Marie Antoinette, Queen of France
Elizabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun, French 1755-1842
SN 383, Pastel 19th century

by Robert Anderson.

Vigee Le Brun was a French painter who achieved an international reputation for her stylish portrayals of royalty and aristocratic society in France and throughout Europe during the period 1755-1825. Before the outbreak of the French Revolution she was closely associated with Marie Antoinette of whom she painted over thirty (30) portraits.

She had an admiration for Rubens and experimented with a warm range of colors and the use of multiple, thin layers of transparent or translucent paint. She employed delicately animated poses, expressive faces and fashionable dress for her female sitters. Faces were finely molded with vitality imparted to skin tones thru a delicate layering of color.Vigee Le Brun was aware of her female subjects' affectations and had the ability to flatter them as can be gauged from the contrasting directness and intensity of her portraits of men.

After the Revolution she left France to travel to Italy, Russia and England where she continued to be extremely successful with an ability to command extraordinary fees which were much more than her contemporaries could obtain.She received distinguished patronage wherever she went and was admitted to several academies including the Royal Academy of France.

Her memoirs give a lively picture of the Europe of her day as well as an account of her own works and show what a redoubtable woman she was. These memoirs provide an intimate account of the life of a woman artist working in the orbit of the French court in the late 18th century.

The portrait is that of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. She was born in 1755, the youngest child of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. Marie was married to Louis - Auguste, the Dauphin of France in1770 and became Queen upon the death of Louis XV in 1774.

Marie Antoinette was the most extravagant member of a most extravagant court. She had been cheated of a normal sexual relationship with her husband due to his impotency and while indulging in no liaisons, amused herself until 1778 with costly dresses, gems, and palaces, with operas, plays and balls. She lost fortunes at gambling and gave other fortunes to favorites in reckless generosity. Her husband Louis XVI gave her sets of rubies, diamonds and bracelets. The thoughtless extravagance was the result of boredom and frustration as well as the result of a childhood and youth accustomed to riches and ignorant of poverty.

An operation finally cured the King's impotency and Marie had children starting in 1778. From that time on the spoiled and reckless Queen became a tender and conscientous mother. The people of France, however, would never realize that fact. They continued to consider her selfish and scandalous and would sentence her and her family to the guillotine a few years later.

The Queen is seen seated, full length, wearing a gown of blue velvet and white satin, edged with fur and a blue hat trimmed with feathers. She is holding a book and her right elbow rests on a cushion or pillow. The artist uses a warm range of color, orange / brown and blues, and introduces a note of informality which helps to portray an aristocratic demeanor in the sitter. Her face is expressive and her fashionable dress conveys a sense of refinement and grace. All in all she appears to be a woman to be admired.

Her attitude in this painting corresponds to that of the Queen in the portrait group at Versailles, Marie Antoinette with Her Children, painted in 1787.

Historical Context:
At the time that this painting and the Portrait of the Queen with her children were painted, there had been a great deal of criticism of the Queen. She was considered to be frivolous and wayward and a concerted effort was made to improve her image. She is shown in this painting as a dignified sovereign. She is dressed conservatively and holds a book to indicate her interest in more intellectual pursuits.

The Portrait of the Queen and her Children depicting her as an affectionate mother and wife was also commissioned to counter the increasing criticism of her.

Unfortunately for the Royal Family, France decided that the monarchy had to go and shortly after the portrait was painted Marie Antoinette faced the guillotine.