Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, painter of the smile

Mathilde RAIVE,journalist

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun,
painter of the smile


by M. Raive, France

In 18th-century France, the men and women of good society posed for a portrait with mouths clamped shut, the better to hide their rotten teeth. Only the common people, simpletons, and dolts dared show their ravaged dentition. So smiles never made it onto canvas. Portraitists depicted their sitters as unsmiling, wooden figures, haughty and disdainful, in keeping with the spirit of the age. But the winds of change were blowing. The philosophers of the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment, notably Jean-Jacques Rousseau, urged people to be themselves. Maternal love was openly displayed by aristocrats, members of the French court, and even by Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France and wife of Louis XVI. Mores became freer and corsets and stays a thing of the past. Advances in hygiene and dentistry meant that people no longer shied away from showing their teeth. French artist Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) took advantage of this newfound freedom and became the first portraitist in the history of art to encourage her sitters to pose naturally, a smile upon their lips. Using a neoclassical style that doubtless flattered her models, Vigée Le Brun in fact freed herself from the staid poses of the recent past and in so doing wrought a pictorial revolution. Hugely successful in the troubled times leading to the French Revolution, she produced some 900 paintings, 600 of which are portraits, including 30 of Queen Marie-Antoinette. Over 150 of her paintings were shown, some for the first time, at the Grand Palais in Paris at the exhibition Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (23 September 2015-11 January 2016), which will shortly travel to New York (9 February-15 May 2016) and then Ottawa (10 June-12 September 2016).

Medicographia. 2016;38:122-131 (see French abstract on page 131)

As a portraitist in 18th-century France, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun knew how to get the best out of her sitters, even if it meant smoothing out facial imperfections and—a great novelty in portraiture—urging them to smile. The powerful had long kept their lips sealed in portraits, leaving unseemly, often toothless smiles to the hoi polloi, buffoons, and the slow-witted.

In a century when a natural demeanor ousted affectation, when the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau waxed lyrical on maternal love and exhorted people to be themselves, Vigée Le Brun emphasized sensuality, an unheard of audacity in the highly codified genre of portraiture. She even dared to paint portraits of people smiling, as progress in dentistry and hygiene emboldened sitters to reveal their teeth.

The beginnings of artistry

The daughter of Louis Vigée, a talent portraitist, Élisabeth Louise was born in Paris in April 1755. Cared for by a nanny till the age of five, she was then educated in a convent, where she delighted in drawing her classmates. Delicate health ended Élisabeth Louise’s convent education when she was eleven, and upon return to the family home Louis Vigée recognized his daughter’s talent for art and introduced her to his artist friends: Joseph Vernet, a painter of maritime scenes, and the portraitist and pastelist Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Vernet advised Élisabeth Louise: “My child, don’t follow any school of painting. Study only the works of the great Italian and Flemish masters. Above all learn as much as you can from nature, the first among masters.” Greuze explained the “magic of colors” and transmitted to Élisabeth Louise his taste for chiffon, pale stoles, and white mirror-like silks: “Never thicken your laces and gauzes,” he advised. That she remembered and understood this injunction is clear from the cloud of airy fabrics that cascade down from the straw hat in her 1784 Portrait of Marie Gabrielle de Gramont, Duchess of Caderousse, who, natural and unpowdered, posed without airs or graces. Élisabeth Louise’s elders opened doors to private collections, where she studied the old masters, while at the Louvre and the Musée du Luxembourg she practiced her art by copying works by Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and Greuze himself, from whom she learned how to render delicate carnations, transparency, freshness, and the play of light and shade to enhance a complexion.

“Never thicken your laces and gauzes,” was
the expert advice Jean-Baptiste Greuze gave
Vigée Le Brun. Her see-through ethereal
muslins and silk fabrics soon became a
distinguishing feature in many of her
Young Woman Holding a
Small Spaniel With Garland of Flowers,
aka Madame de Porcin.
Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805); 1774;
oil on canvas; 72×57 cm. Angers,
Musée des Beaux-Arts.

© Musée des Beaux-Arts, Angers, France/
Bridgeman Images.

When just 17, Élisabeth Louise painted portraits of her mother as a sultana, her brother Etienne as a schoolboy, and the jeweler Jacques-François Le Sèvre, her miserly and strict stepfather, whom she loathed and who hogged her earnings, in The Artist’s Stepfather in Nightcap and Dressing Gown.

