Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. Part 5 – Finances and portraiture.

Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Chardin by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1760)

Over the last few blogs about the French artist Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, I have looked at his still-life works which he partly abandoned for financial and artistic reasons around 1733 to concentrate on genre paintings, which once engraved provided him an income from the prints. Chardin never abandoned one genre in order to take up another, but from around 1748 onwards he produced fewer genre scenes and reverted to his beloved still life work of his early career. The number of his genre paintings that he once exhibited regularly dwindled whilst there was an increase in his still life works which were shown at various exhibitions. For many, Chardin will be remembered for his figurative paintings and his portraiture and in this final blog on the artist I will look at some of these works.

Portrait of the Painter Joseph Aved (also known as The Philosopher) by Chardin (1734)

One of Chardin’s earliest portraits was one which he completed in 1734 and was exhibited at the 1937 Salon with the title A Chemist in His Laboratory. Several years later, in 1744, the painting was engraved by François Bernard Lépicié and given the title Le soufleur, which, according to the seventeenth century, Dictionnaire de l’Académie, is a person using chemistry to search for the philosopher’s stone. It is again exhibited at the Salon in 1753 with the title A Philosopher Reading. It is now more commonly known as Portrait of the Painter Joseph Aved.  Aved was a good friend of Chardin and had just been elected to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. He had assisted Chardin in drawing up the estate inventory of Chardin’s first wife, Marguerite Saintard and had been a witness at Chardin’s second marriage to Françoise-Marguerite Pouget in 1744. It was one of Chardin’s first attempts at portraiture.

Boy building a House of Cards sometimes referred to as The Son of M. Le Noir Amusing Himself by Making a House of Cards by Chardin (1737)

In 1737 Chardin completed three paintings which featured young boys, two of which were sons of friends of Chardin. His painting The House of Cards sometimes referred to as The Son of M. Le Noir Amusing Himself by Making a House of Cards featured the son of his friend Jean-Jacques Le Noir, a furniture dealer and cabinet maker and one of Chardin’s patrons. He had been a witness at Chardin’s second wedding and had bought several of his paintings. The painting shows Le Noir’s son enjoying himself making a house of cards. The original work can be found at the National Gallery in London but as with many of Chardin’s paintings he painted a number of versions of it. François Bernard, Lépicié created an engraving of the work and added the following caption underneath, which in a way adds a meaning to the depiction:

Dear child all on pleasure
We hold your fragile work in jest
But think on’t, which will be more sound
Our adult plans or castles by you built

The Young Draughtsman (also known as Le jeune dessinateur) by Chardin (1737)

The Young Draughtsman was also a painting Chardin completed in 1737. It was a subject Chardin had used before. Remember the 1734 painting I highlighted in the previous blog which showed a view from behind of a draughtsman at work, sitting on the floor, face hidden from view. In this painting we clearly see the face of the young man. It is a smooth youthful face which has a look of one lost in the joy of his work. There is a look of pleasure on his face, satisfied with what he has achieved so far. He concentrates on the task ahead as he holds the chalk stick which holds the sharpened chalk. He is relaxed. This scene also gives the viewers of the painting a feeling of relaxation, of serene equanimity and this was a forte of Chardin. Chardin once again has used a subtle set of colours. Milky whites, the black patch of the tricorn hat, the rose colour of the lips and cheek, and various blues for the furnishings and the piece of drawing paper on which the draughtsman has drawn the head of an old man.

Portrait of the Son of M. Godefroy, Jeweller, Watching a Top Spin (also known as Child with Top) by Chardin (1738)

Chardin completed another painting of a son of a friend around 1737. It was entitled Portrait of the Son of M. Godefroy, Jeweller, Watching a Top Spin. This work is housed in The Louvre since its purchase from the Godefroy family in 1907. The painting depicts nine-year-old Augustine-Gabriel Godefroy who would later become the controller-general of the French Navy. The young boy smiles and stares at the top as it spins atop of a chiffonier, a low cupboard. The top has been cleared of the quill pen, books and papers which have been pushed to one side to make room for the spinning top. One of the drawers of the chiffonier is partly open in which we can see a chalk holder, similar to the one in the previous work.

Portrait of a Child by Chardin (1777)

Chardin’s financial situation had improved since he married his second wife, the wealthy widow, Françoise-Marguerite Pouget in 1744. She brought with her a house in rue Princesse which was close to the house in rue du Four where the Chardin family had lived for many years, although they did not own it. Chardin’s new wife also brought to the marriage a sizeable amount of wealth, estimated at in excess of thirty-thousand livres in the form of annuities and cash. Chardin brought about eight thousand livres to the marriage accrued from his share of his first wife’s and his mother’s estates. Chardin’s financial situation was further improved when, in 1752 Chardin was granted a pension of 500 livres by Louis XV. This was the first gratuity Chardin received.

