Portrait of Countess Golovine by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun

Portrait of Countess Golovine
by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (c.1797-1800)

Today is the third and final part of my look at the life of one France’s greatest female portraitists, Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, but as to why I came to showcase this particular artist I have to make a terrible admission.   I have been unfaithful once again.  My undying and faithful love for a beautiful woman has now fallen by the wayside, not once, but twice.  Last week I looked at a woman and in my mind I told her that she was the most beautiful and the most alluring creature I had set my eyes upon.  What worries me is that this is the third time I have uttered these words in the last couple of years.  How can I be so fickle?

Jeunesse Dorée by Brockhurst

Ok, before you press the escape button, horrified by my infidelity, let me say that my love or is it infatuation is not for an actual woman but for a woman in a painting.  It all started back on May 16th 2011 when I told you about the time I stood before the painting Jeunesse Dorée.  I was rooted to the spot at the gallery, staring at Gerald Brockhurst’s portrait of Kathleen Woodward, the lady who was his beloved muse and who modelled for this painting.  I couldn’t take my eyes off her face.  There was something magnetic about the way she stared out at me.  I have since visited the gallery on a number of occasions just to pay homage to this beautiful woman.

Virgin Annunciate by Antonello da Messina

So that was that.  I was convinced that no other woman would compare with Kathleen’s beauty or so I thought.  However, almost a year later, (My Daily Art Display May 1st 2012), I came across a painting by Antonello da Messina entitled Virgin Annunciate.  As the title states, this was a painting of the Virgin Mary but the model the artist used for Mary was a humble Sicilian girl and for once the Virgin Mary portrayed in a painting, appeared simply as a young girl.  The model the artist had used for this work was a stunningly beautifully girl.  Words failed me as I looked into her eyes.  She had the most gorgeous face.  She had such an innocent air about her, which of course was befitting such a depiction.  There was such an unsullied loveliness about her that for a moment in my mind I discounted the haunting visage of Kathleen Woodward of Jeunesse Dorée, and yet how could I be so capricious?

And so my undying love of beauty had been transferred from a young English woman to a young Sicilian girl but I was determined that it was going to stop there, and so it would until I went to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at Birmingham University a fortnight ago and “met” Countess Varvara Nikolaevna Golovina as portrayed by my featured painter, Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun.  Before I tell you more about the sitter and eulogise about her physical beauty, let me complete Élisabeth’s life story.

Maria Carolina by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1791)

The French Revolution had begun and in October 1789, the Palace of Versailles had been stormed by a mob and the Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette had been detained.  Élisabeth, because of her connections with Marie Antoinette, had to hurriedly leave France with her daughter and her daughter’s governess and head for the safety of Italy.  She visited Turin, Bologna, and Rome where her paintings met with great critical acclaim and she was elected to the Roman Accademia di San Luca.  From Rome she moved on to Naples.  Her artistic reputation preceded her and she received many commissions, including royal ones from the Queen of Naples and her husband King Ferdinand IV.  Look closely at the portrait (right) of the Queen, Maria Caroline.  Does she remind you of somebody from my last blog?  There is a very close resemblance with Marie Antoinette and this should not be too surprising as they were sisters.

During her European journeys, Élisabeth gained a travelling companion, who would remain alongside her and her daughter for the next nine years.  His name was, Auguste Jean-Louis Baptiste Rivière, a painter, who had also fled revolutionary Paris and made his way to Turin, where he had met up with Madame Vigée Le Brun and her daughter. Thereafter, he accompanied them and their servants on their trek across Europe and into Russia. During this time the two artists often worked in tandem, Vigée Le Brun painting life-size portraits, some of which were copied in miniature or simply on a small scale by Rivière. She wrote of him in her memoirs:

“…M. de Rivière was an astonishing actor in comic roles. Moreover he possessed every kind of talent, which caused the painter Doyen to remark that M. de Rivière was a little nécessaire de voyage literally a travelling case, but in French a play on words, meaning that he was a necessary adjunct during her voyages. The fact is that he was a fine painter and he copied all of my portraits in the form of large miniatures in oil. He sang very agreeably, played the violin and the bass viol and could accompany himself at the piano. He was endowed with intelligence, perfect tact and such a good heart that despite his distractions, which were frequent and numerous, he was able to oblige his friends with as much enthusiasm as success. M. de Rivière was short, svelte, and he never lost his youthful appearance, so that even at the age of sixty his thin waist and his bearing led one to think he was thirty…”

In 1795, Vigée Le Brun left Vienna and travelled to Russia where she was received by the nobility and painted portraits of numerous aristocrats including the last king of Poland Stanisław August Poniatowski and members of the family of Catherine the Great.  Catherine was not initially happy with Vigée Le Brun’s portrait of her granddaughters, Elena and Alaxandra Pavlovna, because of the amount of bare skin the short sleeved gowns revealed.  However, in order to please the Empress, Vigée Le Brun added sleeves giving the work its characteristic look. This alteration seemed to please the Empress who subsequently agreed to sit herself for Vigée Le Brun.  The proposed portrait never came to fruition as Catherine died in 1796 of a stroke before this work was due to begin.  While in Saint Petersburg, Vigée Le Brun was made a member of the Academy of Fine Arts of Saint Petersburg.   However less pleasing to Élisabeth was her daughter Julie’s decision to marry a Russian nobleman.

