Artists Illustrating Boys' Fashions: Elizabeth Vigee le Brun (France, 1755-1842)

Figure 1.--This self portrait of Elizabeth Vigee-Le Brun shows her with her daughter Julie in 1789 when the Revolution broke out. Julie was 9 years old. The dress woukld seem to be more a Greek alregiry than Parisian fashion at the time. The motherly tenderness seen here was undoubtedly influenced by the fact that Elizabeth as was not raised by her mother.

Madame Elisabeth Vigee le Brun was notable for the images she painted of the French royal family, especially Marie Antoinette and her children. Elizabeth's father was a respected portratist, but she hardly knew him as she was not raised in their home. He died when she still a child. There were great difficulties facing a woman who wanted to be an artist in the 18th century, but Elizabeth prevailed. Her career was assured when she was chosen to paint a portait of Queen Marie Antonette. Other commissions from the royal family followed. The best portraits of the royal children were done by le Brun. Madame Vigee LeBrun had a spectacular career, painting in capitals throughout Europe and being elected to the Academies in modst of them, an amazing honor for a woman in the 18th century. After the Revolution she went into exile, living in Italy and Austria and finally Russia where she was protected by the Emperess Catherine II. She was certainly one of the most prolific artists of her age. She wrote a fascinating memoir which is available on line.


Elizabeth Le Brun's father was the minor portaitist Louise Vigee. Her mother was Jean Maissin (1728-1800), a hairdresser.


Elisabeth was born in Paris during 1755. Her mother apparently did not want the bother of caring for her. She sent Elizabeth as an infant to the country where she was cared for by a peasant woman. Elizabeth thus grew up on a small farm near Epernon, and cared for by a peasant woman.


Elizabeth's [arents when she reached 5 years of age enrolled her in the Couvent de la Trinite. Elizabeth spent 7 years at the Convent, after which she finally came to live with her parents in Paris. She attended drawing classes conducted by her father. She had only been studing under gim for a few months before he died unexpectedly in 1767. At the time, almost all artists were men. Elizabeth was entralled with art and enciraged by the bref experience with her father. After his death she continued to pursue art, primarily by copying on her own paintings in private collections available to her. She also began painting portraits of family members. Boys her age would have been apprenticed to a master painter. At the time trades were learned through a system of apprentticeships, almpst exclusively by boys. Painting was looked on more as a trade, rather than a fine art as is prevalent today This was not possible as she was a girl. Thus she developed her skills the advantage of instruction from a an established painter.

First Studio

Despite the lack of a master painter to guide her, Elizabeth's talent soon attracted attention. Within three years of her father's death, Elizabeth was painting professionally. She ran into trouble with the authorities. Women were not regarded as capable of painting and operating a portrait studio required a government license. The Government even seized her small studio because she was paiting without a license. Elizabeth boldly applied to the Academie de Saint Luc and exhibited her works in their Salon. They were astonished at the capabilities of the young woman. They decided in 1774 to accept her as a member which meant that she could now get a government lcense


Elizabeth's mother remarried Jacques Francois Le Sevre, although she did not like him at all. She referred to him as "detesible" in her memoirs. [Vigée LeBrun] She was not allowed to go on walks, even with her mother. She also complained when he moved the family to the country. She liked the idea of the country, but not the miserable cottage her step father purchased. He retired in 1775. The family moved into an apartment in the home of Jean Baptiste Pierre LeBrun, a Paris painter and art dealer. Within a few months in 1776, Elisabeth incouraged by her mother married Jean Baptiste. It did not prove to be the hapiest of marriages, but at least she no longer was under the control of her step father. One problem of course was that she was a better painter than her husband and she claims that he did not allow her to keep the sizeable commissions that she earned. . They had one child, adaughter, Julie, who was born in 1780.

The French Royal Family

Madame Ville LeBrun paintined many portraits of European royalty. She was first summoned to Versailles, the cort of Louis XVI in 1778 to paint the portrait of Queen Marie Antoinette, the wife of King Louis XVI. While being a woman was an enormous obstacle for Elizabeth to over come in becoming an artist, her gender may have assistee her obtain a commission to paint the Queen. I am not sure whose idea at court it was, but as Madame Ville LeBrun fame spread she was painting portraits of increasingly important officials and aristocrats. The LeBrun Paris hôtel became fashionable gathering place. Certainly Madame LeBrun's beauty and flair added to her professional acclaim. Word of her must have reached court circles. The two women were to become friends. Madame Ville LeBrun must have spent a great deal of time at court. She did about 40 portraits of Queen Marie Antoinette between 1778 and 1889--an incredible number especially given the fact that the Queen sometimes ordered multiple copies. There are also several portraits of the Queen with the chikdrebn and the children alone, but these are realtively few in number compared to those of the Queen alone. Apparentlt the Queen liked to have her portrait painted. I do not know, however, of any done with the King. Of course the connection with the royal family greatly added to her reputation and demand for her portraits.


