Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (16 April 1755 – 30 March 1842), also known as Madame Le Brun, was a French portrait painter in the late 18th century.
Her artistic style is generally considered part of the aftermath of Rococo with elements of an adopted Neoclassical style. Her subject matter and color palette can be classified as Rococo, but her style is aligned with the emergence of Neoclassicism. Vigée Le Brun created a name for herself in Ancien Régime society by serving as the portrait painter to Marie Antoinette. She enjoyed the patronage of European aristocrats, actors, and writers, and was elected to art academies in ten cities.
Vigée Le Brun created 660 portraits and 200 landscapes. In addition to many works in private collections, her paintings are owned by major museums, such as the Louvre Paris, Uffizi Florence, Hermitage Museum Saint Petersburg, National Gallery in London, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and many other collections in continental Europe and the United States.
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, aussi appelée Élisabeth Vigée, Élisabeth Le Brun ou Élisabeth Lebrun, née Louise-Élisabeth Vigée le 16 avril 1755 à Paris, et morte dans la même ville le 30 mars 1842, est une artiste peintre française, considérée comme une grande portraitiste de son temps.
Elle a été comparée à Quentin de La Tour ou Jean-Baptiste Greuze.
Son art et sa carrière exceptionnelle en font un témoin privilégié des bouleversements de la fin du xviiie siècle, de la Révolution Française et de la Restauration. Fervente royaliste, elle sera successivement peintre de la cour de France, de Marie-Antoinette et de Louis XVI, du Royaume de Naples, de la Cour de l'empereur de Vienne, de l'empereur de Russie et de la Restauration. On lui connaît aussi plusieurs autoportraits, dont deux avec sa fille.
Born in Paris on 16 April 1755, Élisabeth Louise Vigée was the daughter of Jeanne (1728–1800), a hairdresser from a peasant background, and Louis Vigée, a portraitist, pastellist and member of the Académie de Saint-Luc, from whom she received her first instruction.
In 1760, at the age of five, she entered a convent, where she remained until 1766. Her father died when she was 12 years old. In 1768, her mother married a wealthy jeweller, Jacques-François Le Sèvre, and shortly after, the family moved to the Rue Saint-Honoré, close to the Palais Royal. In her memoir, Vigée Le Brun directly stated her feelings about her step-father: "I hated this man; even more so since he made use of my father's personal possessions. He wore his clothes, just as they were, without altering them to fit his figure.” During this period, Élisabeth benefited from the advice of Gabriel François Doyen, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, and Joseph Vernet, whose influence is evident in her portrait of her younger brother, playwright and poet Étienne Vigée.
By the time she was in her early teens, Élisabeth was painting portraits professionally. After her studio was seized for her practicing without a license, she applied to the Académie de Saint-Luc, which unwittingly exhibited her works in their Salon.
In 1774, she was made a member of the Académie. On 11 January 1776, she married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, a painter and art dealer. Her husband's great-great-uncle was Charles Le Brun, the first director of the French Academy under Louis XIV. Vigée Le Brun began exhibiting her work at their home in Paris, the Hôtel de Lubert, and the Salons she held here supplied her with many new and important contacts.
On 12 February 1780, Vigée Le Brun gave birth to a daughter, Jeanne Lucie Louise, whom she called Julie and nicknamed "Brunette".
In 1781 she and her husband toured Flanders and the Netherlands, where seeing the works of the Flemish masters inspired her to try new techniques. Her Self-portrait with Straw Hat (1782) was a "free imitation" of Peter Paul Rubens' Le Chapeau de Paille. Dutch and Flemish influences have also been noted in her later paintings The Comte d'Espagnac (1786) and Madame Perregaux (1789).
As her career blossomed, Vigée Le Brun was granted patronage by Marie Antoinette. She painted more than 30 portraits of the queen and her family, leading to the common perception that she was the official portraitist of Marie Antoinette.
At the Salon of 1783, Vigée Le Brun exhibited Marie-Antoinette in a Muslin Dress (1783), sometimes called Marie-Antoinette en gaulle, in which the queen chose to be shown in a simple, informal white cotton garment. The resulting scandal was prompted by both the informality of the attire and the queen's decision to be shown in that way.
On 31 May 1783, Vigée Le Brun was received as a member of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. She was one of only 15 women to be granted full membership in the Académie between 1648 and 1793. Her rival, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, was admitted on the same day. Vigée Le Brun was initially refused on the grounds that her husband was an art dealer, but eventually the Académie was overruled by an order from Louis XVI because Marie Antoinette put considerable pressure on her husband on behalf of her portraitist. As her reception piece, Vigée Le Brun submitted an allegorical painting, Peace Bringing Back Abundance (La Paix ramenant l'Abondance), instead of a portrait. As a consequence, the Académie did not place her work within a standard category of painting—either history or portraiture. Vigée Le Brun's membership in the Académie dissolved after the French Revolution because female academicians were abolished.
Vigée Le Brun's later Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1786) was evidently an attempt to improve the queen's image by making her more relatable to the public, in the hopes of countering the bad press and negative judgments that the queen had recently received. The portrait shows the queen at home in the Palace of Versailles, engaged in her official function as the mother of the king's children, but also suggests Marie Antoinette's uneasy identity as a foreign-born queen whose maternal role was her only true function under Salic law. The child, Louis Joseph, on the right is pointing to an empty cradle, which signified her recent loss of a child, further emphasizing Marie Antoinette's role as a mother.
In 1787, she caused a minor public scandal when her Self-portrait with Her Daughter Julie (1786) was exhibited at the Salon of 1787 showing her smiling and open-mouthed, which was in direct contravention of traditional painting conventions going back to antiquity. The court gossip-sheet Mémoires secrets commented: "An affectation which artists, art-lovers and persons of taste have been united in condemning, and which finds no precedent among the Ancients, is that in smiling, [Madame Vigée LeBrun] shows her teeth."
In light of this and her other Self-portrait with Her Daughter Julie (1789), Simone de Beauvoir dismissed Vigée Le Brun as narcissistic in The Second Sex (1949): "Madame Vigée-Lebrun never wearied of putting her smiling maternity on her canvases.”
In October 1789, after the arrest of the royal family during the French Revolution, Vigée Le Brun fled France with her young daughter, Julie. Her husband, who remained in Paris, claimed that Vigée Le Brun went to Italy "to instruct and improve herself", but she certainly feared for her own safety. In her 12-year absence from France, she lived and worked in Italy (1789–1792), Austria (1792–1795), Russia (1795–1801) and Germany (1801).
