The woman who invented the selfie

LouiseThis is Elizabeth Louise Vigee le Brun ,an acclaimed French portrait artist who lived from 1755 to 1842. Her father was a mediocre and unsuccessful painter and her mother was a hairdresser. But Louise was a natural and instinctive painter – she was earning her living from it from the age of 15. She married ( at her mother’s insistence) an art dealer who provided her with an entree to the royal court, but turned out to be a womaniser and gambler who eventually stole her money.Nevertheless Louise became a resident artist at the French court.She painted Marie-Antoinette several times – official pictures of her with her children – and more intimate personal portraits.

The French Revolution almost put an end to Louise’s career. Identified with a corrupt and heartless regime she was forced to flee France and travel round Europe, spending six years in Russia where she gained a large an enthusiastic clientele. She returned to Paris in 1802 and continued her career until just before her death in 1844 at the age of 87.

Quite a career. And quite a work rate too. She worked all day, every day and completed over 800 paintings in the course of her career. Today her work gets mixed reviews – some accuse her of being a bit too sacharine, others that she was too trivial.

My interest is in her self portraits. She painted over 40 of them over her career and I want to look at three of them.


This was painted in 1775 when Louise was twenty. Notice that it’s quite formal, and there’s no indication of the fact that she’s an artist. Her expression is slightly awkward. She’s showing off her technical skill here, rather than  revealing her personality. Notice, by the way, that she wears a black- maybe satin- throw over her shoulders. And look at the drop earrings. They make another appearance in the next portrait here:


This was painted some years after – certainly before 1782- and it is a great deal more confident. Notice that she’s using her signature black shawl and that the ear rings are back. It’s a sunnier picture – the flowers in her straw hat matching the paint dabs on her palette. She is a painter and she wants you to know it. But it’s the face that draws me in. This is the face of a woman in her late twenties – she’s calm, poised and looking straight at you. Except, of course, she isn’t. She’s looking straight at herself. A self portrait is a conversation between the painter’s brain and  appearance – and we, as spectators- are caught in the middle. There’s a tension here, a questioning.

Let’s look at the third selfie:


This last selfie was painted in 1800  when Louise was 45 – probably the last painting she completed during her Russian exile.The contrast here is between the figure and the face. She has filled out a little – her dress is more respectable, more middle aged. The earrings have gone. But the face is alert, almost humourous – ” So this is what middle age is like !” she seems to be saying. But the curiosity is still there, the need to chronicle change in her own face.

Did she invent a version of the selfie ?  In a way she did. She ( as many other artists) managed to catch one moment in time – but that took days, if not weeks of careful work . Now we can catch every  expression in seconds. Which is more truthful, though – selfie or portrait ?





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