The Legacy of Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun

Salon Style: French Portraits from the Collection presents portraiture by 18th-century French women artists, who struggled past a lack of training, negative opinion, and political turmoil to attain professional success. Only a small number of women were successful in exhibiting at the Salon, the preeminent art exhibition in France. Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, however, achieved success and inspired future generations of artists.

Renowned during her lifetime, Vigée-LeBrun (1755–1842) served as the preferred portraitist to Queen Marie Antoinette in the late 1770s. She joined the prestigious Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1783, the same day as Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, via a special edict from King Louis XVI. She applied by exhibiting an allegorical painting very similar to her composition for Innocence Taking Refuge in the Arms of Justice, copied by Francesco Bartolozzi in a 1783 engraving. The great number of prints that were made after her paintings attest to the popularity of Vigée-LeBrun’s work.

Left to right: Francesco Bartolozzi, Innocence Taking Refuge in the Arms of Justice, 1783, after the original by Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, 1779, Engraving on paper; NMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay and Unknown artist, Marie Antoinette Holding a Rose, n.d., after the original by Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, 1783, Pastel on paper; NMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Left to right: Francesco Bartolozzi’s Innocence Taking Refuge in the Arms of Justice, 1783, after the original by Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, 1779, Engraving on paper; and an unknown artist’s Marie Antoinette Holding a Rose, n.d., after the original by Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, 1783, Pastel on paper; Both: NMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Vigée-LeBrun exhibited two portraits of Marie Antoinette in succession during the Salon of 1783. The first portrait, featuring the queen in a white muslin dress, caused a public outcry. An image of the queen en chemise (clothing not typically worn in public) was deemed inappropriate. Vigée-LeBrun claimed in her memoirs that it was the queen’s wish to be depicted in the muslin gown, yet the artist capitulated to critics and replaced the portrait with another painting showing the queen in a blue gown. In Salon Style, a bust-length pastel copy of the second painting testifies to the popularity of Vigée-LeBrun’s portraits.

For her own safety during the French Revolution, Vigée-LeBrun left the country in 1789 and did not return until 1805. She continued to paint during her exile, and she exhibited work at the Salon to critical acclaim. Vigée-LeBrun spent much of her time abroad in Russia, where she painted portraits of women and children from the Russian aristocracy.

Charles Bianchini, Self-portrait of Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, ca. 1880–1900, copy after the original, 1790, Oil on canvas; NMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Charles Bianchini, Self-portrait of Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, ca. 1880–1900, copy after the original, 1790, Oil on canvas; NMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Her portrait of Princess Anna Grigorieva Belosselsky Belozersky shows the wealthy 26-year-old woman, daughter of Catherine the Great’s secretary of state, wearing a fashionable turban-style headdress. Her mother’s family was involved in the lucrative mining industry, which may be referenced through her amber earring and necklace.

While Vigée-LeBrun was in Rome in 1790, she painted her self-portrait for that city’s Academy of St. Luke, to which she was admitted as a member. Vigée-LeBrun’s fame inspired multiple copies of that self-portrait, which still hangs in Rome. Painter and designer Charles Bianchini (1860–1905) created a faithful copy of her painting—further evidence of Vigée-LeBrun’s continued popularity.

Visit the museum to see works by trailblazing artists like Vigée-LeBrun. Salon Style: French Portraits from the Collection is on view through May 22, 2016.

Venetian Virtuoso: Rosalba Carriera

Born in Venice, Rosalba Carriera (1675–1757) was the daughter of a clerk and a lace-maker. Largely self-taught, she began her artistic career painting miniature portraits. Carriera employed ivory as the ground for her miniatures instead of the typical material for her time, vellum. Such works quickly solidified her reputation within Italian art circles and gained her acceptance into Rome’s prestigious Accademia di San Luca in 1704.

By her early twenties, Carriera was using pastel—the medium for which she later became famous. Previously the powdered pigment bound into sticks was used mostly for informal drawings and preparatory sketches. Carriera revolutionized its use for serious portraiture. Her works were admired for their velvety color palettes and striking details.

She received commissions from the courts of Modena, Vienna, and Dresden. In 1720, Carriera spent a successful year in Paris, where she visited renowned art collections, met French artists, and created portraits of prominent individuals, including the young Louis XV.

She later worked in Modena and Austria, assisted by her sister Giovanna. In Vienna, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI became her patron and the empress became her pupil. Her greatest patron, Augustus III of Poland, sat for her in 1713 and amassed more than 150 of her pastels.