While in Italy, Vigée Le Brun was elected to the Academy in Parma (1789) and the Accademia di San Luca in Rome (1790). In Naples, she painted portraits of Maria Carolina of Austria (sister of Marie Antoinette) and her eldest four living children: Maria Teresa, Francesco, Luisa and Maria Cristina. She later recalled that Luisa "was extremely ugly, and pulled such faces that I was most reluctant to finish her portrait."
Vigée Le Brun also painted allegorical portraits of the notorious Emma Hamilton as Ariadne (1790) and as a Bacchante (1792). Lady Hamilton was similarly the model for Vigée Le Brun's Sibyl (1792), which was inspired by the painted sibyls of Domenichino.The painting represents the Cumaean Sibyl, as indicated by the Greek inscription on the figure's scroll, which is taken from Virgil's fourth Eclogue. The Sibyl was Vigée Le Brun's favorite painting. It is mentioned in her memoir more than any other work. She displayed it while in Venice (1792), Vienna (1792), Dresden (1794) and Saint Petersburg (1795); she also sent it to be shown at the Salon of 1798. Like her reception piece, Peace Bringing Back Abundance, Vigée Le Brun regarded her Sibyl as a history painting, the most elevated category in the Académie's hierarchy.
While in Vienna, Vigée Le Brun was commissioned to paint Princess Maria Josefa Hermengilde von Esterhazy as Ariadne, and its pendant Princess Karoline von Liechtenstein as Iris Princess Karoline. The portraits depict the Liechtenstein sisters-in-law in unornamented Roman-inspired garments that show the influence of Neoclassicism, and which may have been a reference to the virtuous republican Roman matron Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi.
In Russia, where she stayed from 1795 until 1801, she was well-received by the nobility and painted numerous aristocrats, including the former king of Poland, Stanisław August Poniatowski, and members of the family of Catherine the Great.
Although the French aesthetic was widely admired in Russia, there remained various cultural differences as to what was deemed acceptable. Catherine was not initially happy with Vigée Le Brun's portrait of her granddaughters, Elena and Alexandra Pavlovna, due to the amount of bare skin the short-sleeved gowns revealed. In order to please the Empress, Vigée Le Brun added sleeves. This tactic seemed effective in pleasing Catherine, as she agreed to sit herself for Vigée Le Brun (although Catherine died of a stroke before this work was due to begin). While in Russia, Vigée Le Brun was made a member of the Academy of Fine Arts of Saint Petersburg. Much to Vigée Le Brun's dismay, her daughter Julie married Gaétan Bernard Nigris, secretary to the Director of the Imperial Theaters of Saint Petersburg. Julie predeceased her mother in 1819.
After a sustained campaign by her ex-husband and other family members to have her name removed from the list of counter-revolutionary émigrés, Vigée Le Brun was finally able to return to France in January 1802. She travelled to London in 1803, to Switzerland in 1807, and to Switzerland again in 1808. In Geneva, she was made an honorary member of the Société pour l'Avancement des Beaux-Arts. She stayed at Coppet with Madame de Staël, who appears as the title character in Corinne, ou l'Italie (1807).
In her later years, Vigée Le Brun purchased a house in Louveciennes, Île-de-France and divided her time between Louveciennes and Paris. She died in Paris on 30 March 1842, aged 86. She was buried at the Cimetière de Louveciennes near her old home. Her tombstone epitaph says "Ici, enfin, je repose..." (Here, at last, I rest...).
Between 1835 and 1837, when Vigée Le Brun was in her 80s, she published her memoirs in three volumes (Souvenirs).
During her lifetime, Vigée Le Brun's work was publicly exhibited in Paris at the Académie de Saint-Luc (1774), Salon de la Correspondance (1779, 1781, 1782, 1783) and Salon of the Académie in Paris (1783, 1785, 1787, 1789, 1791, 1798, 1802, 1817, 1824).
The first retrospective exhibition of Vigée Le Brun's work was held in 1982 at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. The first major international retrospective exhibition of her art premiered at the Galeries nationales du Grand Palais in Paris (2015—2016) and was subsequently shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (2016) and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa (2016).
Élisabeth-Louise voit le jour en 1755. Ses parents, Louis Vigée, pastelliste et membre de l’Académie de Saint-Luc et Jeanne Maissin, d’origine paysanne, se marient en 1750; un frère cadet, Étienne Vigée, qui deviendra un auteur dramatique à succès, naît deux ans plus tard.
Née rue Coquillière à Paris, Élisabeth est baptisée à l’église Saint-Eustache de Paris, puis mise en nourrice. Dans la bourgeoisie et l'aristocratie, il n'est pas encore dans les habitudes d'élever ses enfants soi-même, aussi l’enfant est-elle confiée à des paysans des environs d’Épernon.
Son père vient la rechercher six ans plus tard, la ramène à Paris dans l'appartement familial rue de Cléry.
Élisabeth-Louise entre comme pensionnaire à l’école du couvent de la Trinité, rue de Charonne dans le faubourg Saint-Antoine, afin de recevoir la meilleure éducation possible. Dès cet âge, son talent précoce pour le dessin s’exprime : dans ses cahiers, sur les murs de son école.
En 1766, Élisabeth-Louise quitte le couvent et vient vivre aux côtés de ses parents.
Son père meurt accidentellement d'une septicémie après avoir avalé une arête de poisson, le 9 mai 1767. Élisabeth-Louise, qui n'a que douze ans, mettra longtemps à faire son deuil puis décide de s'adonner à ses passions, la peinture, le dessin et le pastel.
Sa mère se remarie dès le 26 décembre 1767 avec un joaillier fortuné mais avare, Jacques-François Le Sèvre (1724-1810) ; les relations d'Élisabeth-Louise avec son beau-père sont difficiles.
Le premier professeur d’Élisabeth fut son père, Louis Vigée. Après le décès de ce dernier, c’est un autre peintre, Gabriel-François Doyen, meilleur ami de la famille et célèbre en son temps comme peintre d'histoire, qui l’encourage à persévérer dans le pastel et dans l’huile ; conseil qu’elle suivra.
C’est certainement conseillée par Doyen, qu’en 1769 Élisabeth Vigée se rend chez le peintre Gabriel Briard, une connaissance de ce dernier (pour avoir eu le même maître, Carl van Loo). Briard est membre de l’Académie royale de peinture, et donne volontiers des leçons, bien qu'il ne soit pas encore professeur. Peintre médiocre, il a surtout la réputation d’être un bon dessinateur et possède en plus un atelier au palais du Louvre ; Élisabeth fait de rapides progrès et, déjà, commence à faire parler d’elle.
