Monday, November 4, 2019

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun—A Brilliant, Adventurous French Portraitist During Jane Austen’s Era

by Diana Birchall

In Jane Austen's novel, Northanger Abbey, we are told that Catherine Morland was a naïve young girl, her mind “about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is.” Fond of “horrid novels,” as Jane Austen termed the scary tales of the period, Catherine fancied that visiting Northanger Abbey, home of Henry Tilney, the clever, delightful young man she admired, would involve all sorts of delicious, romantic Gothic thrills. Instead she learned, with Henry pointing out to her, that such imaginings could not be real, not in a modern, Christian England; yet she still had to discover that people of ill will could be as troublesome as anything that sensational fiction could produce.

Catherine is, in my view, a true heroine. Therefore, I have longed for a portrait in which she might look out at us in what is called a speaking likeness. Where better to turn than to the beautiful female portraits painted by the famous French artist of the period, Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun? As she lived from 1755 to 1842, she encompasses Jane Austen’s own much shorter lifetime (1775 – 1817) and although Vigee Le Brun was French, she was by no means confined to France, as Jane Austen was to England, but lived an extraordinarily wide-ranging, adventurous, and remarkable life for a woman of her period.

Self portrait of Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, 1790

Louise Elisabeth Vigee was born in Paris, daughter of a portraitist and a hairdresser. Her father died when she was twelve, and her mother remarried a jeweler, who exploited the young girl’s precocious artistic talents. Trained by her father, by the time she was fifteen she was a popular and prodigious painter, producing portraits highly sought by fashionable aristocrats, who saw her as a phenomenon. In 1776 she married Jean-Baptiste Le Brun, an artist and art dealer. Her star continued to rise, and by 1779 she painted the first of some thirty portraits she made of her patroness, Marie-Antoinette. This sealed her reputation and won her acceptance into the Academie Royale de peinture et de sculpture. Her talent for painting luminously flattering portraits of women in lovely Neoclassical fashions, was prized among courtiers. At the height of her fame, in 1789, with the arrest of the Royal Family and approach of the Revolution, Vigee Le Brun fled danger with her young daughter, Julie. Her husband remained in France during the dozen years of her exile and was obliged to divorce her. She traveled widely, in Italy, Spain, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Russia (she spent six years in St. Petersburg and painted Catherine the Great), Switzerland, and England. She was wildly feted and famed both as a painter and in high society everywhere she went, having as brilliant a career abroad as at home, and except for a brief sojourn in her homeland under Napoleon, she did not return to live in France permanently until 1805. She painted many famous people along the way, including Lord Byron, Madame de Stael, and King George IV as the Prince of Wales. After the death of her husband and then her daughter, she settled in Louveciennes, continued to paint, and wrote her gossipy, name-dropping memoirs, Souvenirs.

Portrait of Marie Antoinette, 1783

Vigee Le Brun is a fascinating figure among 18th/19th century personalities, radical in her behavior and her professional independence, her life was a striking contrast to that of the more retiring Jane Austen. The two never met; Jane Austen visited none of the countries where Vigee Le Brun travelled. They had only very slight, tangential connections in common, such as Vigee Le Brun painting Emma Hamilton, Lord Nelson’s mistress, and Jane’s brother Frank serving with Nelson. Or Jane’s cousin the Comtesse Eliza de Feuillide (whose French husband was guillotined) once writing a letter home to England about having seen Marie Antoinette at court, though there is no way of knowing if she ever came in contact with the Queen’s artistic friend. In her memoirs Vigee Le Brun tells an amusing story of spending time with an Englishwoman who spoke no French, while she spoke no English, and they determinedly each spoke for hours each in her own language, not understood by the other. Had Jane Austen ever met Vigee Le Brun, she might have done better, knowing at least some French; but she who refused an introduction to the clever worldly Madame de Stael, author of Corinne, might have been no more eager to meet the French woman painter.

Looking over a gallery of Vigee Le Brun’s works, searching for a face – one face, the face of Catherine – one is struck by how little the two artists’ worlds intersected. The painter was not only French but one who moved easily in aristocratic circles, a courted, public personality wherever she went. The faces she painted were mostly not English middle class or country family people such as are portrayed in Austen’s novels and letters. Moreover, we sense a faint disapproval of French culture in Austen, even apart from the fact that the two nations were at war for most of her life. The right-thinking Mr. Knightley disapproves of Frank Churchill in Emma, saying, “No, Emma, your amiable young man can be amiable only in French, not in English. He may be very ‘amiable’, have very good manners, and be very agreeable; but he can have no English delicacy towards the feelings of other people: nothing really amiable about him." And when young Catherine Morland comes despondently home from Northanger Abbey, her mother anxiously chastises her for talking too much about “the French bread at Northanger.”

Portrait of Madame de Stael as Corinne, 1809

By the end of her life Vigee Le Brun had dropped in fashion as a painter; her portraits probably seemed to hark back to the days of the Ancien Regime, and she mainly painted historical subjects. Nevertheless, during the years when she was painting lovely young women who were contemporaries of Jane Austen’s heroines, we do see a few faces that might have come out of Austen’s novels; and I recognized 'Catherine' as soon as I saw her. This young lady happens to have been exactly of an age with Catherine, painted in 1800 when she was eighteen, at just around the time as Austen was writing her early version of what became Northanger Abbey. The image in question is not however that of a naïve English country girl, but a French aristocrat, Corisande Armandine Leonie Sophie de Gramont (1783 – 1865). Corisande was a granddaughter of the Duchesse de Polignac, the favorite of Marie Antoinette, and she married an English Member of Parliament, Charles Augustus Bennet (there’s an Austen name for you!), 5th Earl of Tankerville, and settled in England.


Diana Birchall worked for many years at Warner Bros studios as a story analyst, reading novels to see if they would make movies. Reading manuscripts went side by side with a restorative and sanity-preserving life in Jane Austen studies and resulted in her writing Austenesque fiction both as homage and attempted investigation of the secrets of Jane Austen's style. She is the author of In Defense of Mrs. Elton, Mrs. Elton in America, Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma, and the new The Bride of Northanger. She has written hundreds of Austenesque short stories and plays, as well as a biography of her novelist grandmother, and has lectured on her books and staged play readings at places as diverse as Hollywood, Brooklyn, Montreal, Chawton House Library, Alaska, and Yale. Visit Diana at her Austen Variations author page, follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads

The Bride of Northanger is now available for purchase through Amazon and Barnes & Noble


  1. Thanks for this fascinating piece of history. I really enjoyed learning more about this artist.

  2. Thanks, Leigh, I'm glad you did. There's a whole gallery of her portrait works online, and it's fascinating to browse!


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