A mother's work

In this portrait of her daughter, renowned French artist Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun captures a love that deserted her in life.

Published May 13, 2007

Children of all ages, in case you have forgotten, this is Mother's Day.

- Make the phone call, get the card, buy flowers, book a table at her favorite restaurant. And for something unexpected, take her to the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg and gaze together on Julie Lebrun as Flora, painted by her mother, Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, in 1799.

- It's a beautiful work, one of the finest in the museum's permanent collection according to curator Jennifer Hardin, and attests to the love this mother had for her only child.

- But there's a deeper story here on the nature of love, so tied to our egos and needs, and its ability to transform us into our worst or best selves.

The mother

Elisabeth Louise Vigee-Lebrun 1755-1842 was the finest and most famous portrait painter of her time and, perhaps, the most successful woman artist of all time. The people who sat for her were the European A-list of their day.

She was born in Paris to modest circumstances that she never hid throughout her illustrious career. She was largely self-taught, her classroom the museums and galleries she haunted, making copies of great paintings. Her talent was undeniable, along with her beauty and charm. By the age of 15, she was receiving commissions from wealthy Parisians. For the rest of her life, Elisabeth Vigee would be the breadwinner for those close to her.

Her career and development as an artist were aided by her marriage to art dealer Pierre Lebrun in 1776, the same year she received her first royal commission to paint King Louis XVI's brother. Two years later she painted her first portrait of Marie Antoinette. She would do at least 19 more during the next decade, becoming the queen's friend. Though Vigee-Lebrun's marriage seems to be one of convenience and he gambled away his money, and hers, as soon as it was made, the couple had a daughter, Julie, born in 1780. Nine years later, Vigee-Lebrun, an obvious target for antiroyalists, fled France disguised as a maid, with Julie and her governess, on the same day, Oct. 6, the king and queen were taken from Versailles by a mob.

Vigee-Lebrun's exile lasted 12 years. During that time her husband divorced her to save himself during the revolutionary carnage. She stopped in Italy, Austria and Germany, gathering lucrative commissions and admirers along the way, before settling in Russia for six years. There she was immediately taken up by the imperial family, making a fortune that she enlarged through smart investments. She returned to France in 1802, but a year later left for England and more commissions, painting the Prince of Wales and other luminaries.

In 1805 she settled permanently in France.

Vigee-Lebrun painted more than 800 portraits during her lifetime. She died in 1842 a year after a debilitating stroke.

The daughter

Jeanne Julie Louise Lebrun was, for the first half of her life (1780-1819), her mother's greatest joy. Even in the first years abroad after their forced departure from France, Vigee-Lebrun lavished the material comforts and fine education on her daughter that she had been denied as a child. She wrote in her memoirs Souvenirs, "I saw in my daughter the happiness of my life."

Her mother painted an estimated 12 portraits of Julie, including two double portraits of mother and daughter, beginning when Julie was 6.

They were living in St. Petersburg, Russia, when Julie, 20, announced her intention to marry Gaetan Nigris, 30, secretary to the Imperial Theatre director. Vigee-Lebrun described him as "without talents, without fortune, without name."

Elisabeth was adamantly opposed to the marriage and Julie was just as obdurate in pursuing it. Vigee-Lebrun paid for the wedding and a dowry, then observed that "a fortnight had sufficed for (the newlyweds') love to evaporate. As for me, the whole charm of my life seemed to be irretrievably destroyed."

For unexplained reasons, the rift between Elisabeth and Julie deepened and their intimacy was never restored. Elisabeth tells her side of the story in muted terms that could be interpreted as discreet or petty. There are no known papers written by Julie. After 1805 both lived in Paris, Julie's husband having left her. She was reduced to penury but Elisabeth, now a wealthy woman, provided no help. She explains in Souvenirs that she didn't approve of her daughter's friends. Julie became seriously ill in 1819, possibly with pneumonia. Elisabeth wrote, "I hastened to her as soon as I heard but the disease progressed rapidly."

She left her daughter and learned she had died, alone, the next day.

"All the wrong-doing of the poor little one vanished, " she wrote. "I saw her again, I still see her, in the days of her childhood."

Vigee-Lebrun would live another 23 years.

The painting

Vigee-Lebrun is associated with the early 18th century rococo style even though she lived well into a new movement, the neoclassical. Rococo is considered the tail end of the baroque, a sort of "baroque light, " full of fantasy and surface gloss.

Julie Lebrun as Flora contains all the hallmarks that made Vigee-Lebrun so celebrated. She had great facility technically, capturing the likeness of her sitter while idealizing without exaggeration.

Julie is portrayed as the Roman goddess of spring. The young woman is draped in a diaphanous gown trimmed in regal gold, a red cloth slung over her shoulder. Her pose is one of vitality and self-confidence. The background suggests an Italian setting, probably Naples where they lived briefly in the early years of exile.

The props are allegorical, the laurel wreath representing peace and - in its heart shape - romantic love, perhaps a symbol for Elisabeth of a hoped-for truce between the two and her wish for Julie's happiness. Painted the year before Julie's marriage, it was the last one she made of her daughter.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com


Museum of Fine Arts

The museum, at 255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $8 adults, $7 seniors, $4 students. (727) 896-2667 or www. fine-arts.org.