Elizabeth was taught to paint by her father Louis Vigée who was an artist specialising in portraiture using pastels as his medium. This enchanting self portrait was painted about three years after she was summoned to Versailles and commissioned to paint the likeness of the queen. All accounts of Elizabeth stress her charm and wit and these qualities endeared her to Marie Antoinette who made her painter to the queen. Their relationship quickly developed into a close friendship and Vigée Le Brun subsequently painted at least twenty-five portraits of the queen before the cataclysm of the revolution shattered their world in 1789. Elizabeth, so closely associated with the court, fled France in that year spending much of the next twenty-five years travelling around the capitals of Europe where she emulated the success she had experienced in France.
This picture exemplifies Vigée Le Brun’s movement away from the conventions of Rococo artifice towards a simpler more natural look. She stands, holding the tools of her trade, in the open air engaging the viewer with a direct gaze. Sunlight falls from her right highlighting the pale delicate skin of her neck and breasts. She is wearing a wide-brimmed hat, which casts a shadow over much of her very pretty face, and which she has adorned with an arrangement of flowers and a large feather giving her a somewhat jaunty air; her hair is left unpowdered to emphasise the studiedly unaffected character of the composition.
The hat, which plays such a big part in the picture is there for reasons other than the purely decorative. Whilst visiting the Low Countries in 1782 she saw, and greatly admired, Rubens’s Portrait of Susanna Lunden (known as Le Chapeau de Paille, and now also in the National Gallery). She was particularly inspired by the quality of light which Rubens had managed to capture and she determined that she would make a self portrait which would emulate his achievement. In this she has triumphantly succeeded. But she also made sure that she was wearing a real straw hat, and not a felt one which Susanna Lunden is wearing, despite the popular title of the Rubens painting.
1782 Joshua Reynolds: Portrait of Colonel Banastre Tarleton, London, National Gallery
1784 Johann Heinrich Fuseli: Lady Macbeth Sleepwalking, Paris, Musée du Louvre
1784 Jacques-Louis David: Oath of the Horatii, Paris, Musée du Louvre