Andrea here, As some of you might know, I occasionally enjoy weaving real-life people into my historical mystery novels when I feel their presence adds depth and texture to the story. Sometimes they are prominent in the plot, and sometimes they are merely used as a passing reference to add a flash of color.
I have a new Arianna mystery nearly finished. It’s set in St. Petersburg, and my research into detail about the glittering Russian Imperial Court turned up the fact that Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, the French portrait artist, was hugely popular with the Russian aristocracy. Indeed, it was considered a status symbol to have one’s portrait painted by her. So I threw this in as a tiny detail . . . (see portraits below)
As research details are wont to do, it turned out this little snippet led me where I hadn’t really planned to go. A recent visit to Met Museum in NYC (one of my favorite places in the world!) to see the reorganized galleries on European paintings brought me face to face with Vigée Le Brun's art, as one of her self-portraits was featured prominently in the 18th-early19th century galleries. (see top left. I also love the one on the right—isn't the red sash fabulous?) The reorganizing by the Met is part of its efforts to modernize its view of “great” art and broaden the traditional canon to include artists who because of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other “differences” weren’t seen as “important” in past eras.
It’s really exciting to see the works that now hang on the Met’s hallowed walls and to read the stories of the artists who have for too long been relegated to the shadows of history. Now, Vigée Le Brun wasn’t an unknown in her time—she was the most famous woman artist of her day. Still, in reading about her and accomplishments on the descriptions of the art, I was struck by what an amazing person she was, and what an amazing life she led. (She certainly wasn’t mentioned in any detail in any of my college art history courses. I hope that has changed!)
Her self-portraits really captivated me, so I did a little research on her and thought I would share some highlights——both in words and in images—on this extraordinary artist and independent-minded woman who dared to live life on her own terms.
Born in 1755, she first learned the art of painting from her father, Louis Vigée, who was fan painter as well as a portrait painter. But after her father’s death when she was twelve years old, she was self-taught, and by her early teens was painting portraits professionally.
In 1776 she married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, a fellow painter and one of the top art dealers in Paris. Through husband’s connections—his great-great uncle was Charles Le Brun, head of the French Academy under Louis XIV, she began to receive prestigious commissions, and soon was favored with the patronage of Queen Marie Antoinette. The unofficial portraitist of the Queen and her family, Vigée Le Brun created more than 30 paintings of them.
A trip through Flanders and the Netherlands introduced her to the Flemish masters (her famous self-portrait in a straw hat, shown at the top of the blog, was inspired by La Chapeau de Paille by Peter Paul Rubens) and her technique and style continued to develop and impress both her peers and the public. She was admitted to the prestigious Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, the first of many acceptances into elite art societies that she would garner over her illustrious career.
Her connection to Marie Antoinette (above) forced her into exile when the French Revolution broke out (her husband remained in Paris), but she thrived as she traveled throughout Europe, earning accolades and acclaim in Italy, Austria, Russia and Germany. (Among her many portraits, she painted the notorious Emma Hamilton as a Bacchante, shown on the right)
Vigée Le Brun was allowed to return to France in 1802, but continued to travel, spending time in London and Switzerland. She lived to the ripe old age of 86, and I can’t think of an individual who is more deserving of that iconic phrase “a life well lived.”
The Met says this about Vigée Le Brun’s work: “She was remarkable not only for her technical gifts but for her understanding of and sympathy with her sitters.” For me, her humanity and sense of warmth and joie de vivre resonate from her portraits. They capture a very special spirit of individuality, and looking at them makes me smile, as well as feel an admiration for an amazingly talented, strong and courageous woman.
What about you? Do you have any favorite artists whose works make you smile or simply brighten your mood when you’re feeling down? Please share!