Working Girl

Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun

translated by Lionel Strachey, with an introduction by John Russell
George Braziller, 233 pp., $12.95 (paper)

The Memoirs of Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun

translated by Siân Evans
Indiana University Press, 368 pp., $35.00

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun wrote the story of her extraordinary life in the 1830s, when she was more than eighty years old, in part to shake off calumnies which had clung to her name since the days of her opposition to the French Revolution, and in part for the pleasure of looking back. In her youth and long working life, she knew and painted some of the most interesting men and women of her time. The old lady set out to describe a past that was to her as clear in focus and as bright in color as one of her own paintings.

Our late-twentieth-century perspective on the Revolution allows us to sympathize with an artist whose singular loyalty to the old Bourbons once led many critics to dismiss her as a moral and artistic featherweight. Mesmerized as we all are by the passionate revolutionary imagery of Jacques-Louis David, who was her almost exact contemporary, we find the nuances and gentilities of her portraits closer in spirit to those of the court painters of Louis XV. Though her style is essentially neoclassical, not unlike that of David himself, in her paintings we hear the authentic voice of the best of the ancien régime—modulated, amused, and thoroughly civilized. To discover again this aspect of her portraiture we have to approach the people she depicts in peplums and fillets through a scale of values we usually associate with the paintings of Fragonard. There is no better way to begin than by reading her memoirs.

Born in 1755, the daughter of a minor portrait painter who died when she was thirteen, Elisabeth Vigée was more or less self-taught. In 1776 she married the art dealer Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Lebrun who then proceeded to gamble away every franc she earned. They divorced in 1794 and the memoirs have a great deal to say about her former husband, none of it complimentary.

As a young woman, Vigée was taken up by the Duchesse de Chartres, the first member of the highest nobility to commission a portrait from her. In 1778, at the age of twenty-three, she was summoned to Versailles to paint her first portrait of Queen Marie Antoinette. As with Cecil Beaton or Andy Warhol, intimacy with the great swiftly turned an outsider into a creature who was seen to be as glamorous as the subjects she painted. As beautiful as she was talented (and soon, as rich), she conducted a brilliant musical and literary salon in prerevolutionary Paris. At a meeting of the Académie Française all present rose to their feet, turned to Mme. Vigée-Lebrun, and applauded.

In 1783 the Queen saw to it that she was admitted to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpteur. A working girl of quite phenomenal professionalism, between 1783 and 1789 Vigée-Lebrun exhibited more than forty portraits at the Academy’s biennial salon. Her only miscalculation, had she cared for her posthumous reputation, was her own consistency: she continued to paint beautifully wrought portraits of all the most prominent …

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