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September 2005

Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun’s Self-portrait

Arch Facial Plast Surg. 2005;7(5):364. doi:10.1001/archfaci.7.5.364

Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun was one of the most successful female portraitists of the 18th century. She began her career painting the nobility of France’s Ancien Regime (the political and social system that existed before the Revolution of 1789) and in her years of exile achieved international acclaim working in the major royal courts of Europe. Vigée-Le Brun was born in Paris in 1755, the daughter of Louis Vigée, a pastel artist who probably taught his daughter the rudiments of painting before his death in 1767. Despite her lack of formal training in art, the young Elisabeth was a celebrated prodigy who joined the Academie de St Luc in 1775 at the age of 19. The following year she married the art critic and dealer Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, who helped promote his wife’s career among the fashionable circles of French society. In 1778, Vigée-Le Brun painted the first of many portraits of Queen Marie Antoinette at the royal court of Versailles. Eventually, she became one of the queen’s most trusted royal painters. When Vigée-Le Brun was denied membership to the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture because of her husband’s commercial activities, the queen interceded and secured her admission in 1783. In return, Vigée-Le Brun’s portraits of the unpopular, foreign-born Marie Antoinette were calculated to refute the image of the young queen as frivolous by presenting her as a doting mother to her 4 children. In addition to her royal state portraits, Vigée-Le Brun painted more informal portraits of Marie Antoinette, many of which were sent to the queen’s mother, Maria Theresa of Austria. However, when Vigée-Le Brun exhibited her half-length portrait of the queen wearing a robe en gaulle (a simple white dress) at the Salon of 1783, the painting ignited a public outcry for depicting her in indecorous and foreign-inspired fashions. As the political situation in France worsened, Vigée-Le Brun’s close association with the Ancien Regime made her a target of threats and open hostility. In her memoirs, she described her terror that prompted her decision to flee France1: