Madame Lebrun – Marie Antoinette’s portraitist

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A story of joy and tragedy in an age of revolution.

Self Portrait in a Straw Hat.
Self Portrait in a Straw Hat.

Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755 – 1842), also known as Madame Lebrun, was a leading French artist whose clientele included royalty and aristocracy—most notably the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette.

Madame Lebrun's ability to characterize her subjects in a flattering, stylish manner made her very popular. So enamored was the queen with her work that she was hired to paint 30 portraits of Marie Antoinette and her family, earning her the reputation as the official portraitist.

A sensuous, radiant use of color, reminiscent of Rubens and Van Dyck marked Madame Lebrun's unique style and gave her such alluring appeal.



A Mother's Pride and Joy

In 1776 she married Jean-Baptiste Le Brun, an artist and art dealer, and four years later gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne Julie Louise, whom she called "Julie".

I shall not try to describe the joy I experienced upon hearing the first cries of my child. All mothers know this exhilaration.

Self-portrait with her daughter Jeanne-Lucie, 1786.
Self-portrait with her daughter Jeanne-Lucie, 1786.

Julie was the apple of her mother's eye. A pretty, happy little girl, whom her mother delighted in painting and sketching.

The work of an artist is demanding. And so it was for Madame Lebrun, who could not devote enough time to her daughter—something that would come back to haunt her in later life.

Revolution

As revolution gripped France and fearing she would be condemned for her close association with the monarchy and nobility, Madam Lebrun left the country with her daughter.

Her husband and brother were briefly imprisoned, and following the execution of Marie Antoinette, her husband sued for divorce to save his life.

After traveling through several European countries and finding a warm reception among the foreign nobility who knew of her talent and social reputation, Madame Lebrun settled in Russia.

Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette

It was in St Petersburg that her daughter Julie married a Russian nobleman—Gaetan Bernard Nigris—much to her mother's dismay.

She broke off relations with her daughter and eventually resettled in Paris in 1805 during the reign of Napoleon I.

She was not well received in France, as might be expected of the former portraitist to Marie Antoinette.

However, her artistic talent was much in demand elsewhere in Europe. She painted several prominent British figures including the poet Lord Byron.



Tragedy Comes in Threes

Julie Le Brun.
Julie Le Brun.

In 1813, she learned that her former husband Jean-Baptiste LeBrun had died.

Soon after Waterloo, her daughter Julie was taken seriously ill.

Rushing to be by her side, all resentments forgotten, it was sadly too late.

The once pretty features of Julie were twisted by physical pain and she died shortly after. Images of a happy girl that had been such a delight to paint, haunted Madame Lebrun.

Less than a year passed and her brother, Etienne, died.

She stayed in Paris until her death on 30 March 1842 when her body was taken back to Louveciennes and buried in a cemetery near her old home.

Madame Lebrun's love of art was her constant companion through the best of times and the worst of times.

In her memoirs, she reveals her fascination with drawing:

My notebooks and those of my classmates were filled in the margins with sketches of little faces and profiles; on the walls of our dormitory, I drew little figures and landscapes with charcoal… during my playtime, I traced all sorts of images that came to my mind in the sand.

On her tombstone epitaph are the words, "Here, at last, I rest…".

But her work lives on.

Marie Antoinette by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1778
Marie Antoinette by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1778

Marie Antoinette by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1783
Marie Antoinette by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1783
Madame Lebrun's painting of her daughter Julie Nigris as Flora, Roman Goddess of Flowers, 1799
Madame Lebrun's painting of her daughter Julie Nigris as Flora, Roman Goddess of Flowers, 1799
Empress Maria Feodorovna, 1799
Empress Maria Feodorovna, 1799
Portrait of Countess Catherine Skavronskaya by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1790)
Portrait of Countess Catherine Skavronskaya by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1790)
Madame Royale and the Dauphin Louis Joseph by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1785
Madame Royale and the Dauphin Louis Joseph by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1785



Mademoiselle Brongniart by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1788
Mademoiselle Brongniart by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1788
Marie Antoinette by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1783
Marie Antoinette by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1783
Alexandra and Elena, Daughters of Paul I of Russia by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1796
Alexandra and Elena, Daughters of Paul I of Russia by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1796
Duchesse de Guiche by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1784
Duchesse de Guiche by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1784
Lady Folding a Letter by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1784
Lady Folding a Letter by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1784
Madame d'Aguesseau de Fresnes by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1789
Madame d'Aguesseau de Fresnes by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1789
Portrait of Madame Mole-Raymond by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1787
Portrait of Madame Mole-Raymond by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1787



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Further Reading

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Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun

The Exceptional Woman

European Art of the Eighteenth Century

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