C’est au Louvre qu’elle fait la connaissance de Joseph Vernet, artiste célèbre dans toute l’Europe. Il est l'un des peintres les plus courus de Paris, ses conseils font autorité, et il ne manquera pas de lui en prodiguer.
« J’ai constamment suivi ses avis ; car je n’ai jamais eu de maître proprement dit », écrit-elle dans ses mémoires.
Quoi qu’il en soit, Vernet, qui consacrera de son temps à la formation de « Mlle Vigée », et Jean-Baptiste Greuze la remarquent et la conseillent.
Elle peint son premier tableau reconnu en 1770, un portrait de sa mère (Madame Le Sèvre).
En 1770, le dauphin Louis-Auguste, futur Louis XVI, petit-fils du roi Louis XV, épouse Marie-Antoinette d'Autriche à Versailles, fille de l'impératrice Marie-Thérèse.
À la même époque, la famille Le Sèvre-Vigée s’installe rue Saint-Honoré, face au Palais-Royal, dans l'hôtel de Lubert. Louise-Élisabeth Vigée commence à réaliser des portraits de commande et à peindre de nombreux autoportraits.
Lorsque son beau-père se retire des affaires en 1775, la famille s'installe rue de Cléry, dans l'hôtel Lubert, dont le principal locataire est Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Lebrun qui exerce les professions de marchand et restaurateur de tableaux, d'antiquaire et de peintre. Il est un spécialiste de peinture hollandaise dont il a publié des catalogues. Elle visite avec le plus vif intérêt la galerie de tableaux de Lebrun et y parfait ses connaissances picturales. Ce dernier devient son agent, s'occupe de ses affaires. Déjà marié une première fois en Hollande, il la demande en mariage. Libertin et joueur, il a mauvaise réputation, et le mariage est formellement déconseillé à la jeune artiste. Cependant, désireuse d'échapper à sa famille, elle l'épouse le 11 janvier 1776 dans l'intimité. Élisabeth Vigée devient Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.
Elle reçoit cette même année sa première commande de la Cour du comte de Provence, le frère du roi puis, le 30 novembre 1776, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun est admise à travailler pour la Cour de Louis XVI.
En 1778, elle devient peintre officielle de la reine et est donc appelée pour réaliser le premier portrait de la reine Marie-Antoinette d'après nature.
Son hôtel particulier devient un lieu à la mode, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun traverse une période de succès et son mari y ouvre une salle des ventes dans laquelle il vend des antiquités et des tableaux de Greuze, Fragonard, etc. Elle vend ses portraits pour 12 000 francs sur lesquels elle ne touche que 6 francs, son mari empochant le reste, comme elle le dit dans ses Souvenirs : « J'avais sur l'argent une telle insouciance, que je n'en connaissais presque pas la valeur. »
Le 12 février 1780, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun donne naissance à sa fille Jeanne-Julie-Louise. Elle continue à peindre pendant les premières contractions et, dit-on, lâche à peine ses pinceaux pendant l’accouchement. Sa fille Julie sera le sujet de nombreux portraits. Une seconde grossesse quelques années plus tard donnera un enfant mort en bas âge.
En 1781, elle voyage à Bruxelles avec son mari pour assister et acheter à la vente de la collection du défunt gouverneur Charles-Alexandre de Lorraine ; elle y rencontre le prince de Ligne.
Inspirée par Rubens qu'elle admire, elle peint son Autoportrait au chapeau de paille en 1782 (Londres, National Gallery).
Alors qu'elle n'arrivait pas à y être admise, elle est reçue à l’Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture le 31 mai 1783 en même temps que sa concurrente Adélaïde Labille-Guiard et contre la volonté de Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre, premier peintre du roi. Son sexe et la profession de son mari marchand de tableaux sont pourtant de fortes oppositions à son entrée, mais l'intervention protectrice de Marie-Antoinette lui permet d'obtenir ce privilège de Louis XVI.
Vigée Le Brun présente une peinture de réception (alors qu’on ne lui en demandait pas), La Paix ramenant l’Abondance réalisée en 1783 (Paris, musée du Louvre), pour être admise en qualité de peintre d’Histoire. Forte de l'appui de la reine, elle se permet l'impertinence d'y montrer un sein découvert, alors que les nus académiques étaient réservés aux hommes. Elle est reçue sans qu’aucune catégorie soit précisée.
En septembre de la même année, elle participe au Salon pour la première fois et y présente Marie-Antoinette dit « à la Rose » : initialement, elle a l'audace de présenter la reine dans une robe en gaule, mousseline de coton qui est généralement utilisée en linge de corps ou d'intérieur, mais les critiques se scandalisent du fait que la reine s'est fait peindre en chemise, si bien qu'au bout de quelques jours, Vigée Le Brun doit le retirer et le remplacer par un portrait identique mais avec une robe plus conventionnelle. Dès lors, les prix de ses tableaux s'envolent.
Avant 1789, l'œuvre d'Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun est composé de portraits, genre à la mode dans la seconde moitié du xviiie siècle, pour les clients fortunés et aristocratiques qui constituent sa clientèle.
Parmi ses portraits de femmes, on peut citer notamment les portraits de Marie-Antoinette (une vingtaine sans compter ceux des enfants) ; Catherine Noël Worlee (la future princesse de Talleyrand) qu’elle réalisa en 1783 et qui fut exposé au Salon de peinture de Paris de cette même année 1783 ; la sœur de Louis XVI, Mme Élisabeth ; l'épouse du comte d'Artois ; deux amies de la reine : la princesse de Lamballe et la comtesse de Polignac. En 1786, elle peint son premier autoportrait avec sa fille et le portrait de Marie-Antoinette et ses enfants. Les deux tableaux sont exposés au Salon de peinture de Paris de la même année et c'est l'autoportrait avec sa fille qui est encensé par le public.
En 1788, elle peint ce qu'elle considère comme son chef-d'œuvre : Le Portrait du peintre Hubert Robert.
Au sommet de sa gloire, dans son hôtel particulier parisien, rue de Cléry, où elle reçoit une fois par semaine la haute société, elle donne un « souper grec », qui défraye la chronique par l'ostentation qui s'y déploie et pour laquelle on la soupçonne d'avoir dépensé une fortune.
Le coût du dîner de 20 000 francs fut rapporté au roi Louis XVI qui s'emporta contre l'artiste.