It was just a matter of time before the high society of the Palais Royal quarter in Paris, where Élisabeth Louise lived, discovered her gifts and commissioned portraits. Duchesses, princesses, countesses and counts, courtesans of the boulevard Saint Germain, everyone who was anyone in late 18th-century Paris came to sit for Élisabeth Louise Vigée who, in January 1776, aged 20, became Madame Vigée Le Brun when she married Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, the foremost art dealer of the time.

The art of portraiture

In her work as a portraitist, Vigée Le Brun used pastels to produce preliminary sketches on which she subsequently based her oil paintings. The great variety of her portraiture bears witness to a mastery of the science of color and to her ability to improvise costumes and poses. In her memoirs, Souvenirs, published towards the end of a long life, Vigée Le Brun divulged her painterly techniques and artifices. In preparation for a sitting, for instance, she readied her palette half an hour beforehand, to avoid wasting the subject’s time, and emptied her mind of worldly affairs. By engaging sitters in conversation, she discovered their attitudes and put them at ease. In an interesting aside on flirtatious aspirations, Vigée Le Brun revealed that male sitters sometimes came for the wrong reasons: “Those fond of my face had me paint theirs, in the hope of pleasing me.”

Joseph Vernet (1714-1789), painter and mentor of the artist.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun; 1778; oil on canvas; 92×0.72 cm.
Louvre Museum.

© RMN–Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre)/Jean-Gilles Berizzi.

Marie-Antoinette in Court Dress.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun; 1778;
oil on canvas; 273×193.5 cm. Vienna,
Kunsthistorisches Museum.

© Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien.

Vigée Le Brun installed her female sitters comfortably, a footstool under their feet, and then stood back to capture the subject’s bearing and appearance. Above all, she advised, light should fall upon the throats of women, to cast warm tones for the shadow of the collarbone and fine and fresh shades for the bosom. No other painter had Vigée Le Brun’s talent for winning the trust of the women, beautiful or plain, who sat for her. In part because she idealized faces and figures, smoothed away imperfections, used flattering dress styles ranging from oriental to pastoral, gave her lady sitters a soulful and noble expression. In Vigée Le Brun’s own words, she “tried as far as was possible to give the women I painted the attitude and expression of their countenance” and “painted them as if daydreaming.” Vigée Le Brun’s female subjects posed unembellished, without stays and corsets, hair down, sometimes even wearing dresses and ribbons lent by the artist. “As I hated the clothes women wore at the time,” Vigée Le Brun wrote, “I made every effort to render them more picturesque. Once I won the trust of my models, I was able to drape them according to my whim, to place light scarves around their bodies and arms.”

Vigée Le Brun’s skills, spirit, and talent for flattering her models made her the darling of the French court, allowing her to move in elevated social circles and to entertain the upper crust. She invited ladies of the court, courtesans, men of letters and the arts, painters, architects, and financiers to her workshop, which doubled as a salon. Her receptions were so popular that it was not unknown for field marshals to have to make do with sitting on the floor. “We had the taste and time for amusement,” she later wrote in Souvenirs.

Before long this carefree world of joie de vivre would be swept away by the French Revolution and many of the charming heads that Vigée Le Brun immortalized on canvas would prove all too mortal as they fell into baskets beneath the “National Razor,” the guillotine.

At the Royal Court

Vigée Le Brun was 24 when first asked to paint a portrait of the queen. Marie-Antoinette had complained to her mother, Maria Theresa of the House of Habsburg, that she had been unable to find a portraitist who “captured” her likeness. So why not try Madame Vigée Le Brun? She had a solid reputation, was highly regarded, and had already painted a dozen portraits and replicas for the court.

Peace Bringing Back
Élisabeth Louise
Vigée Le Brun; 1780; oil on
canvas; 102.5×132.5 cm. Paris,
Musée du Louvre, Département
des Peintures.

© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre)/
Daniel Arnaudet.

Gabrielle Yolande Claude Martine de Polastron, Duchess of
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun; 1782; oil on canvas;
92.2×73.3 cm. Versailles, Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles
et de Trianon.

© RMN–Grand Palais (Château de Versailles)/Gérard Blot.

Marie-Antoinette in a Muslin Dress. Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le
Brun; ca 1783; oil on canvas; 89.8×72 cm. Kronberg, Hessiche

© Hessische Hausstiftung, Kronberg im Taunus.

