Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun - Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World - Ann Shen

Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World - Ann Shen (2016)

Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun

Best known for being Marie Antoinette’s portrait artist, Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842) was a Parisian painter who left a legacy of over 660 portraits and 200 landscape paintings. She started painting professionally as a teen, but her studio was seized because she was practicing without being a member of any of the académies; at the time, the académies accepted very few women, and her work didn’t fall within their guidelines. Vigée-Lebrun then married a fellow painter and art dealer who provided many valuable contacts for her. In 1781, she caused a public scandal when she painted a self-portrait that showed her teeth in an open-mouthed smile, which was strictly taboo at the time.

As her career grew and she painted more nobility, Vigée-Lebrun was invited to Versailles to paint Marie Antoinette. The queen was so pleased with the artist’s style that she commissioned over thirty portraits. Over the next six years, Vigée-Lebrun helped reinvent the image of Marie Antoinette as a loving maternal figure. With the queen’s help, in 1783 Vigée-Lebrun was finally accepted into the prestigious Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. Her relationship with the queen became problematic after the French Revolution overthrew the monarchy and aristocracy, however, and Vigée-Lebrun fled to Russia with her daughter. There she continued her career of painting aristocrats, including commissions from Catherine the Great, and became a member of the Academy of Fine Arts of Saint Petersburg before finally returning to France, where she continued to paint prominent figures. Many of her paintings are on display at the Louvre, London’s National Gallery, and major museums around the globe. Vigée-Lebrun was able to achieve great popularity and enjoy success with her work in her lifetime, which was rare for any artist at that time, let alone a female artist.

Portrait painter to the aristocratic stars