The Flemish master Rubens was the most important influence in Elizabeth's work. She and her husband traveled to Flanders and Holland in 1781 to see the work of Rubens and other Flemish masters. She was greatly moved. She exopeimented with new techniques, including painting on wooden panels rather than canvas. She also began using vet thin layers of paint to create effects, especially luminosity and depth.

Career in France

Madame Vigee LeBrun in 1783 was accepted as a member of the prestigious Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. Her accepatance was as a painter of historical allegory even though she had primarily been painting portraits. Her admission was controversial. In particular she was opposed by the prestigioius Director of the Academie. It took a command by King Louis XVI himself to overcome the Director's oposition. Of course the Queen would have taken up Madame Vigee LeBrun's case with the King. This allowed her to exhibit her work at the Salon which she did regularly. After her acceoptance she produced about 40 portraits and historicak alegories before the Revolution interupted her career in 1789. Her work proved popular and was received with coinsiderable critical acclaim. Notable French personages, especially aristoicratic women, wanted their poirtraits done by Madame Vigee LeBrun . The resulting portraits had considerable affect on French fashion, both clothing and hairstyles. Madame Vigee LeBrun was a beautiful young woman who by 1780 moved in the highest social circles and was one of the most galmerous women in Paris at the time. Despite her critical acclaim, rumors of personal inproprities and assoiciation with the monarchy made her unpoopular with the growing anti-royalist faction in Paris. She exhibited historical alegories and portraits at the salon, including a portrait of Queen Marie Antoinette and her children in 1785. Here the skeleton suit syle is clearly observable in the dress of the French Prince. Here the long pants that the Orince wears was a political statement. It mist have been discussed by Madame Vigee LeBrun and the Queen, perhaps even the King, but I have no details on such conversatins at this time. While critically accalimed, the rumors associated with her personal life and connections with the momarchy had made her extremely unpopular when Revolution broke out in Paris. Here her close assocation with the unpopular Queen Marie Antonitte was an especially important factor.

Figure 2.--This is Alexandrine-Emilie (1780-1847), daughter of the architect Alexandre-Theodore Brongniart. Brogniart was a friend of Madame Vigee Le Brun who briefly took her in at his Paris home as the Revolution began in 1789. Vigee Le Brun also painted Brongniart's other daughter.

French Revolution

The rise of the bourgeoisie in France signaled the deathnell for Ancien Regime, the old aristocracy. Unlike Britain and the new United States, the economiclly important bourgeoisie was denied any political role and support of the increasingly frivolous aristocracy imposed a great economic cost on France. Not only was the bourgeoisie denied any real political role, but the lower classess lived in increasingly deprived conditions, a situation intensified by the bankruptsy of he royal government. The increasing oposition to France's virtually feudal government suddenly ignited during a 1789 riot that exploded into open revolt. The Revolution was oposed by the other counties of Europe--all monarchies. The disorders and violence in France were to engulf all Europe in war, first with the new French Republic and then with Napoleon's Empire. The resulting wars and campaigns were the most significant in Europe until World War I (1914-18). The French Revolution have profound political, social, and economic influences. The dress of aristicracy came into question. Powdered wigs disappeared very quickly. Knee breeches endured longer as they were also worn by the bourgeoisie. The working class had already begun wearing long trousers. It was boys from well to do families that first began wearing long pants as part of a dress costume--usually a skeleton suit. I'm not sure why boys were the first to adapt this style.


The French Revolution began on July 14, 1789 with the storming of the Bastille, a decrept but forboding fortress in Paris. This changed Madame Vigee LeBrun 's situation radically because she was so closely associated with the royal family, esoecially Queen Marie Antoinette. When Paris street mobs seized Versailles on October 6, she decided to flee Paris with her daughter. Elizabeth during the turbulent summer of 1789 was taken in by a friend, Alexandre-Theodore Brongniart. During this time he painted his daughter. Madame Vigee LeBrun had in 1788 done a portrait of his other daughter (figure 2). Madame Vigee LeBrun travelled to Lyons, but decided it was best to leave France altogether. Her travels took her to Turin, Parma, and Florence, she finally in Rome. Her paintings in Rome were well received and she was elected to the Roman Accademia di San Luca, this time without controversy. While in Rome she traveled several times south to Naples. It looked for a while that she might be able to return to Paris. She was permitted in 1791 to exhibit at the Paris Salon despite her associatioin with the Queen. She even began the trip home. It was at this time that the Monarch fell. Madame Vigee LeBrun and many others were branded as trasonous emigres. Learning this, she turned back to Rome. En route at Milan, she met Austrian ambassador who invited her to Vienna. While in Vienna she executed many portraits of Austrian and Polish nobles. Austrai at the time was at war with Revolutionary France. Madame Vigee LeBrun 's husband and brother, Etienne, in 1793 were arrested, but released when no evidence could be presented against them. With the proclamation of a Republic, King Louis XVI was executed for treason, followed in a few months by Madame Vigee LeBrun 's patron, the Queen. Madame Vigee LeBrun 's husband in 1794 feared that the marital connection could well cost him his head and sued for divorce.