Also in her favor was Marie-Antoinette’s appreciation of good looks, for Vigée Le Brun was young (the same age as the queen) and pretty. In Souvenirs, Vigée Le Brun recalled those early days: “I first painted the queen in the year 1779 (it was in fact 1778), when she was in the full flower of youth and beauty. Marie-Antoinette was tall, had a very good figure, full but not excessively so. Her arms were superb, her hands small and perfectly shaped, her feet charming. […] she held her head high, with the majesty that behooves a queen.” Over the years, Vigée Le Brun little by little transformed the queen’s image—that of a woman with the physical shortcomings of the Habsburg dynasty: an oval countenance deemed too long, bulging eyes, thick lips—by returning repeatedly to her depiction of Marie-Antoinette in this first portrait, each time, however, moving away from the original, prettifying, setting off to advantage, to convey an idea of nobility and grace.

From her family, wrote Vigée Le Brun, Marie-Antoinette had inherited “that long and narrow oval face peculiar to the Austrian nation.” Her eyes were almost blue, not large, and her gaze was spiritual and gentle, her nose slender and pretty. But what was most remarkable in her face was its radiance, the bloom of her complexion. “I could not render its effect as I wished: I lacked colors to paint the freshness and fine tints that belonged to her charming face and to hers alone.”

This first portrait, entitled Marie-Antoinette in Court Dress, shows the queen in a stiff, formal pose, as was the custom, in a white satin dress with large panniers (hoops used to distend a woman’s dress). She is shown holding a pink rose beside a table bearing her crown atop a cushion. On receiving the picture, the queen’s mother, Maria Theresa of Austria, wrote to her daughter: “Your large portrait delights me.” Everyone wanted to be painted by Vigée Le Brun, to the point that she was unable to accept all the commissions that came her way, even though she produced a portrait every 12 days or so. Her hard-working nature is illustrated in Souvenirs, where Vigée Le Brun recounts that when pregnant with her daughter she only stopped working, labor pains notwithstanding, when childbirth was imminent.

Vigée Le Brun’s detailed and accurate accounts of her commissions read like a who’s who of late 18th-century France: Marie-Antoinette, Madame du Barry, the official mistress of Louis XV, the Princess Lamballe, the Duchess of Polignac, princes and counts, not to mention the Duchess of Chartres, who had to wait 12 months before she could be fitted into a busy schedule. Vigée Le Brun’s yearly earnings amounted to a tidy sum: between 20 and 30 thousand livres, which in today’s money is approximately 66 to 100 thousand euros or 75 to 114 thousand dollars US.

The Academy

Vigée Le Brun aspired to membership of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, but its doors were closed to her because she was married to an art dealer. The Academy’s statutes forbade artists from direct or indirect trading in art, and at this time in France a woman’s station was that of her husband. Monsieur Le Brun thus stood in the way of his wife’s advancement, a problem that was overcome by the intervention of Louis XVI, though Vigée Le Brun was unhappy at the idea of owing a fully merited place to royal favor. Later in life she intimated in Souvenirs that she was initially excluded because of the notorious misogyny of the academicians and the antipathy of the Academy’s director. Be that as it may, the king’s will was imposed and Vigée Le Brun was admitted to the Academy at the age of 28 in May 1783 on the basis of “the reputation of her talents.” She submitted to the Academy a number of portraits together with a historical allegory Peace Bringing Back Abundance, as a “reception piece,” which she hoped would lead to admission to the category of history painters. The success of this symbolic painting, in fact made two years before, irked the Academy, which responded by pointedly omitting to mention into which category Vigée Le Brun had been inducted.

The gathering storm

In1783,Vigée Le Brun painted Marie-Antoinette in a Muslin Dress, which depicts the queen in a simple loose fitting chemise dress. This was how the queen dressed at the Petit Trianon, her retreat at Versailles, where she escaped the pressures of the court to entertain a select group of intimates. The queen’s dress and manner in the portrait, though, were seen as frivolous, unbecoming of a monarch, and at odds with her duties to the nation. While other European monarchs were represented as models of virtue, maternal sovereigns, exuding authority and gravitas, here the Queen of France was portrayed as a shepherdess. One contemporary noted that while quick to condemn the queen: “Every woman wanted to have the same dishabille, the same bonnet, that they had seen her wear.” And within two years of Marie- Antoinette being painted in one, the chemise dress had become popular.

Marie-Antoinette and her Children.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun;
1787; oil on canvas; 275×216.5 cm.
Versailles, Musée National des Châteaux
de Versailles et de Trianon.

© RMN–Grand Palais (Château de Versailles)/
Gérard Blot.