À l’été 1789, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun se trouve à Louveciennes chez la comtesse du Barry, la dernière maîtresse de Louis XV, dont elle a commencé le portrait, lorsque les deux femmes entendent le canon tonner dans Paris.
Dans la nuit du 5 au 6 octobre 1789, alors que la famille royale est ramenée de force à Paris, Élisabeth quitte la capitale avec sa fille, Julie, sa gouvernante et cent louis, laissant derrière elle son époux qui l'encourage à fuir, ses peintures et le million de francs qu'elle a gagné à son mari, n'emportant que 20 francs, écrit-elle dans ses Souvenirs.
Elle arrive à Rome en novembre 1789. En 1790, elle est reçue à la Galerie des Offices en réalisant son Autoportrait, qui obtient un grand succès. Elle envoie des œuvres à Paris au Salon. L’artiste effectue son Grand Tour et vit entre Florence, Rome où elle retrouve Ménageot, et Naples avec Talleyrand et Lady Hamilton, puis Vivant Denon, le premier directeur du Louvre, à Venise. Elle veut rentrer en France, mais elle est inscrite, en 1792, sur la liste des émigrés et perd ainsi ses droits civiques.
Elle se rend à Vienne en Autriche, d'où elle ne pense pas partir et où, en tant qu'ancienne peintre de la reine Marie-Antoinette, elle bénéficie de la protection de la famille impériale.
À Paris, Jean-Baptiste Pierre Lebrun a vendu tout son fonds de commerce en 1791 pour éviter la faillite, alors que le marché de l'art s'est effondré et a perdu la moitié de sa valeur. Proche de Jacques-Louis David, il demande en 1793, sans succès, que le nom de sa femme soit retiré de la liste des émigrés.
Invoquant la désertion de sa femme, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre demande et obtient le divorce en 1794 pour se protéger et préserver leurs biens.
Quant à Elisabeth-Louise, elle parcourt l'Europe en triomphe.
En 1809, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun revient en France et s'installe à Louveciennes, dans une maison de campagne voisine du château ayant appartenu à la comtesse du Barry (guillotinée en 1793) dont elle avait peint trois portraits avant la Révolution. Elle vit alors entre Louveciennes et Paris. À Louveciennes, où elle vit huit mois de l'année, le reste en hiver à Paris, où elle tient salon et croise les artistes en renom le dimanche.
Son mari, dont elle avait divorcé, meurt en 1813.
En 1814, elle se réjouit du retour de Louis XVIII, « Le monarque qui convenait à l'époque », écrit-elle dans ses mémoires. Après 1815 et la Restauration, ses tableaux, en particulier les portraits de Marie-Antoinette, sont restaurés et ré-accrochés au Louvre, à Fontainebleau et à Versailles.
Sa fille finit sa vie dans la misère en 1819, et son frère, Étienne Vigée, meurt en 1820. Elle effectue un dernier voyage à Bordeaux au cours duquel elle effectue de nombreux dessins de ruines.
En 1835, elle publie ses Souvenirs avec l'aide de ses nièces Caroline Rivière, venue vivre avec elle, et d'Eugénie Tripier Le Franc, peintre portraitiste et dernière élève. C'est cette dernière qui écrit de sa main une partie des souvenirs du peintre, d'où les doutes émis par certains historiens quant à leur authenticité.
À la fin de sa vie, l'artiste en proie à des attaques cérébrales, perd la vue.
Elle meurt à Paris à son domicile de la rue Saint-Lazare le 30 mars 1842 et est enterrée au cimetière paroissial de Louveciennes. Sur la pierre tombale, privée de sa grille d'entourage, se dresse la stèle de marbre blanc portant l'épitaphe « Ici, enfin, je repose… », ornée d'un médaillon représentant une palette sur un socle et surmontée d'une croix. Sa tombe a été transférée en 1880 au cimetière des Arches de Louveciennes, lorsque l'ancien cimetière a été désaffecté.
À l'invitation de l'ambassadeur de Russie, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun se rend en Russie, pays qu'elle considèrera comme sa seconde patrie.
En 1799, une pétition de deux cent cinquante-cinq artistes, littérateurs et scientifiques demandent au Directoire le retrait de son nom de la liste des émigrés.
En 1800, son retour est précipité par le décès de sa mère à Neuilly et le mariage, qu'elle n'approuve pas, de sa fille Julie avec Gaëtan Bertrand Nigris, directeur des Théâtres impériaux à Saint-Pétersbourg. C'est pour elle un déchirement. Déçue par son mari, elle avait fondé tout son univers affectif sur sa fille. Les deux femmes ne se réconcilieront jamais totalement.
Elle est accueillie à Paris le 18 janvier 1802, où elle retrouve son mari, avec qui elle revit sous le même toit.
Si le retour d’Élisabeth est salué par la presse, elle a du mal à retrouver sa place dans la nouvelle société née de la Révolution et de l'Empire.
Quelques mois plus tard, elle quitte la France pour l'Angleterre, où elle s'installe à Londres pour trois ans. Là, elle rencontre Lord Byron, le peintre Benjamin West, retrouve Lady Hamilton, la maîtresse de l'amiral Nelson qu'elle avait connue à Naples, et admire la peinture de Joshua Reynolds.
Elle vit avec la Cour de Louis XVIII et du comte d'Artois en exil entre Londres, Bath et Douvres.
En 1805, elle reçoit la commande du portrait de Caroline Murat, épouse du général Murat, une des sœurs de Napoléon devenue reine de Naples, et cela se passe mal : « J’ai peint de véritables princesses qui ne m’ont jamais tourmentée et ne m’ont pas fait attendre », dira l'artiste quinquagénaire à cette jeune reine parvenue.
Le 14 janvier 1807, elle rachète à son mari endetté son hôtel particulier parisien et sa salle des ventes. Mais en butte au pouvoir impérial, Vigée Le Brun quitte la France pour la Suisse, où elle rencontre Madame de Staël en 1807.
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun fut célèbre de son vivant, mais son œuvre associée à l'Ancien Regime, et en particulier à la Reine Marie-Antoinette va être sous-estimée jusqu'au xxie siècle.
La première rétrospective de son œuvre en France a lieu de septembre 2015 au 11 janvier 2016 au Grand Palais de Paris. Accompagnée de films, de documentaires, la peintre de Marie-Antoinette apparaît alors dans toute sa complexité.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) : Une vie, une œuvre (2015 / France Culture)
The Remarkable Talent Of Elizabeth Vigée Lebrun | Portraits of Marie Antoinette Pt. 1 | Perspective
The Prolonged Exile Of France’s Finest Artist | Portraits of Marie Antoinette Part 2 | Perspective
Dame Emma Hamilton (born Amy Lyon; 26 April 1765 – 15 January 1815), generally known as Lady Hamilton, was an English maid, model, dancer and actress. She began her career in London's demi-monde, becoming the mistress of a series of wealthy men, culminating in the naval hero Lord Nelson, and was the favourite model of the portrait artist George Romney.