Portrait of a Young Girl, by Chardin (1777)

Chardin rarely travelled far from his Left Bank home, just occasionally making the short trips to Versailles and Fontainebleau. In 1757 he finally moved to a new residence as Louis XV had granted him a studio and living quarters in the Louvre, saving Chardin several hundred livres. This apartment, Studio no. 12, which was opposite the church of Saint-Thomas, was vacant following the death of the previous occupant, the goldsmith, François-Joseph Marteau.

Soap Bubbles (also known as Young Man Blowing Bubbles) by Chardin (1734)

Chardin continued to work for the Académie and in 1761 he is given the role of tapissier, the academician tasked with designing the arrangement of the pictures on the walls of the Salon. In Ryan Whyte’s 2013 essay Exhibiting Enlightenment: Chardin as tapissier, he commented:

“… Chardin’s efforts had merited an observation that he had treated the Salon as both a totality and a collection of parts, recognition that the effect of the Salon arrangement was based on a unified design, Chardin’s ‘beauty of the whole’ and mattered as much as the quality of the individual works therein…”

In a 1763 pamphlet regarding that year’s Salon the author commented on Chardin’s masterful lay-out of the paintings at the exhibition:

“…One has never arranged the different parts of this collection with more intelligence, as much for the beauty of the whole as for the particular benefit of each of the artworks that make it up…”

In essence the author of the pamphlet suggested that the Salon space was a work of art itself.

In 1763, the Marquis de Marigny, the general Manager of the King’s buildings, awarded Chardin 200 livres increase to his pension for taking charge of hanging the exhibits at the Salons. In 1765 he was unanimously elected associate member of the Académie des Sciences, Belles-Lettres et Arts of Rouen, but there is no evidence that he left Paris to accept the honour.

Self Portrait (also known as Portrait of Chardin Wearing Spectacles) by Chardin (1771)

If I was to ask you what paintings by Chardin you have seen or read about, high on that list would be his three pastel self-portraits. Chardin had to turn to pastels around 1771 when he had been taken seriously ill. The cause of his illness was put down to his use of lead-based pigments and binders he used for his oil painting. These had, over time, burnt his eyes and brought on a condition known as amaurosis, a paralysis of the eye leading to deteriorating sight. Coincidentally, Degas suffered from the same ailment and he too had to turn to pastel painting. Chardin’s first pastel self-portrait often referred to as Portrait of Chardin wearing Spectacles was exhibited at the 1771 Salon and is now, since 1839, part of The Louvre collection. People were surprised by the exhibit as many believed that Chardin was too ill to paint. They were also surprised by the fact that it was a work of self-portraiture, not a genre he was known for. In 1771, the art correspondent of L’Année litéraire wrote:

“…This is a genre in which no one has seen him work and which, at first attempt, he mastered to the highest degree…”

Denis Diderot, the French philosopher, art critic, and writer praised Chardin and this work, writing:

“…the same confident hand and the same eyes accustomed to seeing nature – seeing nature clearly, and unravelling the magic of its effects…”

The spectacles are delicately perched upon the bridge of his nose. Chardin was forced to wear spectacles due to his failing eyesight and the pair he wears in the painting were made in England. Chardin is depicted in three quarter view. He has turned towards us with his probing brown eyes. How he has depicted himself is symbolic of his trade as an artist. He wears an elaborately entwined blue and white cap, together with a colourful, geometric-patterned scarf which because it has been lit up appears silk-like. The depiction of the artist shows him to be both knowledgeable and astute and the way he has used various tones on the face has made him look almost life-like.  Marcel Proust summed up the self-portrait commenting on the ageing artist:

“…Above the outsized pair of glasses that have slipped to the end of his nose and are pinching it between two brand new lenses, are his tired eyes with the dulled pupils; the yes look as if they have seen a lot, laughed a lot, loved a lot, and are saying in tender, boastful fashion: ‘Yes, I’m old!’ Behind the glimmer of sweetness dulled by age they still sparkle. But the eyelids are worn out, like an ancient clasp, and rimmed with red…”

Self Portrait with Eyeshade by Chardin (1775)

