Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun: Neoclassical

Born April 16, 1755 in Paris, France; Died March 30, 1842 in Paris


Self Portrait, 1790

Marie-Louise-Élisabeth Vigée-LeBrun had a career as lengthy and rich as her complicated name suggests. Born to an artist father (which is a common trend I’m noticing amongst the women I research), Vigée-LeBrun was introduced to painting at a young age. Her early pieces, mainly portraiture, received praise from notable artists of the time, and by age 15 she had already amassed a large following and fair amount of wealth.


The Artist’s Brother, 1773

In 1776, Vigée-LeBrun married artist Jean Baptiste LeBrun, who was more notable as an art dealer and collector. He helped Élisabeth Louise to further solidify her reputation as a serious artist. Many aristocrats of the time enjoyed the young artist’s fresh style and vivid colors, and her ability to “[depict] her sitters in a flattering manner, posed gracefully and wearing their most stylish clothing.” In 1779, Vigée-LeBrun received the greatest break of her career when Marie Antoinette, the current queen of France, requested she paint a portrait of her. The artist arrived in Versailles, where she began a lasting friendship with Antoinette (who is so fascinating in her own right), eventually creating upwards of 30 portraits of the Queen. Antoinette also helped Vigée-LeBrun to be inducted into the very prestigious Paris Royal Academy of the arts, where she was one of only four women. Her acceptance into the Academy, unsurprisingly, created controversy amongst the male-dominated membership of the time.

Vigee-LeBrun Marie-antoinette                         marie16

    Marie Antoinette, 1779         Marie Antoinette with Children, 1788

The picture on the left is one of Vigée-LeBrun first portraits of Queen Antoinette, depicting her in a lavish, detailed outfit, holding a small pink rose. This image is one of pure femininity, and I think her position as a female painter made it easier for Vigée-LeBrun to accurately capture the stunning nature of the queen. The portrait on the right features the queen in a striking, but yet more subdued, dress, caring for her young children. I think these two portraits show a slight evolution in Vigée-LeBrun’s style, but more interestingly, the path that Antoinette’s life took over the course of ten years. This painting was also the last portrait she made of her. Those of you who know a bit about the history of the time period know that this was merely years before Antoinette’s execution and the decline of the French monarchy.

Vigée-LeBrun accurately perceived that a revolution was about to take place, and knew her role as an artist and friend of the royal family would not be highly favored. Taking her 9 year old daughter with her, Vigée-LeBrun fled France in 1789, traveling across Europe. She was met with open arms from other royalty and aristocrats in countries like Italy and Switzerland. The displaced artists eventually settled in Russia, where she remained for several years before returning to France permanently in 1805.


The Genius of Alexander 

I included this painting because it shows Vigée-LeBrun’s shift from painting primarily portraits to creating mythological scenes in her later life.

What I find so interesting about Louise Vigée-LeBrun is that she really didn’t let being a woman during this time period impede her success. Although it seems that she largely painted women, and had a large female fanbase (like Marie Antoinette), the accounts I’ve read say that she was appreciated by all– her talent was, after all, very obvious. Vigée-LeBrun was confident in not only her work as an artist, but also herself. She published three volumes of memoirs toward the end of her life, claiming that she painted almost 900 paintings (many of which have since been lost to history.) She lived a fascinating life, during a time period of rapid change. As writer Nancy Heller remarked, her most successful portraits “vividly preserve a way of life that was fading even as she painted it.” Her position as a woman makes her portrayals of the time even more unique.







Artemisia Gentileschi: Baroque


Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638

Born: July 8 1593 Rome, Died: 1652/23 Naples

Writing about Artemisia Gentileschi is a pretty daunting task, considering that she is such a prominent, fascinating figure of the Baroque period. The Baroque was a style of art, music, literature, and architecture that swept Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It favored elaborate, and often very dramatic, features— think the palace of Versailles, Bach, and Vivaldi. Gentileschi was alive during this time of excess and beauty, and still managed to create her own distinct artistic techniques.

Born in Italy to an artist father, Artemisia was exposed to painting from a young age. Her father, Orazio, was fairly well known, and was a huge follower of the artist Caravaggio. This inclination was passed to his daughter, as Artemisia often mimicked Caravaggio’s style, namely his use of tenebrism: the use of high contrast between light and dark areas, which are usually more paramount.The_Calling_of_Saint_Matthew-Caravaggo_(1599-1600)

The Calling of Saint Matthew, by Caravaggio, 1600

This piece is a perfect example of tenebrism. Much of the image is shrouded in darkness, but areas that the light touches are very bright and colorful. Gentileschi develops this style later in life, but many of her early pieces are less contrasted.


Despite her eventual success, Gentileschi’s life was not without obstacles. Her mother died when she was twelve, and several years later she was raped by a fellow artist, Agostino Tassi. Her father, outraged, took the case to the courts, leading to a long, cruel, and ultimately unfruitful experience, which involved the budding artist to provide evidence under torture against her assaulter. Tassi was not sentenced, and also did not follow through on his promise to marry Artemisia, which he made right after raping her. Although this seems so horrible to us— Why would you want to spend the rest of your life with someone who did something so horrendous to you? —marriage was seen as appropriate in this situation. Artemisia was now young, single, and no longer a virgin, which despite the aura of progressiveness of the era, was still considered to be a terrible disgrace.

