Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun by Isabel del Rio
Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun is famous worldwide for having been the painter of Queen Marie Antoinette of France. She was buried in Louveciennes on March 30, 1842, under a tombstone where she had ordered to engrave “I rest at last”. Today, after so long and thanks to the efforts made by the team of “The Girls of Oil”, she has temporarily returned from retirement and she has granted an exclusive interview to talk about the lights and shadows of her busy life.
Question – Was your career so complicated and exhausting as to engrave on your tombstone “I rest at last”?
Vigee-Lebrun – Yes, no doubt. My father, who was also a painter, died when I was 12 and my family was in a precarious economic situation. My mother, who was a woman of extraordinary beauty, remarried to resolve the situation but I, as I had a great affection for the memory of my father, I decided to follow his footsteps and to become independent, to honor his devotion to the art and as a small act of rebellion against a stepfather who I never finished to admit.
At 16, I already had my own workshop in Paris. Then, everything was rather chaotic and I was involved in one of the most turbulent periods in history: the French Revolution of 1789. It was a social and cultural change and I was forced to live struggles, wars, an exile and … even a divorce!
Question – What do you mean by “even a divorce”? Do you blame to the terrible events in 1791, which led king Louis XVI to the guillotine, of the crisis of your marriage?
Vigee-Lebrun – I married Pierre in 1776 and now, I guess I ought to remain free to develop my work but then, I was an ambitious young woman who wanted to be internationally known as the best portrait painter of the moment. However, loneliness eats into my soul and I changed my plans. The early years of marriage were good, we travelled a lot and that helped me to develop my painting. The trip we made to the Netherlands, for example, it was crucial for me because I studied in depth the work of the Flemish school. In addition, my daughter Julia was born. Afterwards, our relations cooled, partly because my pace of work. Everyone wanted a Vigee-Lebrun portrait and I have three daily sessions of customers posing for me. My health deteriorated and the digestions were bad because of nervousness: Pierre and I hardly met. We could have taken the lives of so many distant bourgeois couples, but when they killed the king and the queen, my protector, was imprisoned, I suffered harassment and attacks. Pierre was frightened and he did not protect me or accompanied me in exile. Alone, I ran away with my daughter.
Question – In any case, Pierre, an art dealer, helped you in your beginnings. Was your profession a factor to consider when you accepted him as husband?
Vigee-Lebrun – Absolutely not. His profession damaged the mien. When I became a member of the Academy of Arts in France, I had many opponents. Not because of the quality of my work (as it has been repeated later) or for being a woman (the Academy already had other feminine members) but by the profession of my husband. They did not like a person who negotiated with what they consider non-negotiable: Art.
Question – What was Queen Marie Antoinette of France like?
Vigee-Lebrun – A remarkable lady and very well prepared. On the contrary to the superficial and frivolous image that the “children of the revolution” have passed. But, of course, they had to lie to justify her murder. The queen promoted many talented feminine artists, a generation of women who fell into obscurity after 1789. French Revolution Equality meant that women were also guillotined, nothing more.
Question – What about the exile? Those years were artistically positive, you even painted Byron, the Romantic poet.
Vigee-Lebrun – Yes, a whole character Lord Byron. I painted very many important people, also the Russian royal family. I saw beautiful places and I met clever people but they were sad years away from home too. I longed for Paris.
Question – But you came back, and by popular acclaim. How did you find the Paris of Napoleon?
Vigee-Lebrun – I did not like. Napoleon and his cronies treated me with respect and orders continued but the world was upside down. I count these “before and after” in my autobiography published in 1835. I recommend it to anyone who wants to know how an artist lived before and after those murderers, called ‘sans culottes’, broke into history.
Question – It is clear that you do not have very good opinion of them. Were you able to forgive over the years?
Vigee-Lebrun– I am Catholic but I remember them with horror. They killed my friends and acquaintances. I do not know why current people admire that revolution so much. Equality was a complete fiction. Isabel del Rio explains very well all those historical falsehoods in her book “The Girls of Oil, women painters and sculptors before 1789” and she has been kind enough to include a cover page with a picture of mine: my “Self-Portrait with Straw Hat”.
And so, Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun said goodbye, with Rococo courtesy, pride of having been one of the greatest painters of old times. It was a placid afternoon in Paris … a Lebrun afternoon.