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Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (Marie Élisabeth Louise; 16 April 1755 – 30 March 1842) was a French painter, and is recognized as the most important female painter of the 18th century. Her style is generally considered Rococo and shows interest in the subject of neoclassical painting. Vigée Le Brun cannot be considered a pure Neoclassist, however, in that she creates mostly portraits in Neoclassical dress rather than the History painting. In her choice of color and style while serving as the portrait painter to Marie Antoinette, Vigée Le Brun is purely Rococo.
After the arrest of the royal family during the French Revolution Vigée Le Brun fled France with her young daughter Julie. She lived and worked for some years in Italy, Austria, and Russia, where her experience in dealing with an aristocratic clientele was still useful. In Rome, her paintings met with great critical acclaim and she was elected to the Roman Accademia di San Luca.
In Russia, she was received by the nobility and painted numerous aristocrats including the last king of Poland Stanisław August Poniatowski and members of the family of Catherine the Great. Although the French aesthetic was widely admired in Russia there remained some cultural differences in what was deemed acceptable. Catherine was not initially happy with Vigée Le Brun’s portrait of her granddaughters, Elena and Alaxandra Pavlovna, due to the area of bare skin the short sleeved gowns revealed. In order to please the Empress, Vigée Le Brun added sleeves giving the work its characteristic look. This tactic seemed effective in pleasing Catherine as she agreed to sit herself for Vigée Le Brun (although Catherine died of a stroke before this work was due to begin).
While in Saint Petersburg, Vigée Le Brun was made a member of the Academy of Fine Arts of Saint Petersburg. Much to Vigée Le Brun’s dismay, her daughter Julie married a Russian nobleman.
After a sustained campaign by her ex-husband and other family members to have her name removed from the list of counter-revolutionary émigrés, Vigée Le Brun was finally able to return to France during the reign of Emperor Napoleon I. In spite of being no longer labeled as émigrée, her relationship with the new regime was never totally harmonious, as might be expected given that she was a strong royalist and the former portraitist of Marie Antoinette.
Much in demand by the élite of Europe, she visited England at the beginning of the 19th century and painted the portrait of several British notables including Lord Byron. In 1807 she traveled to Switzerland and was made an honorary member of the Société pour l’Avancement des Beaux-Arts of Geneva.
She published her memoirs in 1835 and 1837, which provide an interesting view of the training of artists at the end of the period dominated by royal academies. Her portrait of fellow neoclassical painter, Hubert Robert, is in Paris at Musée National du Louvre.
Still very active with her painting in her fifties, she purchased a house in Louveciennes, Île-de-France, and lived there until the house was seized by the Prussian Army during thewar in 1814. She stayed in Paris until her death on 30 March 1842 when her body was taken back to Louveciennes and buried in the Cimetière de Louveciennes near her old home.
Her tombstone epitaph states “Ici, enfin, je repose…” (Here, at last, I rest…).