Madame Le Brun and the art of portraiture

By Giulia Cozzi



Self Portrait in a Straw Hat (after 1782) by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. © Copyright The National Gallery, London 2019.


On a grey Sunday afternoon, towards the end of winter, I was wandering around London when I found myself in front of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. I stared at the majestic building for a couple of minutes while many thoughts crossed my mind. Finally, the temptation was too strong: I had to enter. I simply wanted to lose myself in some beauty. Once in, I decided to stroll around the gallery without a clear destination and only stop in front of the paintings that particularly caught my attention, so that I could take my time and look at the details. One hour later, with my feet aching, I came across a wonderful artwork: Self Portrait in a Straw Hat by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. The painting is a beautiful self-portrait of the artist, wearing a straw hat and carrying her artistic tools, including brushes and a colourful palette. I enjoyed admiring the detailed decorations of her dress and hat, the innocent but confident expression on her face and the delicate colour range filling the canvas. I knew, even before reading the object label, that the painter was a woman. How? Well, it is very common in art history for artists to portray themselves with the instruments characterizing their role in society, proudly staring out of the painting at the viewer. But usually, these are male artists. It is very rare to find self-portraits of women, especially in the 18th century. However, I was not surprised when, in the ten minutes I spent admiring the painting, more than six people were bewildered to discover that the creator of the artwork was a woman. I would like to highlight the fact that the painting is quite well-known, yet the artist much less.


The absence of female narratives in art history is a recurrent theme in museums and the media. The ‘great masters’ of visual arts are almost all males with few exceptions, such as the case of Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe or Artemisia Gentileschi. But fortunately, things are starting to change and the art world is beginning to recognize the contributions of historical female artists, such as Vigée Le Brun. Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, the daughter of a French painter, was born in Paris in 1755. Since childhood, she began drawing and painting, supported by her loving father who recognized the remarkable talent of the young girl. Unfortunately, the man died when Élisabeth was only twelve-year-old, leaving the family in financial difficulties. To support her mother and siblings, Élisabeth started taking artistic commissions, despite her lack of academic training. This resourcefulness and initiative already showed the acumen and independence of Élisabeth at a very early age. Interestingly, the young painter was very talented not only in artistic terms, but also in social terms. Indeed, a key strength of the girl was her ability to nurture a lively intellectual and artistic circle, forming stimulating friendships with other artists and maintaining connections with aristocrats who commissioned her with portraits. We could consider this a form of networking which was, and still is, a vital aspect for young artists and those aspiring to work in the arts.



Marie Antoinette in Court Dress (1778) by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. © Copyright Yann Caradec.


Incredibly, at the age of twenty-three, Élisabeth was commissioned with a very important painting: the portrait of a young Marie Antoinette. What made this commission even more challenging, in addition to her young age, was the widespread dissatisfaction that the queen and her mother felt about all the previous portraits of the young lady. All previous artists portrayed an unattractive girl lost in a big, ceremonious dress, rather than a cheerful royal portrait. On the contrary, Vigée Le Brun exceeded the expectations of the court as she painted a pleasing and beautiful portrait of the young queen, initiating a long-term relationship with the French royalty. The painter was not only able to put the sitters at ease, but she also understood the desire of the royal family to be depicted in a positive and glowing light. In other words, Vigée Le Brun was able to paint the best self of each of her sitters. She succeeded in making them feel good when they looked at themselves reflected in the canvas. However, serenity for Elisabeth did not last long. In 1789, the violent outbreak of the French Revolution forced the painter and her daughter to flee to Italy. With little money and a child to care for, Élisabeth proved herself by building a successful career in a foreign country through her artistic and social skills. Today, we would consider her a self-employed creative entrepreneur, reliant on her talents and social capabilities to secure high-profile commissions.


Élisabeth travelled to many different countries during her lifetime, returning to France as her final destination. She had a life full of art, success, love and travel. She was a woman in a man’s world, but this did not prevent her from becoming a talented artist and commanding the highest prices for her artworks. In all of her self-portraits, Élisabeth proudly projected herself as a female artist, earning the respect of big names such as Jacques-Louis David, whilst living independently and fiercely in a challenging world. She was intelligent, dynamic, resourceful and full of energy. She never let the misfortune of life get in her way, but relied on her talent and determination to succeed. And she did. After admiring Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, I left with a strange feeling. I felt reinvigorated, I felt alive. The quality of the picture, the liveliness of the artist’s personality and the passionate brushstrokes all showed strength, urging me to discover other great but forgotten female artists, and to give them the voice they deserve.