Morning With a Master

It was one of those dreary days when gray flannel clouds blanketed the sky and errant raindrops pattered against my window, harbingers of the deluge that was to come.  The children were at school.  The dog was stretched out on the wood floor, her legs twitching as she no doubt dreamt of chasing seagulls on the lonely stretch of beach we often claimed as our own. 

Though I had laundry to fold and manuscript pages to revise, the quiet house and approaching storm set a scene more conducive for reading than working.  With the the rain still pattering and the dog still twitching, I decided to abandon my tasks.  I grabbed a stack of books from my nightstand and took refuge upon the cushions of my favorite overstuffed toile chair. 

At the top of my "To Be Read" stack was the slender biography Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun: The Odyssey of an Artist in an Age of Revolution by Gita May.  I looked at the lovely woman with the flushed cheeks and inquisitive gaze depicted on the cover and decided she would be the perfect companion to brighten my otherwise dreary morning.  

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the name, Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun was an extremely gifted artist and and one of the first women admitted to the esteemed Academie Royale in France.  Her superlative talent made her the most sought after portraitist in eighteenth century Europe. 

I have had a curious, one might say serendipitous, relationship with Madame Vigee Le Brun.  We met in the summer of 1978.  I was an energetic, inquisitive ten year old; a latchkey kid with far too much unsupervised time at my disposal with which to create mischief.  Besides watching television, collecting soda cans to turn in for change to buy Butterfingers and superballs, and playing ding-dong ditch, one of my favorite pastimes was to ride my bike to to the local library where I would lose myself in the world of books...oh, and pester Shirley, the librarian.  Shirley was a sweet-face African-American woman who always wore a fascinating little magnifying glass on a gold chain around her neck (which she once let me look through). 

Shirley was usually patient with me but on this particular day she seemed frazzled and distracted.

"I don't have the time for your nonsense today, child," she said, seizing a book from her cart.  "Here, go read this.  It's about a queen who gets her head chopped off.  You'll like it."

I took the book but only after peppering Shirley with a few questions. 

Why don't you have time to talk to me?  (She explained that she was leaving the next day to visit family in Jamaica and had a lot of work to do before then.) 
Where is Jamaica?  (She said it was an island, far away, surrounded by the bluest waters anyone had ever seen.) 
Where's your magnifying glass?  (At this point, she glared at me and released a rather violent sigh.  It was a look I had seen on the faces of many other adults.  I knew I was hanging on her last nerve so I took the proffered book and asked one last question.) 
Will you send me a postcard?  (She said yes but I never received it.  Sadly, Shirley did not return to the library and the woman who took her place was not nearly as patient.  Worse, she smelled like mothballs and did not wear a magnifying glass around her neck.  But I digress...)

So, I checked the book out, hopped on my bike, and headed over to the donut stand.  After purchasing two chocolate long johns and a carton of milk (Are you noticing my predilection for sugary treats?), I settled myself onto a counter stool to learn more about the business of the queen and her missing head.

The queen, of course, was Marie Antoinette (and so began my decades long obsession).  In the middle of the book, reproduced in black and white, was a portrait of the queen, standing in a garden, holding a single rose.  In tiny print, beneath the image, were the words: Marie Antoinette à la Rose by Elizabeth Vigee Lebrun.  I would later learn that the portrait was painted to counteract the scandal caused by another Vigee Lebrun portrait, wherein the queen was depicted wearing a modest muslin dress (some felt it was bourgeois attire and therefore inappropriate for a monarch).
Fortune favored the inquisitive, bike-riding, sugar-eating child from Toledo, granting her a ticket out of Ohio and to destinations around the world.  With a passport full of stamps and a head full of memories, I have indeed been lucky.

Years later, I travelled to the Musee du Louvre and the Chateau de Versailles and looked at Vigee Le Brun's portraits of my beloved queen.  

In the summer of 2000, I travelled to New Orleans for a writer's conference.  Depleted from the networking (and narcissism), I opted to skip an afternoon of schmoozing and recharge my creative battery by visiting the New Orleans Museum of Art.  I climbed the wide marble stairs to the second floor of the museum and was greeted by Vigee Le Brun's 1788 portrait of Marie Antoinette in a sumptuous blue velvet gown.  I'd had no idea the NOMOA possessed a Vigee Le Brun and was thrilled at the serendipitous encounter.

My next encounter with a Vigee Le Brun masterpiece occurred in Kansas City at the Nelson-Atkins Museum.  I walked into one of the galleries and saw the portrait of a beautiful young woman hanging on the far wall.  Something about her innocent face captured my attention and I stood there, staring at her flushed cheeks, bow lips, and brown eyes and wondered what it was about her features that made her seem somehow familiar.  I read the plaque on the wall beside the painting and discovered it was of Marie Gabrielle de Gramont, Duchesse de Caderousse and had been painted by Vigee Le Brun.  I realized it was Vigee Le Brun's unique talent at incorporating rich colors, honest expressions, and sumptuous details that made the portrait engaging and familiar.
Before leaving the Nelson-Atkins, I stopped in the gift shop and purchased a postcard of the portrait of the Duchesse de Caderousse.  I pinned it to the bulletin board in my office and often stared at it and wondered if the Duchesse had been as sweet and innocent as she appeared in the portrait.

