Madame Vigée-lebrun – Madame Lebrun And Her Daughter

Questions to arouse interest. What do you see in this picture? What relation are these two to each other? Why do you think so? How are they dressed? Why do you suppose they look so happy? How could Madame Lebrun paint this picture of herself? From what direction does the light come? Why do you like the picture?

Original Picture : The Louvre, Paris, France.

Artist: Madame Vigée-Lebrun (le brüN’).

Birthplace : Paris, France.

Dates: Born, 1755; died, 1842.

The story of the picture. Probably we think we know just how we look and yet I wonder how many of us could tell it to an artist so plainly that he would be able to paint our portrait. Perhaps at best all we could tell him would be that his picture did not look like us, though without knowing why. But it is true that many great artists have painted their own portraits, and very good likenesses they are, too. In some ways it ought to be easy, for as they are their own models they can sit for their pictures as often and as long as they wish.

Madame Lebrun had been planning for some time perhaps to paint a portrait of herself. Then, just as she was all ready and seated in front of a long mirror, the door had opened suddenly and in had come her little daughter. With a hop and a jump she had thrown herself into her mother’s arms. Then with her arms still about her mother’s neck, she had happened to think of the mirror, and half turning there she had seen herself held close in her mother’s embrace. Madame Lebrun realized at once what a lovely picture it would make, and so she began to paint it.

How much they resemble each other! The little girl’s name was Jeanne Julie Louise Lebrun, and she must have been very lovely indeed. Her mother tells us, “She was charming in every respect. Her large blue eyes sparkling with spirit, her slightly tip-tilted nose, her pretty mouth, magnificent teeth, a dazzling fresh complexion, all went to make up one of the sweetest faces to be seen.”

She did not care to draw and paint as her mother did, but she loved to write stories.

How proud of her lovely mother she seems to be! And indeed she ought to look proud, and happy too, for perhaps there never was a little girl more petted and loved. Imagine how proud she must have felt that her mother was such a great artist, and painted beautiful pictures which every one admired and which, with her pleasant ways, made her one of the most beloved women in France.

The light in the picture seems to come from a window at the left-hand side and to fall directly upon the faces of the mother and child. So interested are we in them we do not realize that there is no landscape background, only a suggestion of a curtain or screen against which the two faces stand out clearly. The mother is dressed in white, the daughter in a blue which matches her merry blue eyes.

To us these two can never grow sad or old, and we are glad Madame Lebrun looked in her mirror and gave us this beautiful picture.


Once a mirror, tall and stately, Caught an image, held it safely, Gleamed and glistened, Dreamed and listened,

While the artist, glancing in it, Glanced again, and smiled within it, Thought and pondered, Sought and wondered.

As she sat thus at her mirror, Came a vision of one dearer, Danced and shouted, Pranced and pouted.

Quickly threw her arms about her, Clasped her closely,— ‘t was her daughter, Light and airy, Sprite and fairy.

Both into the mirror glancing, Saw at once the sight entrancing, Glanced and smiling, ‘Tranced, beguiling.

Then the artist seized her brushes, For her paints the daughter rushes: Sought, and bringing, Brought them, singing.

And the artist, painting quickly, Paints until the light grows sickly. Starts and lingers, Parts tired fingers.

When at last the work was ended, All the critics called it “splendid.” Fame and honors Came as donors.

Questions to help the pupil understand the picture. How did Madame Lebrun paint this picture of herself? Who came running into the room? Why do you think the mother was glad she came? What made her think of painting her daughter, too? What is the color of her daughter’s hair? her eyes? What is the daughter’s name? What did she like to do? What is the color of her dress? of her mother’s? Why should she be so proud of her mother?

The story of the artist. Madame Lebrun began to draw and paint when she was not as old as the little daughter we see in the picture. Her father was her teacher. One day when she was only seven years old she surprised him by drawing a picture of a man with a long beard, which was so good that he said, “You will be a great painter, my child, if ever there has been one.” She always remembered this, and when she was sent away to the convent to school she drew just as much and as often as she could. Her notebooks were full of drawings which were so well done they were kept in the convent to show to visitors.

After she returned home she began to paint in earnest. Her father had many artist friends, and when they came to the house she loved to sit quietly in a corner and listen to their talk about great pictures and artists. It was not very long before she was painting pictures which brought her great praise and honor. About this time her father died, and later on her mother married. again. The stepfather was a rich ‘ man, but he was very stingy, and insisted upon her giving him all the money she earned. By this time her fame had spread over the country, and people came from far and near to have her paint their portraits.

She married a man who was a picture dealer and who, although she had not known it, was a reckless gambler. She was obliged to give him most of the money she earned to pay his debts. After a time she left him, taking her lovely little daughter with her. She had, a studio of her own where she could work, and entertain her friends, and there she lived and worked very happily with her little daughter.

One evening Madame Lebrun went to the theater and when the curtain went up, there on a large easel on the stage was one of her paintings. When the people saw it they all stood up and waved and cheered while they looked toward the artist, who was seated in a box. Madame Lebrun was so surprised she almost forgot to smile and bow to them.

The king and queen sent for her to come and paint their portraits. Day after day the royal carriage would come to take her to the palace to paint the queen, Marie Antoinette, and her children. Those were happy days for her.

A very short time after this picture was painted the dreadful French Revolution broke out. The poor people of France, who had been treated very badly by the rich, rebelled and tried to kill or drive away all the rich people. Madame Lebrun had always been friends with the rich people, so it was not safe for her to stay in Paris, either.

One evening she dressed her little daughter in a ragged dress and bonnet to make her look like a poor peasant child. She herself wore an old dress, with a handkerchief over her head to hide her face like a veil. They slipped quietly out of the house and into an omnibus that was waiting for them and drove as quickly as possible through the crowded streets, out of the city. No one recognized them, and they went to Italy, where they traveled about the country for many years. Mother and daughter were very popular and were entertained royally wherever they went. But Madame Lebrun never laid aside her painting. Even when she was eighty years old she painted a beautiful portrait of her little niece, who must have reminded her of the little daughter in this picture.

Questions about the artist. What did Madame Lebrun do when she was a little girl? Who was her teacher? Of whom did she draw a picture to surprise her father? What did he say of it? What did this make her do? Why were her notebooks treasured at the convent? Tell about her stepfather. Tell what happened at the theater. What king and queen sent for her to paint their portraits? Why did she and her daughter leave Paris? How did they escape?