In 1791, at the age of 26, she married Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples, where she was a success at court, befriending the queen, the sister of Marie Antoinette, and most famously, having an affair with British war hero, Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson.
Emma was born Amy Lyon in Swan Cottage, Ness near Neston, Cheshire, England, the daughter of Henry Lyon, a blacksmith who died when she was two months old. She was baptised on 12 May 1765. She was raised by her mother, the former Mary Kidd (later Cadogan), and grandmother, Sarah Kidd, at Hawarden, and received no formal education. She later went by the name of Emma Hart.
With her grandmother Sarah struggling to make ends meet at the age of 60, and after her mother Mary went to London in 1777, Emma began work, aged 12, as a maid at the Hawarden, home of Doctor Honoratus Leigh Thomas, a surgeon working in Chester.
Only a few months later she was unemployed again and moved to London in the autumn of 1777. She started to work for the Budd family in Chatham Place, Blackfriars, London, and began acting at the Drury Lane theatre in Covent Garden. She also worked as a maid for actresses, among them Mary Robinson. Emma next worked as a model and dancer at the "Goddess of Health" for James Graham, a Scottish "quack" doctor.
At fifteen, Emma met Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, who hired her for several months as hostess and entertainer at a lengthy stag party at Fetherstonhaugh's Uppark country estate in the South Downs. She is said to have danced nude on his dining room table. Fetherstonhaugh took Emma there as a mistress, but frequently ignored her in favour of drinking and hunting with his friends. Emma soon befriended the dull but sincere Honourable Charles Francis Greville (1749–1809). It was about this time (late June-early July 1781) that she conceived a child by Fetherstonhaugh.
Greville took her in as his mistress, on condition that the child was fostered out. As a young woman, Emma's daughter saw her mother frequently, but later when Emma fell into debt, her daughter worked abroad as a companion or governess.
Greville kept Emma in a small house at Edgware Row, Paddington Green, at this time a village on the rural outskirts of London. At Greville's request, she changed her name to "Mrs Emma Hart", dressed in modest outfits in subdued colours and eschewed a social life. He arranged for Emma's mother Mary to live with her as housekeeper and chaperone. Greville also taught Emma to enunciate more elegantly, and after a while, started to invite some of his friends to meet her.
Seeing an opportunity to make some money by taking a cut of sales, Greville sent her to sit for his friend, the painter George Romney, who was looking for a new model and muse. It was then that Emma became the subject of many of Romney's most famous portraits, and soon became London's biggest celebrity. So began Romney's lifelong obsession with her, sketching her nude and clothed in many poses that he later used to create paintings in her absence. Through the popularity of Romney's work and particularly of his striking-looking young model, Emma became well known in society circles, under the name of "Emma Hart". She was witty, intelligent, a quick learner, elegant and, as paintings of her attest, extremely beautiful. Romney was fascinated by her looks and ability to adapt to the ideals of the age. Romney and other artists painted her in many guises, foreshadowing her later "attitudes".
In 1783, Greville needed to find a rich wife to replenish his finances, and found a fit in the form of eighteen-year-old heiress Henrietta Middleton. Emma would be a problem, as he disliked being known as her lover, and his prospective wife would not accept him as a suitor if he lived openly with Emma Hart.
To be rid of Emma, Greville persuaded his uncle, younger brother of his mother, Sir William Hamilton, British Envoy to Naples, to take her off his hands.
Sir William had long been happily married until the death of his wife in 1782, and he liked female companionship. Then 55 and newly widowed, he had arrived back in London for the first time in over five years.
To promote his plan, Greville suggested to Sir William that Emma would make a very pleasing mistress, assuring him that, once married to Henrietta Middleton, he would come and fetch Emma back. Greville's marriage would be useful to Sir William, as it relieved him of having Greville as a poor relation. Emma's famous beauty was by then well known to Sir William, so much so that he even agreed to pay the expenses for her journey to ensure her speedy arrival. A great collector of antiquities and beautiful objects, he took interest in her as another acquisition. His home in Naples was well known all over the world for hospitality and refinement. He needed a hostess for his salon, and from what he knew about Emma, he thought she would be the perfect choice.
Greville did not inform Emma of his plan, but instead in 1785 suggested the trip as a prolonged holiday in Naples, not long after Emma's mother had suffered a stroke. Emma was thus sent to Naples, supposedly for six to eight months, little realising that she was going as the mistress of her host Sir William. Emma set off for Naples with her mother and on 13 March 1786 overland in an old coach, and arrived in Naples on her 21st birthday on 26 April.
After about six months of living alone in apartments in the Palazzo Sessa with her mother and begging Greville to come and fetch her, Emma came to understand that he had cast her off. She was furious when she realised what Greville had planned for her, but eventually started to enjoy life in Naples and responded to Sir William's intense courtship just before Christmas in 1786. They fell in love, Sir William forgot about his plan to take her on as a temporary mistress, and Emma moved into his apartments, leaving her mother downstairs in the ground floor rooms. Emma was unable to attend Court yet, but Sir William took her to every other party, assembly and outing.
Emma and Sir William were married on 6 September 1791 at St Marylebone Parish Church, London, having returned to England for the purpose and Sir William having gained the King's consent. Emma was twenty-six and Sir William was sixty. Although she was obliged to use her legal name of Amy Lyon on the marriage register, the wedding gave her the title Lady Hamilton which she would use for the rest of her life.
Hamilton's public career was now at its height and during their visit to England he was inducted into the Privy Council. Shortly after the ceremony, George Romney painted his last portrait of Emma from life, The Ambassadress, after which he plunged into a deep depression and drew a series of frenzied sketches of Emma.
The newly married couple returned to Naples after two days. After the marriage, Greville transferred the cost of Emma Carew(Lady Hamilton's daughter)'s upkeep to Sir William, and suggested that he might move her to an establishment befitting the stepdaughter of an envoy. However, Sir William preferred to forget about her for a while.
