Marie-Antoinette and Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun: the Queen and the painter
Without Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s many portraits of Marie-Antoinette, our mental image of the Queen would be different, so iconic have these paintings become. All the more reason to look into the relationship between the two ladies. And what better way to do so than return to Madame Lebrun’s Memoirs?
It was in the year 1779, she writes, that I painted the Queen for the first time; she was then in the heyday of her youth and beauty [she was twenty four]. Marie-Antoinette was tall and admirably built, being somewhat stout, but not excessively so. Her arms were superb, her hands small and perfectly formed, and her feet charming. She had the best gait of any woman in France, carrying her head erect with a dignity that marked her as the Queen in the midst of her whole Court, her majestic mien, however, not in the least diminishing the sweetness and amiability of her face.
To anyone who has not seen the Queen, it is difficult to get an idea of all the graces and nobility combined in her person. Her features were not regular; she had inherited that long and narrow oval peculiar to the Austrian nation. Her eyes were not large; in colour they were almost blue, and they were at the same time merry and kind. Her nose was slender and pretty, and her mouth not too large, though her lips were rather thick.But the most remarkable thing about her face was the splendour of her complexion. I never have seen one so brilliant, and brilliant is the word, for her skin was so transparent that it bore no umber in the painting. Neither could I render the real effect of it as I wished. I had no colours to paint such freshness, such delicate tints, which were hers alone, and which I had never seen in any other woman.
Madame Lebrun, though only twenty-four, the same age as Marie-Antoinette, was already an established portraitist. She was the daughter of a renowned artist, Louis Vigée, and had been painting aristocratic portraits since her teenage years. She had enjoyed the patronage of the Duchesse d’Orléans, a member of the royal family, who introduced her to the Queen. The latter had long expressed her frustration at being unable to find any painter who could capture her likeness. She was immediately delighted by the first portrait Louise-Elisabeth painted of her.
At the first sitting, continues Madame Lebrun, the imposing air of the Queen frightened me greatly, but Her Majesty spoke to me so graciously that my fear soon dissipated. It was on that occasion that I began the picture representing her with a large basket, wearing a satin dress, and holding a rose in her hand.
This portrait was destined for her brother, Emperor Joseph II, and the Queen ordered two copies besides one for the Empress of Russia, the other for her own apartment at Versailles and Fontainebleau.
Note that is was usual at the time for a public figure to order from an artists several copies of the same portrait, something we will find a generation later with Napoléon Bonaparte and the painter Jacques-Louis David. In this instance, Marie-Antoinette was so pleased with this painting that she soon commissioned a different portrait (below) destined to her mother, the Empress Marie Theresa, this time in a white court dress. Louise-Elisabeth would paint many more portraits of the Queen, a patronage that would make her one of the most sought-after portraitists of her time in France, and later in Europe.
It was not a friendship, as I sometimes read – the social difference between the two ladies would not have allowed it – but a relationship of familiar goodwill, and naturally of gratitude on the artist’s part. One one occasion where Louise-Elisabeth had been too ill to travel to Versailles for a scheduled sitting, she went the next day to apologize. The painter proposed to leave as the Queen was ready to go out for a carriage ride, but recalls that Marie-Antoinette would not hear of it:
“No, no! Do not go!” exclaimed the Queen. “I do not want you to have made your journey for nothing!”
She revoked the order for her carriage and gave me a sitting. I remember that, in my confusion and my eagerness to make a fitting response to her kind words, I opened my paint-box so excited that I spilled my brushes on the floor. I stooped down to pick them up. “Never mind, never mind, “said the Queen, and, for aught I could say, she insisted on picking them all up herself…
I was so fortunate as to be on very pleasant terms with the Queen. When she heard that I had something of a voice, we rarely had a sitting without singing some duets by Grétry together, for she was exceedingly fond of music, though she did not sing very much in tune. As for her conversation, it would be difficult for me to convey all of its charm, its affability.
Quite a charming picture: the two ladies making the most of what might have been a tedious sitting, one singing in tune and the other out of it. But outside the relaxed , intimate atmosphere the Queen’s private circle at Trianon, she was the subject of countless lewd pamphlets, the budget deficit was soaring to unmanageable levels, the people were starving, and she was blamed for it.
The portraits of Marie-Antoinette by Madame Lebrun painted later, in the 1780s, would reflect the vicissitudes of the political situation, but it is another story…