And so to My Daily Art Display’s featured work, entitled Portrait of Countess Golovine.  It is of Varvara Nikolaevna Galitzin, the daughter of Lieutenant General Prince Nicholas Feodorovitch Galitzin and his wife, née Prascovia Ivanovna Chouvaloff.  She spent the first fourteen years of her life on her father’s estate of Petrovska, near Moscow. After his death, she and her mother went to live in Saint Petersburg in a house on the Nevsky Prospect next to that of her uncle, Ivan Ivanovitch Chouvaloff.   She was named maid-of-honour at the Imperial court in 1783.   In spite of her mother’s opposition, she married the handsome wealthy but profligate Count Nicholas Nikolaevitch Golovin.   For a time she lived in Paris in the society of the old French aristocracy, but returned to Russia when Napoleon seized power.   Élisabeth and the countess formed a close friendship and in the artist’s memoirs, she wrote of her sitter:

“…Countess Golovin was a charming woman, whose wit and talents were enough to keep us amused, for she received few visitors. She drew very well and composed delightful love songs that she sang while accompanying herself on the piano. Moreover she was on the lookout for all the latest European literature with which she was familiar as soon as it was known in Paris…”

In the painting we see the Countess almost entirely enveloped in the red cloak which is embroidered with a neoclassical design. She wears a deep gold headband.  She stares out at us.  Her eyes are fixed on ours with unwavering, and somewhat unnerving frankness.  What made me lose my heart to this woman was the captivating way her left hand, which grasps her shawl, sweeps up wards clutching the material to her body.  Her loosely flowing auburn hair cascades down on to her shoulder. There is a ray of light falling at an angle from left to right which cuts the background diagonally into dark and light sections and by doing this the artist has emphasised the drama of the pose. There is an aspect of spontaneity about the pose and it is this aspect of the portrait which totally seduced me.

The painting was acquired by the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham in 1980 where it hangs today.

After a sustained campaign by  Élisabeth’s ex-husband and other family members to have her name removed from the list of counter-revolutionary émigrés, she was able to return to France in 1802, during the reign of Emperor Napoleon I.   Her husband died in 1813 and six years later she suffers the tragedy of the death of her daughter.  She recalled these times in her memoirs:

“…I must now speak of the sad years of my life during which, in a brief space, I saw the beings dearest to me depart this world. First, I lost M. Lebrun. True that for a long time I had entertained no relations whatever with him, yet I was none the less mournfully affected by his death. You cannot without regret be separated forever from one to whom so close a tie as marriage has bound you. This blow, however, was far less than the cruel grief I experienced at the death of my daughter. I hastened to her as soon as I heard of her illness, but the disease progressed rapidly, and I cannot tell what I felt when all hope of saving her was gone. When, going to see her the last day, my eyes fell upon that dreadfully sunken face, I fainted away. My old friend Mme. de Noisville rescued me from that bed of sorrow; she supported me, for my legs would not carry me, and took me home. The next day I was childless! Mme. de Verdun came with the news, and vainly tried to soften my despair. All the wrong-doing of the poor little one vanished – I saw her again, I still see her, in the days of her childhood. Alas! she was so young! Why did she not survive me?…”

She bought a house in Louveciennes, Île-de-France, and lived there until the house was seized by the Prussian Army during the Franco-Prussian War in 1814.   She then moved to Paris where she remained until her death in her apartment at the Hotel Le Coq, rue Saint Lazare, at the age of 86,  on March 30th 1842 .  Her body was taken back to Louveciennes and buried in the Cimetière de Louveciennes near her old home.  On her tombstone were the words:

“Ici, enfin, je repose…”

(Here, at last, I rest…).

In all, Vigée Le Brun painted over 660 portraits and 200 landscapes which are in galleries and museums all over the world.   In 1835 she published her memoirs.