But more damage was to come. And this time it was far worse. Marie-Antoinette’s reputation suffered a major blow with the so-called Affair of the Diamond Necklace which broke out in 1785. It was intimated that she had been complicit in a swindle designed to defraud the crown jewelers of the cost of a hugely expensive diamond necklace. Marie Antoinette was, in all likelihood, blameless, but the affair triggered a decline in her popularity and thereafter lingered the image of a profligate queen whose vanity took precedence over the welfare of France and her people. Dislike of the queen, known disparagingly as “the Austrian woman” and seen as a spendthrift with an eccentric life-style, was at its peak. This was the backdrop to the opening on 25 August 1787 of the Salon at the Louvre, where the place of honor was reserved for Marie-Antoinette and her Children, Vigée Le Brun’s attempt to portray the queen in a more human light. Fearful of a poor reception, more for political than artistic reasons, Vigée Le Brun kept the canvas in her workshop, pretexting a need for a few finishing touches. She sent in its place an empty frame. “Voilà le Déficit” quipped some wag, a gibe that spread through the city and reflected the ill will surrounding Marie-Antoinette, who had already been nicknamed “Madame Déficit.” In the end, Vigée Le Brun sent the portrait, but fearing public hostility dared not accompany it. Her worries were unfounded as the painting was well received and Louis XVI said to her: “I know little of painting, but you make me like it.”

Countess Golovine. Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun; 1797-1800;
oil on canvas; 83×66.5 cm. Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University
of Birmingham, UK.

© Birmingham, The Trustees of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of
Birmingham / Bridgeman Images.

Caroline Bonaparte and her Eldest Daughter Laetitia
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun; 1807; oil on canvas;
217×143 cm. Versailles, Musée National des Châteaux de
Versailles et de Trianon.

© De Agostini Picture Library / G. Dagli Orti / Bridgeman Images.

In October 1789, following a demonstration in Versailles by the people of Paris, the king and royal family were forced to reside in Paris, making them effectively prisonners. Too close to the monarchy for comfort, Vigée Le Brun risked incurring the same revolutionary wrath. Her success had set tongues wagging—mutterings about how her behavior was not all that it should be, love affairs, hidden payments. She was accused of moral turpitude, of spending extravagantly, even of burning bank notes for heating. Fearing for her life, Vigée Le Brun left France for Italy with her 9-year-old daughter Julie on the night of October 6, 1789, abandoning her husband, fortune, and paintings.


Vigée Le Brun’s exile was to last 13 years, but her reputation as a portraitist went before her and commissions did not lack. In Naples and Vienna she found others who had fled the Revolution, and from 1795 she spent several years in St Petersburg where she continued to paint the members of polite society. One example is her picture of the Countess Golovina depicted in a red shawl and an ocher yellow turban headband tied in cascading brown hair.

On her return to France in 1802, Vigée Le Brun was lauded by the press and by fashionable society at the court of the Bonapartes. Yet she was restless, haunted by memories of happier times and of friends and acquaintances who had come to a bloody end during the Revolution, notably Marie- Antoinette, and in April 1803 Vigée Le Brun left for England, where she spent two years, in London, Brighton, Bath, and Knole in Dorset, before returning to France. When not traveling around Europe, Vigée Le Brun continued to paint, including portraits of Caroline Murat, Napoleon’s sister, the Duchess of Berry, the Duchess of Guiche, and the famous Italian opera singer Angelica Catalini, as well as Apotheosis of the Queen, her final (lost) portrait of Marie-Antoinette, and Saint Geneviève, the Patron Saint of Paris, whose face she modeled on her daughter Julie, who had died two years earlier in 1819. Vigée Le Brun divided her time between her country house in Louveciennes (10 kilometers west of Paris), where she spent 8 months of the year, and Paris, where she held dinners and receptions, such as a literary evening in the winter of 1831 graced by François-René de Chateaubriand and Honoré de Balzac. For eight years from 1829, Vigée Le Brun busied herself with writing her memoirs. The first volume of Souvenirs was published in August 1835 and volumes II and III followed in 1837, five years before her death in Paris just short of her 87th birthday. On her gravestone in Louveciennes is the inscription: “Here, at last, I rest.”

The last word on Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun should perhaps be left to Xavier Salmon, curator of the eponymous exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris (23 September 2015-11 January 2016): “With Madame Vigée Le Brun we straddle two centuries. Her last paintings date from the 1830s, when she is painting as she did in 1780. There is a gulf between her and the romantic painters. She was the artist of joie de vivre in troubled times.”