When we think of great portrait artists down through history, names like Raphael, Titian, van Dyck, Rembrandt, Rubens, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Ingres, Sargent, and even van Gogh come to mind. All of them were males. When you think of great female portrait artists, whoa...we draw a blank. Those with very good memories might recall Rosalba Carriera, Angelica Kauffman, Judith Leyster, or maybe Artemisia Gentileschi. There are others, but none of them, or these, are at all in the realm of household names. For those really attuned to the feminine side of art history, perhaps you've noticed an important name missing, and probably the best female portrait painter of all time - Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun.
She was born in 1755. Her father was the respected portrait artist, Louise Vigée, her mother a peasant hairdresser. Both professionals, neither of them appears to have had time for her as a child. She was shunted off to relatives in the country until the age of five when she returned to Paris and began taking drawing classes from her father. He died when she was twelve but by that time she was well on her way to stepping into his shoes. In fact, she was so successful, that by the time she was fifteen, she was making respectable sums painting very respectable portraits, so much so that she was threatened with arrest for...get this..."painting without a license." She quickly joined the Académie de Saint Luc. She was nineteen. And if a lifetime store of some forty self-portraits is to be believed, she was also very pretty, vivacious, witty, smart, charming, and talented. At the age of 21, she married an art dealer, J.B.P. Lebrun--something of a gambling playboy given to living off his family's wealth and her considerable earnings as an artist.
Elizabeth was prodigious if nothing else. She is credited with painting over 800 portraits during her 87-year life span, twenty of them of her best friend and client, Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France. Her influence (or more precisely, her husband's) was responsible for Vigée-Lebrun's acceptance into the French Academy in 1783 against the will of its almost exclusively male membership. But when the queen's fortunes fell into disarray in 1789 following the fall of Versailles to a French revolutionary mob, so did hers. She was forced to flee with her nine-year-old daughter, Julie, first to Rome, then Austria, and finally to St. Petersburg, painting hundreds of portraits along the way. Her life was not without discord however. Against her wishes, her daughter married a Russian nobleman while back home, because of her close ties to the monarchy, she was branded an émigré by the revolutionary French government. As a result, her dismal excuse for a husband divorced her to protect his property from seizure.
Twelve years she spent in exile, allowed to return only after a petition signed by 255 international artists was presented to the French government. She continued painting prodigiously after her repatriation, her work becoming an important influence for a new breed of Neo-classical artist such as Jacques-Louis David and his student, Jean-Auguste Ingres. David noted, when Vigée-Lebrun's work was compared along side his own, that her portrait appeared to have been done by a man, while his own looked like that of a woman. She took this as the greatest of compliments. No less a portrait expert than Sir Joshua Reynolds termed her "...the equal of any portrait artist living or dead, including," he added (the Flemish portrait idol of his day), "Sir Anthony van Dyck."