Élisabeth Louise Vigée was born in Paris in 1755. Her father, Louis Vigée, was a pastelist and member of the artists’ guild, the Académie de Saint-Luc, while her mother, Jeanne Maissin, was a hairdresser. Élisabeth Louise spent her early childhood in the country and then attended a residential convent school. At eleven, when she returned home, her father recognized her natural ability and gave her access to his studio. His death in 1767 was a great sadness and much to her professional disadvantage. Jeanne married Jacques François Le Sèvre, a jeweler, but even so Mademoiselle Vigée was expected to contribute to the support of her family and became a professional artist in her teens. In 1774, her studio was closed because she was accepting paying clients without contributing to the guild. She was obliged to apply for membership and, when admitted, became eligible to exhibit in their Salon.
What was her training? She states that in her father’s home she met Doyen and Davesne, and that Davesne taught her to prepare a palette. Gabriel François Doyen (1726–1806) was a respected history painter and academician influenced by Rubens, but of Pierre Davesne, beyond showing portraits in the guild exhibitions of 1764 and 1774, nothing else is known. Additionally, Vigée Le Brun remarked that she copied drawings and sculptures at the home of the academician Gabriel Briard (1725–1777). Her mother encouraged her by providing artists’ materials and accompanying her to private collections and to the Palais du Luxembourg and Palais Royale, where she studied the royal collection and that of the duc d’Orléans.
Vigée was encouraged by her mother to marry the art dealer Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun in 1776. Two years later, in 1778, the young painter was called to Versailles to paint a state portrait of Marie Antoinette (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). Although theoretically barred from membership in the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture because of her connection to a dealer, she gained admission in 1783 through the direct intervention of the king and queen. Although a portraitist, she submitted an allegorical subject to the Salon exhibition as her reception piece in the hope of entering the Académie as a history painter. Vigée Le Brun achieved significant critical and popular success in the Salons of 1783, 1785, 1787, and 1789. In the first two, she showed history paintings. On each occasion, she exhibited one or more portraits of members of the royal family, including, in 1783, the queen and the king’s brother and sister-in-law, and in 1787, her state portrait of Marie Antoinette with her three children (Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon). In 1783 and 1787, she presented portraits of herself and of her daughter Julie. She contributed more than fifty pictures and had reached the high point of her career when, after the march on Versailles, she fled the French Revolution.
The portrait of Madame Grand (50.135.2) was exhibited at the Salon of 1783. The sitter, born Noël Catherine Vorlée in India in 1761, married a civil servant at fifteen but was soon discovered in compromising circumstances with an English aristocrat, who took her to England after her divorce. In Paris, she attracted the attention not only of Vigée Le Brun but also of a number of well-placed men. Perhaps the work was commissioned by one of them, or by the sitter herself, though in view of her beauty and notoriety, it could have been painted on speculation. One reviewer called the portrait bewitchingly sensual. Madame Grand parts her lips and rolls her eyes upward in imitation of Saint Cecilia, patroness of music. Alexandre Charles Emmanuel de Crussol-Florensac (49.7.53) presumably commissioned his portrait, which dates to 1787. Crussol-Florensac chose a military career and rose to the rank of maréchal. Vigée Le Brun was acquainted with this favored courtier and amateur actor, whose open, engaged expression suggests a certain knowing amusement. Shortly before her departure from France, Vigée Le Brun took sittings from the winsome and wealthy Comtesse de la Châtre (54.182), who is included in the artist’s client list for 1789. The comtesse divorced when the process was legalized in France and in 1799 married her long-time companion, Arnail François, later marquis de Jaucourt, a liberal Protestant noble who after a period of exile returned to serve in various French governments. She is elegantly presented in a straw hat in the English style and an embroidered muslin dress of the sort pioneered by Marie Antoinette.
From France, Vigée Le Brun fled to Italy, where in 1790 she settled in Rome and painted a self-portrait that she later contributed to the grand-ducal gallery at the Uffizi. The picture served as a form of advertisement, as she was obliged to support herself and her daughter during more than a dozen years abroad. Among her new patrons were the king and queen of Naples (the queen, Maria Carolina, was Marie Antoinette’s sister). From Rome she moved to Vienna, and from there, in 1795, to Saint Petersburg, where she took sittings from various younger family members of the Russian empress, Catherine II (the Great). In the course of her return journey to Paris in 1802, she was invited to paint the young queen of Prussia.
The artist prospered in the 1790s and was unique among French painters of that moment in having created for herself a second career abroad that was nearly as brilliant as the first. She continued painting after her return from Russia and showed her portraits in Paris as late as the Salon of 1824, an honored member of an earlier generation. She is remembered for her memoirs, the Souvenirs, which she wrote in old age, and which offer a picture of European culture that is especially vivid for the last quarter of the eighteenth century but is of interest for the early nineteenth century as well.