Lady Hamilton became a close friend of Queen Maria Carolina, wife of Ferdinand I of Naples and sister of French Queen Marie Antoinette, and soon acquired fluency in both French and Italian. She was also a talented amateur singer. She sang one of the solo parts of Joseph Haydn's Nelson Mass and entertained guests at her home. At one point, the Royal Opera in Madrid tried to engage her for a season, in competition with their star, Angelica Catalani, but that offer was turned down.
Sharing Sir William Hamilton's enthusiasm for classical antiquities and art, she developed what she called her "Attitudes"—tableaux vivants in which she portrayed sculptures and paintings before British visitors. Emma developed the attitudes, also known as mimoplastic art, by using Romney's idea of combining classical poses with modern allure as the basis for her act. Emma had her dressmaker make dresses modelled on those worn by peasant islanders in the Bay of Naples, and the loose-fitting garments she often wore when modelling for Romney. She would pair these tunics with a few large shawls or veils, draping herself in folds of cloth and posing in such a way as to evoke popular images from Greco-Roman mythology. This cross between postures, dance and acting was first revealed to guests in the spring of 1787 by Sir William at his home in Naples. It formed a sort of charade, with the audience guessing the names of the classical characters and scenes Emma portrayed.
With the aid of her shawls, Emma posed as various classical figures from Medea to Queen Cleopatra, and her performances charmed aristocrats, artists such as Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun, writers—including the great Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—and kings and queens alike, setting off new dance trends across Europe and starting a fashion for a draped Grecian style of dress.
"Attitudes" were taken up by several other (female) artists, among them Ida Brun from Denmark, who became Emma's successor in the new art form. The famed sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen admired her art.
As wife of the British Envoy, Emma welcomed Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount(who had been married to Fanny Nisbet for about 6 years at that point) after his arrival in Naples on 10 September 1793, when he came to gather reinforcements against the French. She is described in 1797 in the diary of 18-year-old Elizabeth Wynne as "a charming woman, beautiful and exceedingly good humoured and amiable." When he set sail for Sardinia on 15 September after only 5 days in Naples, it was clear that he had already fallen a little in love.
After four years of marriage, Emma had despaired of having children with Sir William, although she wrote of him as "the best husband and friend". It seems likely that he was sterile. She once again tried to persuade him to allow her daughter to come and live with them in the Palazzo Sessa as her mother Mrs Cadogan's niece, but he refused this as well as her request to make enquiries in England about suitors for the young Emma.
Horatio Nelson returned to Naples five years later, on 22 September 1798, now a living legend, after his victory at the Battle of the Nile in Aboukir. By this time, Nelson's adventures had prematurely aged him; he had lost an arm and most of his teeth, and was afflicted by coughing spells. Before his arrival, Emma had written a letter passionately expressing her admiration for him. Nelson even wrote effusively of Emma to his increasingly estranged wife. Emma and Sir William escorted Nelson to their home, the Palazzo Sessa.
Emma nursed Nelson under her husband's roof and arranged a party with 1,800 guests to celebrate his 40th birthday on 29 September. After the party, Emma became Nelson's secretary, translator and political facilitator. They soon fell in love and began an affair. Hamilton showed admiration and respect for Nelson, and vice versa; the affair was tolerated. By November, gossip from Naples about their affair reached the English newspapers. Emma Hamilton and Horatio Nelson were famous.
Emma had by then become not only a close personal friend of Queen Maria Carolina, but had developed into an important political influence. She advised the Queen on how to react to the threats from the French Revolution. Maria Carolina's sister Marie Antoinette had fallen a victim to the Revolution.
In 1799, Naples was the scene of a strange revolution led by members of the aristocracy; the common people did not agree with the revolution. The French troops were not welcome, but the royal family fled to Sicily. From here Nelson tried to help the royal family put down the revolutionaries. He had no support from the British government. Emma played an important role in helping to put an end to the revolution when she arrived off Naples with Nelson's fleet on 24 June 1799. She acted as a go-between, conveying messages from the queen to Nelson and from Nelson to the queen.
Nelson's recall to Britain shortly afterwards coincided with the government finally granting Hamilton's request for relief from his post in Naples. Emma must have become pregnant around April 1800. Nelson, Emma, her mother and Sir William travelled together—taking the longest possible route back to Britain via Central Europe (hearing the Missa in Angustiis by Joseph Haydn, now known as the "Nelson Mass", in Vienna in 1800), and eventually arriving in Yarmouth to a hero's welcome on 6 November 1800.
Upon arrival in London on 8 November, the three of them took suites at Nerot's Hotel. Lady Nelson and Nelson's father arrived and they all dined at the hotel, with Fanny Nelson deeply unhappy to see Emma pregnant. The affair soon became public knowledge, and to the delight of the newspapers, Fanny did not accept the affair as placidly as Sir William. Nelson contributed to Fanny's misery by being cruel to her when not in Emma's company. Emma was winning the media war at that point, and every fine lady was experimenting with her look. Sir William was mercilessly lampooned in the press, but his sister observed that he doted on Emma and she was very attached to him.
The Hamiltons moved into William Beckford's mansion at 22 Grosvenor Square, and Nelson and Fanny took an expensive furnished house at 17 Dover Street, a comfortable walking distance away, until December, when Sir William rented a home at 23 Piccadilly, opposite Green Park. On 1 January, Nelson's promotion to vice admiral was confirmed and he prepared to go to sea on the same night. Infuriated by Fanny's ultimatum to choose between her and his mistress, Nelson chose Emma and decided to take steps to formalise separation from his wife. He never saw her again, after being hustled out of town by an agent. While he was at sea, Nelson and Emma exchanged many letters, using a secret code to discuss Emma's condition. Emma kept her first daughter Emma Carew's existence a secret from Nelson, while Sir William continued to provide for her.
Emma gave birth to Nelson's daughter Horatia, on 29 January 1801 at 23 Piccadilly, who was taken soon afterwards to a Mrs Gibson for care and hire of a wet nurse. On 1 February, Emma made a spectacular appearance at a concert at the house of the Duke of Norfolk in St James' Square, and Emma worked hard to keep the press onside.
Soon after this, the Prince of Wales (later King George IV) became infatuated with Emma, leading Nelson to be consumed by jealousy, and inspiring a remarkable letter by Sir William to Nelson, assuring him that she was being faithful. In late February, Nelson returned to London and met his daughter at Mrs Gibson's. Nelson's family were aware of the pregnancy, and his clergyman brother Rev. William Nelson wrote to Emma praising her virtue and goodness. Nelson and Emma continued to write letters to each other when he was away at sea, and she kept every one.
