How One Painter Condemned All Her Models To The Guillotine

How One Painter Condemned All Her Models To The Guillotine

Avatar of Gustavo Lopez

By: Gustavo Lopez

February 15, 2017

Art How One Painter Condemned All Her Models To The Guillotine
Avatar of Gustavo Lopez

By: Gustavo Lopez

February 15, 2017

We’ve all read that spammy email or comment on social media that says something along the lines of, “if you read this, you have three days before you die, unless you do so and so.” Even as we scoff and laugh as we keep scrolling or hit delete, we’re left a bit shaken. It’s almost as if we’ve had a brush with death, despite nothing actually happening.

Vigee Le Brun French Aristocracy Details

There’s a similar eerie feeling when we watch home videos that show family members or friends who have passed away. It’s a bizarre sensation, to watch them run, smile, or avoid the camera. It’s a private sort of time machine. It keeps our loved ones living as digital ghosts. Maybe that’s why at the beginning of the age of photography and daguerreotypes, plenty of people refused to have their picture taken, fearing their soul would be captured.

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun Daughter

Now, lets imagine being fully aware that being photographed or filmed came with a death sentence. The only thing that would remain of you would be that image. Well, that’s exactly what happened to the models of the portraits done by Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée Lebrun.

Vigee Le Brun French Aristocracy Self Portrait

Every person who posed for the beautiful Parisian artist born in 1755 met their ends at the guillotine during the French Revolution.

Vigee Le Brun French Aristocracy Three Men

Vigeé Le Brun was a child prodigy. At the age of sixteen she was already a skilled artist, and she became the first woman to be a member of the Académie de Saint-Luc.

Vigee Le Brun French Aristocracy Marie Antoinette

At the age of twenty three she was invited to Versailles to paint the portrait of Marie Antoinette, who was the same age as her. The year was 1779, and the young aristocrat immediately took the artist into her inner circle.

Vigee Le Brun French Aristocracy Antoinettes

In total, the artist made 30 paintings of Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna Habsburg-Lorraine. The popular image of the Archduchess of Austria is owed to Vigée Le Brun, now combined with the newest popular representation of the French Queen that was Kirsten Dunst in the 2006 movie Marie Antoinette.

Vigee Le Brun French Aristocracy Film Antoinette

It was among the privileged group where she met the entire Paris court and high society, eventually turning into the most sought out portrait painter of the time. She knew all the gossip –even becoming part of it– next to Marie Antoinette.

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun French Aristocracy Couple

But then came the fight in the name of freedom, equality, and fraternity. The royal family was incarcerated and the aristocracy was sent to the executioner. All this while Vigée Le Brun crossed the border into Italy, then Austria, and finally Russia.

Vigee Le Brun French Aristocracy Desk

We can only imagine the brothers of the revolution scouring through each palace, looking for all its inhabitants, destroying the contents of the mansions with the rage they’d contained for years and years of enduring abuse and financial abandonment.

Vigee Le Brun French Aristocracy Women

The faces that were carefully painted and captured into the canvas were disfigured by the terror of knowing their doomed fate. The only remembrance of their existence would be a painting exhibited at a museum hundreds of years later. Perhaps then someone would stop and truly look at the painting and think the eyes seem quite hazy, as if they were having a premonition while their portrait was taken. After 660 portraits and 200 landscapes, Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée Lebrun returned to Paris, where she died in 1842. She became known as the most important female artist of the eighteenth century.

I think of the pictures and videos that have been taken of me. Will they one day serve as the only thing keeping me from dissolving into oblivion?

Like Élisabeth Vigée Lebrun, there were plenty of artists who were part of Marie Antoinette's exclusive inner circle. One of these characters was her dressmaker and fashion consultant, who'd become the first celebrity designer. As for the queen consort of France herself, she could create controversy at every turn

Translated by María Suárez