Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun

1755–1842

Renowned French artist Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun was Marie Antoinette's favorite painter for a decade. She also enjoyed the patronage of European aristocrats, actors, and writers and was elected to art academies in 10 cities.

At the age of 15, Vigée-LeBrun was earning enough money from her portrait painting to support herself, her widowed mother, and her younger brother. Trained by her father, the portraitist Louis Vigée, she joined Paris’s Academy of Saint Luke at 19. Two years later, she married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre LeBrun, a painter and art dealer who helped her gain valuable access to the art world.

Vigée-LeBrun’s talent helped her please even the most demanding sitters. She soon came to the attention of the French queen, who in 1783 appointed her a member of Paris’s powerful Royal Academy. As one of only four female academicians, Vigée-LeBrun enjoyed a high artistic, social, and political profile. Her profile grew too high, for once the French Revolution came, she was forced to flee the country with her nine-year-old daughter.

During the next 12 years the artist was commissioned to create portraits of the most celebrated residents of Rome, Vienna, St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Berlin. After brief, highly successful stays in England and Switzerland, Vigée-LeBrun returned to France for good in 1809. She divided the last 33 years of her life between her Paris residence, where she held glittering salons, and her country house at Louveciennes. Scholars estimate that Vigée-LeBrun produced more than 600 paintings. Her memoirs, originally published in 1835–37, have been translated and reprinted numerous times.