Madame Vigee LeBrun next travelled to St. Petersburg in Russia. She worked there for 6 years. As in France, Italy, and Austria, he work was critically acclaimed. She appaers to have been a favorite of Emperess Catherine the Great. She received very substantial commissions for her portraits. Madame Vigee LeBrun was made a member of the Academy of Fine Arts of St. Petersburg. Her daughter, Julie LeBrun, in 1780 married Gaetan Bernard Nigris who was the secretary to the Director of the Imperial Theaters in St. Petersburg. Her mother objected to the marriage and they quareled. Madame Vigee LeBrun separated from her daughter, moving to Moscow.

Figure 3.--Napoleon's youngest sister was made Caroline(1767-1815) , Queen of Naples (1782-1839). She married Joachim Murat in 1800. He was a brilliant cavalry officer who served uder Napoleon in many campaigns. In 1808, Murat replaced Joseph Bonaparte as King of Naples. Joachim and Caroline had four children. There were two sons. The two daughters were: Letizia (1802-59), Louise (1805-89) Letizia is pictured here with her mother. Letizia was named for her grandmother, the mother of Caroline and Napoleon. The painting was commissioned by Napoleon himself.

Return to France

The Terror in France had subsided and by 1800 Napoleon had seized control of the Revolution. France it appears had not forgotten Madame Vigee LeBrun . A petition was circulated to allow Madame Vigee LeBrun to return to France. It was signed by 255 prominent artists, writers, and scientists. As a result, the French Government removed her name from the list of emigres. Madame Vigee LeBrun was given permission to return to France without fear of prosecution. She returned to St. Petersburg from Moscow in 1801 and then traveled to Berlinalone . She stayed there for 6 months, doing a few portraits, before returning to Paris. While in Berlin, she was admitted as a member of the Academy. Her daughter Julie remained in St. Petersburg with her husband. Although legally divorced, Madame Vigée LeBrun returned to the Hotel LeBrun. She painted many more portraits in France. Napoleon himself commisioned a portrait of his sister Caroline about 1807 (figure 3). Madame Vigée LeBrun thought her daughter "a very pertty girl" and decided to include her. She traveled to London in 1803. She painted there for 2 years, but refers to it as "Unmerry England" in her memoirs. [Vigée LeBrun] She returned to Paris in 1805 after visiting Holland and Belgium again on the way hime. During this time Julie had returned to Paris, but the once close relationship was never the same. Julie's husband left her and returned to St. Petersburg in 1804. Madame Vigée LeBrun continued to travel, especially to Switzerland. The Societe pour l'Avancement des Beaux-Arts of Geneva accepted her as an honory member in 1807.

Madame Vigée LeBrun purchased a house in Louveciennes in 1809. She divided her time between the Louveciennes house and Paris. The house was seized by Prussians in 1814 after the Allies had closed in on Napoleon. Her husband died in 1813. After this, Madame Vigee LeBrun remained in Paris until her death in 1842. Her daughter Julie died in 1819. Her brother Etienne died in 1820. Madame Vigee LeBrun continued to paint. She exhibited in the Salon in 1824. Her most memorable work, however, was done earlier. She wrote her memoirs which were published in 1835 and 1837. A stroke in incapitated ger and she died in 1842. She was burried in the cemetary at Louveciennes near her former home.

Boys' Clothing

Madame Vigée LeBrun was an amazinglu prolific artist. She has left us images of artiocratic men, women, and children over six decades. While she painted mainly adults, there are a variety of family scenes and portraits of children. The most notable of course are the French princes and princess, but there are also images of children from the many countries in which she lived and worked and for the may time period. many of these images are busts which feature primarily the face, but many have interesting clothing cetails as well.


Le Brun wrote a memoir which is available on line. It is a fascinating read.


Vigée LeBrun, Elixabeth. Memoirs of Madame Vigée LeBrun.


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Created: April 16, 2003
Last updated: April 16, 2003