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Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun
The Exceptional Woman
1755-1842

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Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun was an exceptional woman and female painter, particularly of portraits, her style combining Rococo grace and delicacy with Neo-Classical ideals of simplicity and purity. 

Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun. Rococo Style. Self-portrait.

She was born in Paris in 1755 to Louis Vigée, a minor portraitist, and Jeanne Maissin, a hairdresser. She wrote in her Memoirs that her "love for painting declared itself in my earliest youth".  Although her father died when she was only fifteen, she earned enough money painting portraits to support her mother and her younger brother. 

  • Self Portrait, painted 1775.

  • France 1953. Self Portrait with her daughter, painted 1789.  Painting belongs to Louvre, Paris.  The stamp is a semi-postal for the benefit of French Red Cross.  Scott B28 

France 1953. Rococo Style. Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. Self-portrait with her daughter.

In 1775, at the age of twenty the artist moved with her mother and her brother to a mansion owned and lived in by the established connoisseur, art dealer, and painter Jean Baptiste Pierre Lebrun, whose art collection filled the house. Vigée-Lebrun studied the works that surrounded her and by copying these paintings she received "the best lessons I could conceivably have obtained." After six months, Lebrun asked his tenant to marry him, and although she was not too keen on the idea, her mother insisted upon the marriage. 

In 1778 Vigée-Lebrun painted her first portrait from life of Queen Marie Antoinette, which assured her career as a society portraitist.  The painting belongs to the Palace of Versailles.  

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. Rococo Style. Painting.

In 1783 she became a member of the Académie Royale. During the French Revolution Vigée-Lebrun travelled throughout Europe, establishing an international reputation; her sitters included many members of the nobility. A prodigious worker, she is thought to have painted over 800 canvases; among the best known is her 1789 self-portrait with her daughter (Louvre, Paris), see stamp above. 

Vigee-Lebrun made 6 copies of this painting. Two are in the French state collection, one in US congress and was burned or stolen when the British sacked the capitol in 1812, one to Catherine the Great, location now unknown, and two others are missing.  

Her reputation quickly grew and she soon began to receive commissions from aristocrats and socialites. Among her clients were Count Schouvaloff, the Countess d'Harcourt, and Count Orloff, one of Peter the Third's assassins. 

Although the artist, as the wife of an art dealer, was officially barred from applying to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, the Queen intervened and in 1783 Vigée-Lebrun was accorded full membership. Already famous for her portraits, Vigée-Lebrun nevertheless submitted as her reception piece a history painting Peace Bringing Back Abundance, suggesting that she desired recognition for her ability to paint historical subjects which ranked higher than portraiture on the academic hierarchy. 

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. Rococo Style. Princess Anne Grigorievna Belosselsky Belozersky.

When the Revolution broke out in 1789, Vigée-Lebrun's friendship with the Queen branded the artist a "royalist," a decided liability in that time. On October 6, 1789, following the invasion of Versailles by Parisian mobs, she escaped to Italy with her daughter, intending to return to France once order was re-established. During the twelve years of exile that followed, Vigée-Lebrun profited from her international reputation, obtaining lucrative commissions and admission to the Academies in the countries she visited. 

During her six-year stay in Russia, she produced many portraits of the aristocracy and filled at least four notebooks, one of which is in the collection of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. 

Vigée-Lebrun painted the portrait of Princess Belozersky in 1798 during her stay in St. Petersburg. Princess Anne Grigorievna Bélosselsky Bélozersky was a daughter of Catherine II's Secretary of State. The painting reflects beautifully the artist's admiration for the work of Peter Paul Rubens. This painting is now on display at the National Museum of Woman of the Arts, Washington, D.C.

Vigée-Lebrun received permission in 1802 to return to France. She eventually settled in Paris, continued her successful artistic career, and in 1835 published her memoirs. She died in 1842.

Also in the philatelic world she has become famous, and a number of stamps depicting her works have been issued world wide.  Below is a small selection.

France, 2002. Vigée-Lebrun, Self-portrait. First Day Notice: 10/12/2002

  • France 2002.  Philatelic Document containing the stamp, and a short biographical notice about Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun's life and artistic career.  Cancelled on 12th October 2002.  The cancel depicts a pen drawing of the artist. 

France 2002. Rococo Style. Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. Self-portrait.

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. Rococo Style. Red-print of the French stamp 2002.

Romania 1969. Rococo Style. Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. Portrait of Madame d'Aguesseau. Belgium 1944. Rococo Style. Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. Portrait of André Erneste Modeste Grétry, composer. Paraguay 1967. Rococo Style. Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. Portrait of a boy with red jacket.

The subjects of her works during this period included many members of the nobility. A prodigious worker, Vigée-Lebrun is thought to have painted more than 800 canvases. Her style combined rococo grace and delicacy with neoclassical ideals of simplicity and purity. 

Countries that have issued stamps in Vigée Lebrun's honour are:  

Sources and links: 

Other Rococo painters on this site: 
 

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