By 1616, Gentileschi was married to an artist and living in Florence. She was the first woman to join the Academy of Design there, and soon became extremely well known. Unlike the few other women in art at the time, who focused on still life and portraiture, Artemisia created many historical and Biblical pieces. Her works were often dynamic and violent, expressing what many feel to be her anger and pain after her experience with Tassi.

One of her most famous paintings is Judith Beheading Holofernes, depicting the beautiful widow Judith murdering the cruel general Holofernes who was distracted by his lust for her. Caravaggio actually did a painting on the same subject and of the same name, which many critics consider to be less captivating. Both of the images are included below, and I personally side with that opinion. Gentileschi’s depiction is more graphic, more realistic— dark blood is spurting out of the victim, covering the sheets. Caravaggio’s, though it features the same violent scene, is much more tame. The women in Gentileschi’s piece are also much more involved in the act. There is concentration and determination on their faces, and they exude strength as they both clutch the sword. The woman in the second painting, though very beautiful, appears to be merely an observer of the act, holding the (presumably very heavy?) sword daintily in one hand, a look of fear or disbelief in her eyes.

1024px-Artemisia_Gentileschi_-_Giuditta_decapita_Oloferne_-_Google_Art_Project              Judith_Beheading_Holofernes_by_Caravaggio

                Gentileschi, 1621                                  Caravaggio, 1599

The general consensus, unfortunately, is that Artemisia’s later life wasn’t very noteworthy. She continued painting, but she shifted from her highly contrasted paintings depicting dark subject matter to more tame paintings of the court life of royalty in both Spain and England. She lost respect of some members of the artistic community in Italy, who saw her new style (similar to the Spanish way of painting) as unsophisticated. Modern critics, too, think her paintings from this area are largely boring. Some writers contend that this is because Gentileschi’s later works are classically feminine, and therefore seen as less innovative as her prior works. She died in Naples in either 1652 or 53, and not much is known about the end of her life.

Like Sofonisba Anguissola, Gentileschi’s paintings were also attributed to men after her death, but to a much lesser extent. She still received a great amount of recognition in history, but many attributed her very early works to her father, who often worked alongside her. Artemesia carved out an unmistakable niche for herself as an artist, a feat difficult for anyone at the time, much less a woman. She was also unafraid to acknowledge her success and talent, claiming once that her work was desired all across Europe. Her ability to not only overcome tragic events and adversity, but to really thrive is so incredible. It’s no wonder that she is both a key figure of the Baroque period and a major feminist icon.


Susanna and the Elders, 1610

One of Artemisia’s first paintings. It’s kind of understandable that she didn’t get credit for this initially— how many of us could do this at 17??







Sofonisba Anguissola: Late Renaissance


Self Portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel

Born cerca 1532 in Cremona, Italy; died November 1625 in Palermo

Though there were many deserving female artists before Sofonisba Anguissola, I find it most appropriate to begin with a painter from the Italian Renaissance— the “rebirth” of art, culture, and science in Europe. Encapsulating the progressiveness of the time period, Anguissola’s wealthy father sent her and her sister to receive a proper education under the tutelage of Bernardino Campi, an established painter. The young Sofonisba quickly flourished, and with the help of her father, rose to prominence across not only Italy, but the rest of Europe, as well. She even became acquaintances with the famed Michelangelo, who appreciated her work and offered guidance. In 1559 she arrived in Madrid, Spain to work for the royal court of Philip II, where she remained for twenty years painting detailed, formal works of the family. After two marriages (the first left her widowed) and a vast array of paintings to her name, Anguissola died at the age of 93 in her native Italy.

Though she did reach a great level of fame in her time, Anguissola also met difficulties due to her sex. Women were not allowed to learn about anatomy or draw live nude figures, so for much of her life she mainly painted portraits of what was openly observable, such as her family and herself. Nonetheless, her illustrious career, spanning over 70 years, helped to pave the way for future female artists. For a long period after her death, however, her works were frequently falsely attributed to male artists such as Titian and Leonardo da Vinci. It wasn’t until the last century that the art world really began to give Anguissola the credit she so rightfully deserved.

Below is the painting, Diana and Actaeon, by the aforementioned artist Titian.


Personally, I think this piece, and many others of  Titian’s, is vastly different from the works of Anguissola. It’s strange to me that historians were so quick to attribute her paintings, which were of royalty or self-portraits, to an artist whose works tended to be grandiose depictions of myths and religion. This phenomenon is a prime example of history’s tendency to overlook women, sometimes even rewriting events to better suit a male-based narrative.


When looking at Sofonisba Anguissola’s paintings, my favorite is certainly her early portrait entitled, The Chess Game, depicting three of her sisters during a riveting match. Sofonisba was the oldest and had a brother and five younger sisters, three of whom she taught to paint. She clearly served as a sort of mentor for them, and I think this painting demonstrates the sisterly bond they all shared. The youngest sister is giggling and watching the next older sister, who in turn is observing her older sister. This cheery, brightly-colored scene provides a close look into their everyday lives, which I assume to be supportive of the endeavors they each undertook, whether or not they are traditionally “feminine” or not.


Anguissola was one of the first distinguished female artists that we have knowledge of, and really helped to set a precedent for those to follow. She created a great array of works throughout her prolific life though sadly many of her later pieces were lost in a fire. But, her memory persists in her remaining works and the great legacy she created.


One of Sofonisba Anguissola’s final Self-Portraits, 1620s