By the autumn of the same year, upon Emma's advice, Nelson bought Merton Place, a small ramshackle house at Merton, near Wimbledon, for £9,000, borrowing money from his friend Davison. He gave her free rein with spending to improve the property, and her vision was to transform the house into a celebration of his genius. There they lived together openly, with Sir William and Emma's mother, in a ménage à trois that fascinated the public. Emma turned herself to winning over Nelson's family, nursing his 80-year-old father Edmund for 10 days at Merton, who loved her and thought of moving in with them, but could not bear to leave his beloved Norfolk. Emma also made herself useful to Nelson's sisters Kitty (Catherine), and Susanna by helping to raise their children and to make ends meet. Also around this time, Emma finally told Nelson about her daughter Emma Carew, now known as Emma Hartley, and he invited her to stay at Merton and soon grew fond of "Emma's relative" and assumed responsibility for upkeep of young Emma at this time.
After the Treaty of Amiens on 25 March 1802, Nelson was released from active service, but wanted to keep his new-found position in society by maintaining an aura of wealth, and Emma worked hard to live up to this dream.
The newspapers reported on their every move, looking to Emma to set fashions in dress, home decoration and even dinner party menus. By the autumn of 1803, Sir William's health was declining, at the same time that the peace with France was disintegrating.
Soon afterwards, Sir William collapsed at 23 Piccadilly and on 6 April died in Emma's arms. Charles Greville was the executor of the estate and he instructed her to leave 23 Piccadilly, but for the sake of respectability, she had to keep an address separate from Nelson's and so moved into 11 Clarges Street, not far away, a couple of months later.
Nelson had been offered the position of Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, and they rushed to have Horatia christened at Marylebone Parish Church before he left, by now Emma was pregnant with their second child, although neither knew it at this time.
She was desperately lonely, preoccupied with attempting to turn Merton Place into the grand home Nelson desired, suffering from several ailments and frantic for his return. The second child, a girl, died about 6 weeks after her birth in early 1804, and Horatia also fell ill at her home with Mrs Gibson on Titchfield Street. Emma kept the infant's death a secret from the press, kept her deep grief from Nelson's family and found it increasingly difficult to cope alone. She reportedly distracted herself by gambling, and succumbed to binges of heavy drinking and eating and spending lavishly.
Emma received several marriage proposals during 1804, all wealthy men, but she was still in love with Nelson and believed that he would become wealthy with prize money and leave her rich in his will, and she refused them all. She continued to entertain and help Nelson's relatives. Nelson urged her to keep Horatia at Merton, and when his return seemed imminent in 1804, Emma ran up bills on furnishing and decorating Merton. Five-year-old Horatia came to live at Merton in May 1805.
After a brief visit to England in August 1805, Nelson once again had to return to service. On the ship, he wrote a note intended as a codicil to his will requesting that, in return for his legacy to King and Country that they should give Emma "ample provision to maintain her rank in life", and that his "adopted daughter, Horatia Nelson Thompson...use in future the name of Nelson only".
On 21 October 1805, Nelson's fleet defeated a joint Franco-Spanish naval force at the Battle of Trafalgar. Nelson was seriously wounded during the battle and died three hours later. When the news of his death arrived in London, a messenger was sent to Merton Place to bring the news to Lady Hamilton. She later recalled,
Emma lay in bed prostrate with grief for many weeks, often receiving visitors in tears. It was some weeks before she heard that Nelson's last words were of her and that he had begged the nation to take care of her and Horatia. Emma relied on Nelson's sisters (Kitty Matcham and Susanna Bolton) for moral support and company. Like her, the Boltons and Matchams had spent lavishly in expectation of Nelson's victorious return, and Emma gave them and other of his friends and relations money.
Nelson's will was read in November 1805; Nelson's brother William inherited his entire estate except for Merton, as well as his bank accounts and possessions. The government had made William an Earl and his son Horatio (aka Horace) a Viscount - the titles Nelson had aspired to - and now he was also Duke of Bronte. Emma received £2000, Merton, and £500 per annum from the Bronte estate - much less than she had when Nelson was alive, and not enough to maintain Merton. In spite of Nelson's status as a national hero, the instructions he left to the government to provide for Emma and Horatia were ignored; they also ignored his wishes that she should sing at his funeral.
The funeral was lavish, costing the state £14,000, but Emma was excluded. Only the men of the Bolton and Matcham family were invited, and Emma spent the day with her family and the women. She gave both families dinner and breakfast and accommodated the Boltons.
After the funeral, the begging letters began. William would not help, so everybody turned to Emma. Lord Grenville sent the codicil to Nelson's will to his solicitor with a note saying that nothing could be done; instead, the Boltons and Matchams received £10,000 each (but still left their adolescent daughters with Emma to educate), while William was awarded £100,000 to buy an estate called Trafalgar, as well as £5000 for life.
Relations between William and Emma became strained and he refused to give her the £500 pension due to her.
She spent 1806 to 1808 keeping up the act, continuing to spend on parties and alterations to Merton to make it a monument to Nelson. Goods that Nelson had ordered arrived and had to be paid for. The annual annuity of £800 from Sir William's estate was not enough to pay off the debts and keep up the lifestyle, and Emma fell deeply into debt.
She moved from Clarges Street to a cheaper home at 136 Bond Street, but could not bring herself to relinquish Merton. Emma hosted and employed James Harrison for 6 months to write a two-volume Life of Nelson, which made it clear that Horatia was his child. She continued to entertain at Merton, including the Prince of Wales and the Dukes of Sussex and Clarence, but no favours were returned by the royals.
Within three years, Emma was more than £15,000 in debt. In June 1808, Merton failed to sell at auction and was eventually sold in April 1809. However, her lavish spending continued, and a combination of this and the steady depletion of funds due to people fleecing her meant that she remained in debt, although unbeknownst to most people. For most of 1811 and 1812 she was in a virtual debtors' prison.
In early 1813 she petitioned the Prince of Wales, the government and friends, but all of her requests failed and she was obliged to auction off many of her possessions, including many Nelson relics, at low prices. However she continued to borrow money to keep up appearances. Public opinion turned against her after the Letters of Lord Nelson to Lady Hamilton were published in April 1814.
Emma was anxious to leave the country, but owing to the risk of arrest if she travelled on a normal ferry, she and Horatia hid from her creditors for a week before boarding a private vessel bound for Calais on 1 July 1814, with £50 in her purse. Initially taking apartments at the expensive Dessein's Hotel, she initially kept up a social life and fine dining by relying on creditors. But soon she was deeply in debt and suffering from longstanding health problems, including stomach pains, nausea and diarrhoea.
