Élisabeth Louise Vigeé Le Brun is an 18th century French portrait painter. She became incredibly famous at the end of the 18th century in France and then, with the revolution packed up her bags, took her daughter, and travelled all over Europe. She’s a powerhouse, she’s someone who’s incredibly modern in her work ethic, in the way that she makes a reputation and just gets out there and really kind of conquers the European portrait market. Vigeé Le Brun is born in Paris in 1755. She starts out from a relatively modest background. She has some training early on from her father who is also an artist. But he actually dies when she’s only 12 so it’s not as if she’s got a really long apprenticeship with him. But the family are clearly connected in artistic circles and knows enough other artists to be able to encourage her to continue her studies. Probably that’s a real game changer because for a woman in the 18th century there are no, kind of, formal courses for becoming an artist. But she’s also just very feisty and independent so by the time she’s 14 she’s producing portraits certainly contributing to the family income. She’s, kind of, a fully established artist working in her own right. I mean that would be extraordinary if you were a male artist but to be a female artist as well it’s kind of even more breathtaking. It didn’t stop her always getting into trouble. When she was about 19 she actually had all her brushes and her artist’s material confiscated because she’d been so successful she’d come to the attention of the authorities because she didn’t actually have membership of either a Guild or an Académie but she’d just, kind of, gone and done it anyway. Having sort of been slapped on the wrist she very quickly went off and got a Guild membership in order to be able to continue this very promising and exciting career. She’s married to a picture dealer but actually the marriage dissolves quite quickly because he’s gambling away all her money. She’s the one who looks after their daughter and travels around Europe and there’s letters in which she’s saying you know how hard I have to work to keep a nursemaid to keep a roof over our heads to get a tutor for our daughter. She’s someone who is absolutely driven and working incredibly hard to make that life and that lifestyle work for her family. Vigeé Le Brun is predominantly known for her portraits. She kind of skyrocketed to fame in the late 1770s because she was the first portraitist who can really produce a kind of satisfactory likeness
of the young Marie Antoinette. On the one hand she does produce these kind of formal state portraits. On the other she produces images that are much more kind of maternal and tender like Mademoiselle Brongniart. This lovely young very cheeky looking girl with her bag pulling the wool out of it. And it’s that Vigeé Le Brun really becomes known for being able to paint portraits that convey a sort of emotional tenor with them as well. This is a self-portrait and it’s where we actually meet
Vigeé Le Brun. She’s staring out at us very confidently wearing these beautiful fine clothes so she’s clearly dressed up in this wonderful finery. But in her hand she’s also holding her artist’s material. Her palette with these great being globs of paint all over it you can see her brushes which she’s clearly been using because the ends of them have little bits of paint on. She’s on the one hand this very young, very attractive, very beautifully dressed woman. And on the other hand, quite literally in her other hand is her profession. This is a self-portrait that’s saying I’m an artist. I’m also a woman. I can absolutely do both. And even more than that it’s also a self-portrait that’s correcting the old masters. Rubens painted a portrait of a young woman in a hat that was always known as ‘The Straw Hat’. But if you look at it you’ll see it’s not a straw hat at all. And Vigeé Le Burn we know saw this portrait in Brussels and then she comes back and she paints her self-portrait and she corrects the mistake. So look at her here in her beautiful straw hat. Not only is she comparing herself to Rubens she’s actually saying, look I can go one better. It is just a fact that there are fewer paintings by women artists at the National Gallery than there are by male artists but I think you have to take into account the time period we cover. Vigeé Le Brun grows up clearly before the revolution and so she’s very much in that world which was a very kind of strictly hierarchised art world. In order to operate as an artist in Paris you had to be a member of the Guild or the Académie Royale. But the Académie is not exactly open for women they actually make a limit in the 18th century to say they won’t admit more than four women at any given time. If you’re a male artist and you join the Académie you have immediately this great community of peers. If you’re a woman, you can only exhibit at the salon. You don’t get any of the lessons, you don’t get to draw from live models. You can’t let a woman go anywhere near a naked man. So it is just a totally totally different world. Vigeé Le Brun did actually get membership to the Académie Royale but she got it in a rather unusual way. Instead of the usual kind of strict admittance procedures the king just admitted her point blank one day clearly at his wife’s urging and you can imagine how her fellow male academicians felt about this. She had this kind of incredibly prestigious door open for her. If I stop and think about it, I’m a young woman at the beginning of the 21st century the opportunities I’ve had would have been unimaginable to somebody, a woman, in the late 18th century. So I look at someone like Vigeé Le Brun and I just think,
my goodness, what a trailblazer what an absolute power house. To have the strength of your convictions and the passion, and the drive to be able to do that then. We’re dealing with many of the same
issues, you know women are still trying to be taken seriously at work. They are still trying to juggle work and families. Women have been doing this successfully for hundreds of years and we’re only going to get better at it.