In 1775 Chardin completed another pastel self-portrait which was exhibited at the 1775 Salon. It was entitled Portrait of Chardin wearing an Eyeshade which is housed at The Louvre. In the painting Chardin has carefully fashioned his costume with the same care he once used when he depicted arrangements of fruit and objects in his still life works. The visor which shades the light from his eyes has an attached dusky pink ribbon. He has a scarf knotted around his head and neck and once again he wears a pair of spectacles. Every detail has been well thought out by Chardin. After seeing the self-portrait in 1904, the then elderly sixty-five-year-old Cezanne wrote about the work to his young friend, the painter and art critic, Emile Bernard:

“…You remember the fine pastel by Chardin, equipped with a pair of spectacles and a visor providing a shade. He’s an artful fellow, this painter. Haven’t you noticed that by letting a light plane ride across the bridge of the nose the tone values present themselves better to the eye? Verify this fact and tell me if I am wrong…”

Self Portrait (also known as Portrait of Chardin at His Easel) by Chardin (1779)

The third pastel self-portrait by Chardin, Portrait of Chardin at His Easel was completed in late 1779 but did not enter The Louvre collection until 1966. There are the odd similarities with his 1771 self-portrait in as much as he looks out at us and wears the same turban but in this work, it is decorated with an stylish blue bow. In this work we see Chardin sat in front of his easel, on which is a frame covered with a sheet of blue paper. Our eyes are drawn to his hand, in which he holds a red pastel crayon. His face is half hidden in shadow and it noticeably thinner and his features have taken on a sunken and hollow look, even his eyes have become duller and he looks tired. In his demeanour, we can witness his failing health and in fact this self-portrait was only completed just a few months before Chardin died at 9am on Monday, December 6th 1779, aged 80. He was buried the next day at Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, at 2 Place du Louvre, Paris.

Chardin had become quite wealthy in his latter years but never quite achieved the great wealth of his contemporaries such as the Rococo painter François Boucher, Nicolas de Largillièrre or the Baroque painter Hyacinthe Rigaud. This is probably due to his moderate output which according to some critics was due to the slowness of his painting which Chardin said was due to his perfectionist attitude to all his works. Other said it was down to his laziness!

I cannot end this look at Chardin’s life without telling you about the fate of his family members. As I previously recounted, Chardin’s two daughters, one from each of his wives died when they were still very young, but he also had a son from his marriage to his first wife, Marguerite Saintard.   Jean-Pierre Chardin was born in November 1731. He too studied to become a painter and in August 1754, won the Académie’s first prize for a painting on a historical subject. In 1757 Chardin and his son fell out over Marguerite Saintard’s will, Jean-Pierre believing he was not being given what was rightly his. In the September of that year Jean-Pierre received a scholarship from the Académie to study at the French Academy in Rome. On his return to France by sea from Italy Jean-Pierre is kidnapped by English pirates off the coast of Genoa, but later released. In 1767, aged 36, Jean-Pierre travelled to Venice, part of the French Ambassador to Venice’s entourage. On July 7th 1772, forty-year-old  Jean-Pierre was found drowned in a Venice canal. It is believed that he suffered from severe bouts of depression and committed suicide.

In December 1780, a year after Chardin’s death, his second wife Françoise-Marguerite Pouget, left their apartment at The Louvre and moved to her cousin’s house in rue du Renard-Saint Sauveur,  where she died on May 15th 1781, aged 84.

Théodore Géricault and Monomania

Self Portrait by Théodore Géricault
Self Portrait by Théodore Géricault

In my last blog I looked at some works by Théodore Géricault.  I examined his paintings which featured horses and the military and his masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa which I had examined in detail in my blog of June 10th 2011.  I finally looked at a highly erotic work which he painted for his own delectation around about the same time of the Medusa work.  In this blog I want to look at what I consider as his finest works, a series of portraits of men and women who had serious mental issues.

Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault (1819)
Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault (1819)

Having completed The Raft of the Medusa around 1819 he exhibited it at that year’s Salon under the title Scène de Naufrage (Scene of Shipwreck).  It was hailed as the star piece of that year’s Salon and was well received by the French public including Louis XVIII himself, who had sponsored the exhibition.  Such was the fame of this work that Géricault was invited to London in June 1820 to exhibit the painting at William Bullock’s Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly.  It drew in crowds from all over the country and by the time the exhibition ended at the end of 1820, more than forty thousand people had come to view the masterpiece and as Géricault had negotiated a fee based on the number of people who paid to see his work it is thought that he walked away with twenty thousand francs and so it was just as well the French government would not countenance the purchase of the work when the 1819 Salon closed!