It was on that stormy day, while reading Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun: The Odyssessy of an Artist in an Age of Revolution that I learned more about the portrait of the Duchesse de Caderousse.  Apparently, it had been the artist's idea to follow the trend toward simplicity and depict the young noblewoman sans face paint and powder.  
I also learned that the Toledo Museum of Art has had a Vigee Le Brun portrait in their collection since 1950. 

Just think of it!  A frazzled librarian made an off hand  suggestion I read a book about Marie Antoinette.  I read the book, admire a portrait of the queen, and become such a fan of the artist that I travel the world in search of her masterpieces only to discover that one resides in the town where my journey began!  How cool is that? Serendipity never fails to amaze me.

By the time I finished reading that day, the clouds had parted, the sun was shining again, and I had a deeper appreciation for the talent and resilience of Vigee Le Brun (and the power of serendipity).  A prolific and tireless artist, she produced hundreds of portraits of some of the most famous and infamous people of her time (including Madame du Barry, Lady Hamilton, and Catherine the Great).  Somehow, she managed to create masterpieces in the midst of personal misfortune and survive a Revolution.

Isabella Marini painted by Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun in 1792.  The Toledo Museum of Art.
If you would like to view 586 of Vigee Le Brun's portraits, please click here.

If you would like to purchase Gita May's biography of Vigee Le Brun, please click here. 


  1. This was a very thoughtful post. It is always so enjoyable to read your posts, even when I already know a little about the subject. Thank you!

  2. That was fascinating! I love this blog and look forward to reading more.

  3. A wonderful piece! Yet again you have brought the world of Marie Antoinette and France in the time of the revolution alive.I can't wait to get a copy of your book.
    Thank you!

  4. Wonderful post! Le Brun is my favorite 18th century painter. Her work is splendid and beautiful.

  5. Only a woman can paint other women with such beauty...

  6. Thank God for Librarians!!

  7. I love Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun' work and her use of brilliant colors to portray women of her era. I will need to visit the Nelson Atkins museum soon as it is right in my backyard. Thank you for your interesting blog!

  8. Dear Fort Osage Garden,

    Thank you for visiting my blog and leaving a comment.

    The Nelson Atkins is a fab museum. Do you know that I was able to hear Olivier Bernier speak there years ago? He gave the most interesting lesson on Madame Pompadour. All through the lesson he used the words "totally charming" - spoken in his slightly high-brow accent.

    I hope you will visit my blog again.

    Leah Marie

  9. Lady Byron, Thank you for being a regular reader of my blog! I am coming to treasure you :)

  10. How awesome. I wish you could find that librarian and thank her! :)

    I was not familiar with Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun - I will have to look up more of her art, she was a very gifted woman. I adore the paintings in this post!

    (jenkmiller75 on Twitter)

  11. Thanks Jen! I'd love to find that librarian, too! If only to tell her, "Thanks for be patient with a chatty kid...and for giving her one of the passions of her life!"

  12. Beautiful!... I'm glad I'm not alone in my appreciation of these wonders... (@ellemgee.. twitter)

  13. Interesting post! Isn't it strange how little things can lead you to lifelong passions?

    I can just barely remember an "Art Smart" - that is, an hour or so about a particular artist or artists done by volunteers - included Lebrun's painting of Marie Antoinette with the rose (the less scandalous version) with a few other French painters.

  14. Thank you for providing a step back. I completely lose myself in the story.

  15. Dear Leah Marie,

    I really did like this post. I find it rather funny how Shirley gave you that book to keep you out of her hair,
    not even thinking how important the story would become to you! It seems almost symbolic that she had
    given you the book the last time you would see each other (at least for a while), as well
    Like you I did not learn about Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun until I was perhaps ten, however, I had been closer
    to her than I had thought. In many of my favourite History books her paintings were included,
    I had learned about her without even realizing it. We even share a knack for painting,
    but what really nearly made me fall off of my chair was our shared birthday,
    much like the many similarities of Madame Marie-Antoinette and yourself!
    And now, whenever I weep from the pain of my fingers when I draw,
    I think to myself: "Now, Gabriela, if Elisabeth created 660 paintings, many while
    her life was in danger, you can finish one small picture!". But enough of my rambling.

    I always love reading your blog entries, you are always so descriptive and
    include a story of how the subject began.
    It is strange, how something that can start out so simple can lead you to something so large.

    I have visited your pinterest pictures as well, leaving me with near self-inflicted deafness,
    resulting from my loud sqeals of utter delight. They were all just absolutely lovely!

    Thank you for yet another wonderful post, Madame Leah Marie!

    I eagerly await for more!


    1. Gabriela ~

      I am now deaf! From squealing with joy over your thoughtful comment. Thank you for reading my blog, visiting my Pinterest boards, and leaving such kind comments. I am glad you are a kindred soul.

      I would love to see your paintings.

      Wishing you all the best.

      Leah Marie

  16. Dear Leah Marie,

    Thank you so much, you are so kind.

    although there is no need for thanks as I truly enjoy reading and visiting your blogs and boards, so my thanks is owed to you!

    I would be honored to show you some of my work, Madame Leah Marie!

    If you would really like to see some, perhaps I may send you one? Please do not feel as if you must accept one,

    I will only send you one if you like.

    Have a good evening!


    1. Absolutely! I love art and would be thrilled to see yours!

      All the best!


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