For a full account of Élisabeth’s life you should try and get hold of her autobiography, Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun translated by Lionel Strachey.  There is an internet version to be found at:


Self Portraiture by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun

Over the next two blogs I want to introduce you to and look at the life of one of the finest 18th century French female portraitist, Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun.  In my initial blog about her I want to examine her early life and show you three of her self portraits and in the following blog I will conclude her life story and tell you about her friendship with Marie-Antoinette, her exile from the land of her birth and relate how I was once again unfaithful having been seduced by a new beauty !  Sounds interesting ?

Self Portrait in a Straw Hat (age 22)
by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (1782)

Today’s artist was born Élisabeth-Louise Vigée in April 1755 on the rue Coquilliere in Paris, just six months before another baby girl was born in the palace of Emperors of Austria in Vienna, a priveleged child, who would become the queen of the French nation and also play a large part in Élisabeth’s life.  That Viennese baby was Marie-Antoinette.   But let me return to Élisabeth.  Élisabeth was the daughter of Louis Vigée, a portraitist and professor at the Academie de Saint Luc .  Her mother, Jeanne Maissin was a hairdresser by trade.  At the age of 3 months, she was sent to a small farm near Épernon, where she was looked after by relatives.  She stayed with them until she was six years old.  Following this, she attended the convent school, Couvent de la Trinite in the Faubourg Saint Antoine district of Paris, as a pensionnaire, (a boarder) where she remained until she was twelve years old.  It was here that she first displayed her young talent for drawing and painting.  In her memoirs she wrote about her time at the boarding school, her love of drawing and the trouble it often got her into but also the pleasure her father had in her interest in art.  She wrote:

“….During that time I scrawled on everything at all seasons; my copy-books, and even my schoolmates’, I decorated with marginal drawings of heads, some full-face, others in profile; on the walls of the dormitory I drew faces and landscapes with coloured chalks. So it may easily be imagined how often I was condemned to bread and water. I made use of my leisure moments outdoors in tracing any figures on the ground that happened to come into my head. At seven or eight, I remember, I made a picture by lamplight of a man with a beard, which I have kept until this very day. When my father saw it he went into transports of joy, exclaiming, “You will be a painter, child, if ever there was one!…”

On returning to live at home on a permanent basis, her father gave Élisabeth her first drawing lessons when she was allowed to attend his drawing classes which he gave to students in his studio.  Sadly his tuition did not last long as Louis Vigée died on May 9 1767 in his apartment on the rue de Clery.   To lose her father at the age of twelve was a traumatic experience for Élisabeth and she recalled the moment:

“…I had spent one happy year at home when my father fell ill. After two months of suffering all hope of  his recovery was  abandoned. When he felt his last moments approaching, he declared a wish to see my brother and myself. We went close to his bedside, weeping bitterly. His face was terribly altered; his eyes and his features, usually so full of animation, were quite without expression, for the pallor and the chill of death were already upon him. We took his icy hand and covered it with kisses and tears. He made a last effort and sat up to give us his blessing. “Be happy, my children,” was all he said. An hour later our poor father had ceased to live…”

Self Portrait with her Daughter (Maternal tenderness)
by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (1786)

Élizabeth’s father had, on his death, left the family penniless and his widow had to find ways of clearing their debts and pay for her son’s schooling and it is with that in mind that, in December of that same year, 1767, she married a wealthy jeweller, Jacques François Le Sevre and the family moved to an apartment on the rue Saint Honore facing the Palais Royal.    However any thoughts she had that her rich husband would solve the family’s financial problems were soon dashed as he turned out to be miserly with his money and just provided the bare minimum for his wife and her son.  Élisabeth, by this time, had been earning her own money from commissions but was made to hand it over to her step-father for him to use as he saw fit.

Élisabeth began taking drawing lessons with her friend Blaise Bocquet from the history painter and Academician, Gabriel Briard, who had a studio in the Louvre.  During her training she copied the paintings of the Old Masters at the Louvre and the Palais-Royal, which housed the magnificent Orléans art collection, and during this period she encountered the French artist, Claude Joseph Vernet.  He would often give her artistic advice and encourage her and more importantly introduced her to prospective important and wealthy patrons.  She also met the Abbé Arnault, of the French Academy.  She later described him as a man of strong imaginative gifts, with a passion for literature and the arts and recalled how his conversation enriched her with ideas.     It was the studying of the Old Masters’ paintings which furthered her knowledge of anatomy, perspective, and the other important aspects of history painting which she was not allowed to formally study, simply because of her gender.  She spent a great deal of time copying the heads in some of the pictures by Rubens, Rembrandt and Van Dyck, as well as several heads of girls in paintings by Jean-Baptiste Greuze.  She was a great admirer of Greuze’s portraiture because, from them, she learnt about his use of  the demi-tints when portraying flesh colouring.