A year later, at the end of 1821, Géricault left London and returned to Paris.  It was at this time that he embarked on a series of ten portraits of people who were suffering from what is termed monomaniaMonomania is an exaggerated or obsessive enthusiasm for or preoccupation with one thing.  It is a type of partial insanity.  The word was first used by the French psychiatrist Jean Étienne Esquirol around 1810 and was a notion typified by the presence of an expansive fixed idea in which the person’s mind was diseased and deranged in some aspects but otherwise normal in others. So why would Géricault focus on this type of person and who commissioned the ten small works?

The man who commissioned the paintings is known to be Étienne-Jean Georget.  Georget was an intern at Salpêtrière, the women’s asylum in Paris, and later the medical supervisor at a private asylum in Ivry.  As to how the two men met is still up for debate amongst art historians.  One theory is that Géricault was treated by the psychiatrist.  He had been suffering from depression accompanied by paranoid delusions which culminated in a nervous breakdown around 1819.  Another possibility was that the two met during one of Géricault’s visits to the hospital morgue where he would go to acquire dissected limbs which he often used in his preliminary studies for major works, such as his Raft of the Medusa painting.  It could have been that Georget had commissioned the work as he believed such an artistic task would help Géricault recover from his own mental dark period.  When Géricault completed the work he gave them to the psychiatrist as a way of expressing his thanks.  Some art historians however believe that it was a simple commission, the result of which would help Georget in his studies into monomania.  However it should not be forgotten that Géricault had an intense interest in the causes and results of mental instability for his grandfather and one of his uncles had died insane. At the time Géricault was formulating his painting The Raft of the Medusa, which featured a group of men adrift on a raft after the sinking of their vessel Medusa, he knew that the key to success would be an authentic depiction of the terrified and dying seamen.   Géricault portrayed the men on the raft as dead or dying, desperately trying to signal for help.  To achieve a sense of realism he had contacted a variety of medical specialists. His principal concern had been to gain access to human bodies in various states of putrefaction, to ensure the genuineness of the finished painting and it could have been that he also talked to the likes of Georget about the psychological trauma suffered by the victims of the Medusa shipwreck.  It is known that he interviewed the surgeon, Henry Savigny, who had been serving on the vessel when the shipwreck occurred and the doctor, at the time, had been putting down in print his experiences and the way it mentally affected the stricken crew members.

Whatever the circumstances were we know the five paintings I am going to feature initially belonged to Georget.  He, like Géricault died when he was in his early thirties.   I mention five works and yet one of Géricault’s early biographers, Charles Clément, talked of there being ten portraits.  However, only five remain.  So did the missing five feature five other mental patients?  What is currently believed is that Georget had asked Géricault to paint a further five works featuring the same five people at a later time so as to highlight the change in their appearance.  For Georget this was the study of physiognomy, an art of judging character from the face and phrenology, which would link the external form of the cranium as indication of mental faculties.  Simply put it was the assessment of a person’s character or personality from his or her outer appearance.  We have no names as to the sitters, just the monomania that is afflicting each of them.  In his book On Madness, published in 1820, Georget is most definite that madness can be seen in the face of the afflicted.  He wrote:

“…In general the idiot’s face is stupid, without meaning; the face of the manic patient is as agitated as his spirit, often distorted and cramped; the moron’s facial characteristics are dejected and without expression; the facial characteristics of the melancholic are pinched, marked by pain or extreme agitation; the monomaniacal king has a proud, inflated expression; the religious fanatic is mild, he exhorts by casting his eyes at the heavens or fixing them on the earth; the anxious patient pleads, glancing sideways, etc…”

Certainly harsh and in some ways unfeeling words from the psychiatrist and are in complete contrast to the sympathetic way Géricault depicted the sitters.

The five surviving portraits are entitled Portrait of a  Man Suffering from Delusions of Military Command;    A Kleptomaniac;  Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy;     A Woman Addicted to Gambling and A Child Snatcher.  It seems likely that the featured women were inmates of the women’s hospital Salpêtrière, while the men were chosen from the many male inmates of the male asylums of Charenton and Bicȇtre.

Portrait of a Woman suffering from obsessive envy by Théodore Géricault (1822)
Portrait of a Woman suffering from obsessive envy by Théodore Géricault (1822)

The first of the five I am featuring Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy, which is housed in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyons.  She avopids our gaze.  Her eyes are red-rimmed.  She has suffered and is probably still suffering.  Her case notes stated that she suffered from “envy obsessions” and maybe the slightest hint of a green tint to her face was the artist’s way to signify her obsession with envy.

