bucked tradition, and not just with her toothy smile
. Born in Paris at a time when women were denied formal art schooling, she received training from her father, though she was largely self-taught, and became a successful professional artist by age 15. At 28, through the intercession of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, she earned a spot in the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, joining just three other women.
As official portraitist to Marie Antoinette, a 22-year-old Vigée-Le Brun first painted the infamous queen in 1778, at the behest of Marie’s mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. Towering nearly 9 feet high, the full-length portrait places the queen alongside a table, chair, large column, and statuary—but Marie, resplendent in a luminous satin gown, commands attention even within the cluttered composition.
The drapery, elaborate patterns, and floral elements here align with Rococo aesthetics, but while Vigée-Le Brun adhered to Rococo coloration and subject matter, her oeuvre hovers between that style and the Neoclassicism that supplanted it. Fleeing the country when the French Revolution began, she continued a prolific career in Italy, Austria, Germany, and Russia, before eventually returning to France. In all, Vigée-Le Brun painted over 600 portraits, the large majority of which depict women.