By this time Élisabeth had decided that her future lay in her art and she would strive to become a successful painter.  However her choice of career was problematic simply because she was a female.  As a female, she was excluded from formal academic training and artistic competitions and this factor alone gave her a distinct disadvantage in comparison to the training afforded to her male contemporaries.  At this time in France, the most prestigious type of painting was history painting but to achieve a reputation as a great history painter one had to undergo an all-embracing formal artistic education into the likes of the technique of painting the nude male and how to best arrange figures within a painting for it to be accepted as an acceptable narrative work.  However for reasons of modesty, females were not allowed to paint nude males and so as this formal training was not yet available to aspiring female artists, they had to settle for painting portraits, landscapes and genre works.  She now decided to specialise in portraiture.

Self Portrait with Daughter (à la Grecque)
by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (1789)

In 1774, aged nineteen, Élizabeth applied to join the Academy of Saint Luke where her father had taught. She was accepted and that year she exhibited several of her works at their Salon.  Her portraiture and the way in which she depicted her sitters in a flattering manner was very popular and much in demand.  In 1775 she married a wealthy art dealer and amateur painter, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun.  The marriage was a marriage of convenience orchestrated by her mother.  Five years later, the couple had their only child, Jeanne Julie Louise, born on February 12th 1780.  It was not a love match, but more of a mutually-beneficial pact that benefitted them both.  .  Her husband marketed her work and endorsed her artistic career while also profiting from her artistic output.  It worked well and the couple became quite affluent and lived a luxurious lifestyle, which allowed them to mix socially with the highest circles of society. Soon Élisabeth and her husband would hold fashionable soirées at their home.  Their guests included artists, writers, and important members of Parisian society.  In 1776 she finally managed to achieve her ultimate aim.  She secured her first royal commission when she was asked to paint a series of portraits of King Louis XVI’s brother, the Comte de Provence.  Before long she even caught the attention of the king and queen themselves and Élisabeth was summoned to the court in 1778 to paint her first portrait of the Marie Antoinette. Marie Antoinette had had her portrait painted by many artists but neither she nor her mother, Marie-Thérèse were ever fully satisfied with the results.  However, they both approved of Élisabeth’s depiction which, although it admirably conveys her royal status, it was actually much more simplified and natural than most of the earlier official portraits of the queen.  This portrait marked the start of a close relationship between Élisabeth and Marie-Antoinette.  This relationship greatly enhanced the reputation of the artist and led to many wealthy commissions. Louis XVI was equally impressed by her artistic work and in Wendy Slatkin’s book, Women Artists in History, she quotes Louis XVI’s comments about Élisabeth and her work:

“…I know nothing about painting, but you have made me love it…”

Élisabeth was a devoted royalist and idolized Marie Antoinette and the rest of the royal family.  It was however this close friendship with Marie-Antoinette which was to alter the course of her life.

Portrait of Susan Lumsden by Rubens

I have included three self portraits in this intial blog about the artist Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun.   The first one entitled Self Portrait with Straw Hat was completed in 1782 and is held in a Swiss private collection.  Élisabeth exhibited this work at the 1783 Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture (Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture), Paris.  Of this painting the artist wrote:

“…I was so delighted and inspired by Rubens’ Le Chapeau de Paille that I completed a self portrait whilst in Brussels in an effort to achieve the same effect.  I painted myself wearing a straw hat with a feather and a garland of wild flowers and holding a palette in one hand...”

For a more comprehensive look at Rubens’ Le Chapeau de Paille, also known as Portrait of Susanna Lunden go to My Daily Art Display of March 11th 2011.

Lady Hervey and her Daughter by Angelika Kauffmann

The second self portrait I have featured was completed by Élisabeth in 1786 and is entitled  Madame Vigée-Le Brun and Her Daughter, Jeanne-Lucie, known as Julie (1718–1819).  The painting is thought to have been inspired by a work by Angelika Kaufmann, entitled Lady Hervey and her Daughter which depicted Elizabeth Drummond, Lady Hervey and her daughter Elizabeth Catherine Caroline Hervey later to become The Honourable Mrs Charles Rose Ellis.  The work by Vigée Le Brun is one of maternal tenderness and is somewhat reminiscent of the sentimental pictures of Jean-Baptiste Greuze which Élisabeth had studied in her younger days.

The third portrait in this blog is entitled Madame Vigée-Le Brun et sa fille, Jeanne-Lucie-Louise, dite Julie (Madame Vigée-Le Brun and her daughter Jeanne-Lucie-Louise, known as Julie) and is often referred to as Self Portrait with Daughter (à la Grecque).  It is currently housed at the Louvre in Paris.