Carriera primarily used pastel for portraits and allegorical images. In the 18th century, artists often personified the continents by using female figures in distinctive clothing. At the time, Europe recognized four continents: Africa, Asia, Europe, and America. Carriera’s allegorical work in NMWA’s collection, America, represents the region as a woman in costume. The realistic flesh tones of the figure exemplify Carriera’s skill with pastel. She included a jeweled headband, feather hair accessory, and a quiver of arrows to allude to Europeans’ common associations with America. Her ability to capture the textures of rich fabrics and accessories was appealing to her wealthy patrons.

Carriera suffered emotional trauma following her sister Giovanna’s death in 1738 and the loss of her own eyesight, which began eight years later. By 1749 she was permanently blind and unable to work. However, Carriera enjoyed such extensive fame that for subsequent women artists, to be called a “modern Rosalba” was high praise. Renowned French portraitist Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun (1755–1842) earned the moniker decades after Carriera’s death, as Carriera’s oeuvre continued to influence artists such as Vigée-LeBrun and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

18th- and 19th-century Jet-setters

Traveling was as much an obstacle for French women in the 18th and 19th centuries as was professional painting. While today’s Europe is stitched with high-speed rail and affordable flight paths, the women featured in NMWA’s Royalists to Romantics: Women Artists from the Louvre, Versailles, and Other French National Collections faced long, arduous journeys when they found opportunities to travel the continent. Roads were often not easily traversable, and men dictated when a family traveled and how money was spent. There were scholarships available for male artists who wished to go elsewhere to paint, but none for women. One such award was the Rome Prize, which funded male artists to study at the French Academy in Rome. Not until 1925 did a woman, Odette Pauvert, win the “First Grand Prize” in the contest. Fortunately, female artists like Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, Louise Joséphine Sarazin de Belmont, and Antoine Cécile Hortense Haudebourt-Lescot accepted the challenge of finding their own way.

Royalists to Romantics at NMWA

Royalists to Romantics at NMWA

The renowned Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, who attended the Academié Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, was the first to prove that she did not require male assistance to paint abroad. A wunderkind with her own studio at the age of 15, Vigée-LeBrun garnered the support of many patrons in France, including Queen Marie Antoinette. After the outbreak of revolutionary violence in 1789, however, she fled France with her daughter in search of more stability. Five years later, her husband divorced her in absentia, seizing her sizable assets. Still, Vigée-LeBrun continued her tour through Florence, Rome, Naples, Vienna, Saint Petersburg, and London. Along the way, she painted great international leaders and forged a legacy as the best-known woman artist of her generation.

Louise-Joséphine Sarazin de Belmont, Naples, vue de Pausilippe; Oil on canvas; Musée des Augustins, Toulouse

Louise-Joséphine Sarazin de Belmont, Naples, vue de Pausilippe; Oil on canvas; Musée des Augustins, Toulouse

Sarazin de Belmont was the next great woman artist to travel, emerging in the early 19th century. Her passion was landscape portraits, which were becoming increasingly popular, as well as being seen as more acceptable subjects for women. Using her own funds, Sarazin de Belmont traveled from Brittany to Italy, sketching and painting from life. Her teacher, Pierre-Henri Valenciennes, instilled in his students the notion that landscape portraits are best created from on-site studies and meticulous observation before selecting details to record. Sarazin de Belmont carried this philosophy through all 80 years of her life, too enraptured with the world to sit in a studio and paint portraits.

Antoine Cécile Haudebourt-Lescot, Prise de Thionville, 1837; Oil on canvas; Versailles

Antoine Cécile Haudebourt-Lescot, Prise de Thionville, 1837; Oil on canvas; Versailles

Perhaps the only pursuit more difficult than traveling was painting ambitious “history” scenes while traveling. One of the most versatile female artists of the 19th century was Antoine Cécile Hortense Haudebourt-Lescot. She took on the dual task of history painting—a genre that involved complex compositions of human figures—and traveling when she moved to Italy in 1807. She was following her teacher, Guillaume Lethière, who had just been named the director of the Académie de France in Rome. Haudebourt-Lescot became friends with a number of male artists, including the sculptor Antonio Canova, whom she later painted in her 1812 work Kissing of the Feet in St. Peter’s, Rome. In her lifetime, Haudebourt-Lescot exhibited more than 110 portraits, genre scenes, and history paintings in the Salons, winning first-class medals in 1810 and 1827.

Visit NMWA to see how these women and others interpreted the world of travel, knowledge, and power in Royalists to Romantics, on view through July 29.

—Kristie Landing is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.