Arts & Culture

Court painter to Marie Antoinette: 6 things about this unsung portrait artist

The National Gallery of Canada has dealt Ottawa a royal flush with its new exhibit: Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun.

Best known as the court painter to Marie Antoinette, Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) had a long, turbulent, and historically significant career. Her work took her from Revolution-era Paris, to the art academies of Rome, to the palaces of Russia. Here are 6 reasons you need to get to know this unsung portrait artist:

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Countess Tolstoya, 1796, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Canada, Gift of an anonymous Canadian collector, 2015

1. She was Self-Made. She was self-taught and “extremely sensitive to the beauties of the human form,” according to exhibit’s co-curator, Joseph Baillo, a Vigée Le Brun expert.

2. She Captured a Queen. She painted the doomed French queen four times, including the family shot below:

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette and Her Children, 1787 oil on canvas, 275 × 216.5 cm, Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, France (MV 4520). © RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY. Photo: Gérard Blot

3. She’s Overdue. This is the first large-scale retrospective of one of the great portrait painters of the 18th and early 19th century, and arguably the “most important” female artist of the 18th century, according to Paul Lang, chief curator of the National Gallery.

Washington_Royal-Portraits-National-Gallery-Canada
The Marquise de Pezay and the Marquise de Rougé with Her Two Sons, 1787 oil on canvas, 123.4 × 155.9 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gift of the Bay Foundation in memory of Josephine Bay Paul and Ambassador Charles Ulrick Bay. (1964.11.1)

4. She Played Money Ball. Her commissions ran as high as 24,000 French livre — literally a fortune at the time — and prompted jealousy from contemporaries in the art world.

5. She Practically Invented the Selfie. Beyond painting royals in a positive light, her exquisite self-portraits confirm her reputation as one of the most beautiful Parisian woman of her time. Here’s one example from the exhibit:

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbons, c. 1782 oil on canvas, 64.8 × 54 cm, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas (ACK 1949.02). In recognition of his service to the Kimbell Art Museum and his role in developing area collectors, the Board of Trustees of the Kimbell Art Foundation has dedicated this work from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Kay Kimbell, founding benefactors of the Kimbell Art Museum, to the memory of Mr. Bertram Newhouse (1883–1982) of New York City

6. She was a Survivor: Vigée Le Brun survived the French Revolution because she opted for exile when it started. While most of her French patrons and allies were killed, she spent from 1789-1807 painting portraits across Europe.

For the kids: Children will enjoy the exhibit, too, with an activity area allowing them to dress Royal courtiers, pose for photos in period cutouts, and even don costumes — all in a mock version of Marie Antoinette’s palace bedroom.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun is on display the National Gallery until September 11, 2016