important role in the admission of Vigée Le Brun, one of her favorite portraitists, and in 1787 Labille-Guiard was named First Painter to Mesdames."