Portrait of a Man suffering from Delusions of Military Command by Théodore Géricault (1822)
Portrait of a Man suffering from Delusions of Military Command by Théodore Géricault (1822)

Next we have a man who suffers from delusions of grandeur and the portrait is entitled A Man Suffering from Delusions of Military Command which is in the Museum Oskar Reinhart in Winterthur in Switzerland.  The man in this particular portrait believed he was Napoleon and maybe Géricault believed that it was not just his sitter who had delusions of grandeur but it was targeted at the man himself, Napoleon, who may also suffered a similar delusional belief in himself as the head of the French Empire.  One needs to remember my previous blog when I featured some of Géricault’s military paintings.  Maybe now, like many French people after the defeat of Napoleon, he had misgivings about the glory of battle.  It is a very sympathetic portrayal of the old man and there is an air of sadness about his demeanour.  He looks like a defeated man and could well be an allegory for a defeated nation.

Portrait of a Kleptomaniac by Théodore Géricault (1822)
Portrait of a Kleptomaniac by Théodore Géricault (1822)

My third offering is the painting entitled Portrait of a Kleptomaniac which is housed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent.  It is a strange depiction.  Just by looking at him we know there is something wrong in his life both physically and mentally.  He is dishevelled.  His sallow skin tone alerts us to him being ill.  His beard is unkempt and his hair is uncombed and messy.  Look at his face.  Look at the redness of his left cheek which looks swollen as if he has been involved in a fight.  He stares out at us, or maybe past us, but we have no idea what he is thinking. It is an empty gaze.  Géricault probably had no idea what his sitter was thinking but he made sure he captured every small detail about the man and maybe he wants us to decide on what has brought this man to the asylum.

Portrait of a Woman suffering from an  Obsessive Gambling disorder  by Théodore Géricault (1822)
Portrait of a Woman suffering from an Obsessive Gambling Disorder by Théodore Géricault (1822)

The fourth painting is entitled A Woman suffering from and Obsessive Gambling Disorder and can be found at the Louvre in Paris.  The old woman in the painting avoids stares out at us but it is a blank stare.  One has no idea what she is thinking.  She is lost in her own world, a world she is resigned to but does not enjoy.   Her eyes are red-rimmed probably brought on by the amount of mental and physical pain she has had to endure.  Her mouth is tense.  You can see in her facial expression that she is disturbed by something but with what?

Portrait of a Child Snatcher by Théodore Géricault (1822)
Portrait of a Child Snatcher by Théodore Géricault (1822)

The final portrait by Géricault is entitled A Child Snatcher.  Before us we have a man who looks distinctly unhappy with his lot in life.   He is dressed in old brown clothes and has a dishevelled look about him.  His face is haggard.  His life has not been easy.  The dark background give us the distinct impression that this man lives in a world of isolation.  It is as if, as a resident of a mental institution, he has been cut adrift by society.  He avoids our gaze and looks to the side in a somewhat shifty manner.  Although we would compartmentalize this type of portrait as one of realism there is an element of romanticism in the way Géricault does not want us to judge the sitter.  Looking at the man we would not know his crime but the title of Child Snatcher tells us all we need to know about a man who in the present day would be probably be classed as a paedophile.

Last self portrait by Théodore Géicault (c. 1823 - 1824)
Last self portrait by Théodore Géicault (c. 1823 – 1824)

If you think that the five portraits were very disturbing and yet very real, I will leave you with one other shocking portrait.  It is the last self-portrait by Géricault, which he completed when close to death.  What a terrible sight it must have been as he looked in the mirror as he worked on his own portrait.  Remember this was a young man in his early thirties.

 The five existing portraits were discovered unframed and unstretched by Louis Viardot , the husband of the famous  French mezzo-soprano, Pauline Viardot .  Viardot was an artist himself, and a great admirer of Gericault, and so he recognised the style of the works as that of Géricault.  Géricault’s biographer Charles Clément researched the origin of the works and found that they had all belonged to a certain Dr Lacheze, to whom they had been bequeathed by another medical man, the psychiatrist Dr Etienne Georget.

Théodore Géricault's tomb at Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris
Théodore Géricault’s tomb at Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris

Théodore Géricault died in January 1824, aged 32 and is buried in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.  This series of portraits featuring mentally disturbed people was completed by an artist who also suffered depression during his later life.  In 1810, he wrote to his best friend, Pierre-Joseph Dedreux-Dorcy:

 “…Now I am disoriented and confused. I try in vain to find support; nothing seems solid, everything escapes me, deceives me. Our earthly hopes and desires are only vain fancies, our successes mere mirages that we try to grasp…”

Whereas Dr Georget was more clinical and some would say somewhat cold-hearted about his desire to have the portraits of these people we can see in the way Géricault depicted them with sympathy and even empathy.

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.