Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun


This past Sunday, Mitch and I decided to go to the Grand Palais to see the Vigee Le Brun exhibit. We have been huge fans for many years and with this being the largest single collection of her work every shown, we didn’t want to miss it.

Most famous for being the official court painter for Marie-Antoinette, Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun was a French painter born in 1755. She was initially trained by her father who was himself a well known and accomplished pastellist painter. He died when she was twelve but painting was in her blood so she continued her work. She pitted her talents against the most brilliant painters of her time and was recognized for her brilliance, not only in France, but throughout Europe and Russia. This was quite an accomplishment given it was a man’s profession in a man’s world. During the French revolution, she fled France and spent the next 12 years painting in Italy, Austria and Russia. She returned to France during the reign of Napoleon I and died in 1842.

I want to point out two specific paintings from the exhibit as my personal favorites.

Marie-Antoinette, Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun
Marie-Antoinette, Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun

Painted in 1778, this was Le Brun’s first portrait of the French Queen which was meant for her brother Emperor Joseph II of Austria. At almost nine feet tall it is an exquisite example of her mastery as a painter. The Queen was so pleased with the work that she immediately ordered two copies to be made. One was sent to Catherine the Great of Russia and the other was for Marie-Antoinette’s apartments in Versailles.

Marie-Antoinette and her Children, Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun
Marie-Antoinette and her Children, Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun

This portrait of the Queen with her children looks, at first glance, to be a warm and loving peak into the royal family. Painted in 1787, the Queen sits with her youngest son on her lap, her daughter, Marie Therese next to her and the Dauphin (heir to the throne) standing next to a crib and looking directly at the viewer. They look to be the perfect family, however, there is something more here than meets the eye. The crib is empty. Some sources indicate that when it was originally painted, the crib contained the Queen’s youngest daughter, Madame Sophie, who died after the portrait’s completion. This would explain why the Dauphin is pointing to the open crib. Others suggest that Sophie died before the painting was made and the crib was included empty to honor her memory. Given my research, I am inclined to believe the former. After the death of the dauphin two years later, she had the painting placed in storage because of her grief. Either way, the painting evokes emotions from love and joy to utter dismay at the tragic end this family ultimately came to.

The exhibit runs through January 11th of 2016 at the Grand Palais. For lovers of art and history, this is a wonderfully rewarding show.


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