She was born in Paris to a painter and she began painting as a very young girl. By the time she was in her early teens, she was already painting portraits professionally. After her studio was seized for practicing without a license, she applied to the "Académie de Saint Luc" who willingly exhibited her works in their Salon. On October 25, 1774, she was made a member of the Académie de Saint Luc.
In 1776, she married Jean Baptiste Pierre Lebrun, a painter and art dealer. She painted portraits of many of the nobility of the day and as her career blossomed, she was invited to the Palace of Versailles to paint Queen Marie Antoinette. So pleased was the Queen that over the next several years, Ms. Vigee-Lebrun was commissioned to do numerous portraits of the Queen, her children, and other members of the Royal family and household.
In 1781 she and her husband toured Flanders and the Netherlands where the works of the Flemish masters inspired her to try new techniques. There, she painted portraits of some of the nobility, including the Prince of Nassau.
On May 31, 1783, Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun was accepted as the first female member of France’s "Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture" as a painter of historical allegory. The admission of a female was opposed by the men in charge, but eventually they were overruled by an order from King Louis XVI after Marie Antoinette put considerable pressure on her husband to end the discrimination against women.
After the arrest of the royal family during the French Revolution Vigée-Lebrun fled France and lived and worked for some years in Italy, Austria, and Russia, where her experience in dealing with an aristocratic clientele was still useful. In Rome, her paintings met with great critical acclaim and she was elected to the Roman "Accademia di San Luca." In Russia, she was received by the nobility and painted numerous members of Catherine the Great's family. While there, Ms. Vigee-Lebrun was made a member of the "Academy of Fine Arts of St. Petersburg."
She was welcomed back to France during the reign of Emperor Napoleon I. Much in demand by the elite of Europe, she visited England at the beginning of the 19th century and painted the portrait of several British notables including Lord Byron. In 1807 she traveled to Switzerland and was made an honorary member of the "Societe pour l'Avancement des Beaux-Arts" of Geneva.
Still very active with her painting, in her fifties, she purchased a house in Louveciennes, Île-de-France, and lived there until the house was seized by the Prussian Army during the war in 1814. She stayed in Paris until her death on March 30, 1842 when her body was taken back to Louveciennes and buried in the cemetery near her old home.
The image depicted here of Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun is a photo of a self-portrait, painted in 1782.