Emma started drinking heavily and taking laudanum. She died on 15 January 1815, aged 49. Emma was buried in Calais on 21 January in public ground outside the town, with her friend Joshua Smith paying for the modest funeral at the Catholic church. Her grave was subsequently lost due to wartime destruction, but in 1994 a dedicated group unveiled the memorial which stands today in the Parc Richelieu in her honour.
Henry Cadogan cared for the 14-year-old Horatia in the aftermath of Emma's death. Horatia subsequently married the Rev. Philip Ward, had ten children (the first of whom was named Horatio Nelson) and lived until 1881. Horatia never publicly acknowledged that she was the daughter of Emma Hamilton.
Emma Hamilton is generally known by the courtesy title of "Lady Hamilton", to which she was entitled from 1791 as the wife and then widow of Sir William Hamilton. In 1800, she became "Dame Emma Hamilton", a title she held in her own right as a female member of the Order of Malta. This was an unusual honour, awarded to Lady Hamilton by the then Grand Master of the Order, Tsar Paul, in recognition of her role in the defence of the island of Malta against the French.
Subsequently, she used her new title in formal circumstances, and was also acknowledged as "Dame Emma Hamilton" in official British contexts; most notably, this was the title under which she was formally granted her own coat of arms by the English College of Arms in 1806, Per pale Or and Argent, three Lions rampant Gules, on a chief Sable, a Cross of eight points of the second. The lions evidently refer to her maiden surname of Lyons, while the addition of the Maltese Cross, which has puzzled heraldic scholars unaware of her connection to the Order, is recognisable as an honourable augmentation referring to her damehood.
In popular culture
Emma Hamilton was widely recognized in popular culture in different forms
Dame Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor DBE (February 27, 1932 – March 23, 2011) was an English-American actress, businesswoman, and humanitarian. She began her career as a child actress in the early 1940s and was one of the most popular stars of classical Hollywood cinema in the 1950s. She continued her career successfully into the 1960s, remaining a well-known public figure for the rest of her life. In 1999, the American Film Institute named her the seventh-greatest female screen legend of Classic Hollywood cinema.
Born in London to socially prominent American parents, Taylor moved with her family to Los Angeles in 1939. She made her acting debut with a minor role in the Universal Pictures film There's One Born Every Minute (1942), but the studio ended her contract after a year. She was then signed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and became a popular teen star after appearing in National Velvet (1944). She transitioned to mature roles in the 1950s, when she starred in the comedy Father of the Bride (1950) and received critical acclaim for her performance in the drama (1951).
Despite being one of MGM's most bankable stars, Taylor wished to end her career in the early 1950s. She resented the studio's control and disliked many of the films to which she was assigned. She began receiving more enjoyable roles in the mid-1950s, beginning with the epic drama Giant (1956), and starred in several critically and commercially successful films in the following years. These included two film adaptations of plays by Tennessee Williams: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959); Taylor won a Golden Globe for Best Actress for the latter. Although she disliked her role as a call girl in BUtterfield 8 (1960), her last film for MGM, she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance.
During the production of the film Cleopatra in 1961, Taylor and co-star Richard Burton began an extramarital affair, which caused a scandal. Despite public disapproval, they continued their relationship and were married in 1964. Dubbed "Liz and Dick" by the media, they starred in 11 films together, including The V.I.P.s (1963), The Sandpiper (1965), The Taming of the Shrew (1967), and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Taylor received the best reviews of her career for Woolf, winning her second Academy Award and several other awards for her performance. She and Burton divorced in 1974, but reconciled soon after, and remarried in 1975. The second marriage ended in divorce in 1976.
Taylor's acting career began to decline in the late 1960s, although she continued starring in films until the mid-1970s, after which she focused on supporting the career of her sixth husband, United States Senator John Warner (R-Virginia). In the 1980s, she acted in her first substantial stage roles and in several television films and series. She became the second celebrity to launch a perfume brand, after Sophia Loren. Taylor was one of the first celebrities to take part in HIV/AIDS activism. She co-founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research in 1985 and the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation in 1991. From the early 1990s until her death, she dedicated her time to philanthropy, for which she received several accolades, including the Presidential Citizens Medal.
Throughout her career, Taylor's personal life was the subject of constant media attention. She was married eight times to seven men, converted to Judaism, endured several serious illnesses, and led a jet set lifestyle, including assembling one of the most expensive private collections of jewelry in the world. After many years of ill health, Taylor died from congestive heart failure in 2011, at the age of 79.
Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born on February 27, 1932 in Hampstead Garden Suburb, London. She received dual British-American citizenship at birth, as her parents, art dealer Francis Lenn Taylor (1897–1968) and retired stage actress Sara Sothern (née Sara Viola Warmbrodt, 1895–1994), were United States citizens. They moved to London in 1929 and opened an art gallery on Bond Street; their first child, a son named Howard, was born the same year.
The family lived in London during Taylor's childhood. Their social circle included artists such as Augustus John and Laura Knight, and politicians such as Colonel Victor Cazalet. Cazalet was Taylor's unofficial godfather, and an important influence in her early life. She was enrolled in Byron House, a Montessori school in Highgate, and was raised according to the teachings of Christian Science, the religion of her mother and Cazalet.
In early 1939, the Taylors decided to return to the United States due to fear of impending war in Europe. In early 1940, Francis Taylor opened a new gallery in Los Angeles, and the Taylor family settled in Beverly Hills, where the two children were enrolled in Hawthorne School.
In California, Taylor's mother was frequently told that her daughter should audition for films. Elizabeth Taylor's eyes in particular drew attention; they were blue, to the extent of appearing violet, and were rimmed by dark double eyelashes caused by a genetic mutation. Elizabeth Taylor auditioned for both Universal Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in early 1941. Both studios offered Taylor contracts, and Sara Taylor chose to accept Universal's offer.
Taylor began her contract in April 1941 and was cast in a small role in There's One Born Every Minute (1942).
In late 1942, she auditioned for a minor role in Lassie Come Home (1943), which required a child actress with an English accent.
Taylor was cast in her first starring role at the age of 12, when she was chosen to play a girl who wants to compete as a jockey in the exclusively male Grand National in National Velvet. MGM had been looking for a suitable actress with a British accent and the ability to ride horses since 1937.
As she was deemed too short, filming was pushed back several months to allow her to grow; she spent the time practicing riding. In developing her into a new star, MGM required her to wear braces to correct her teeth, and had two of her baby teeth pulled out. The studio also wanted to dye her hair and change the shape of her eyebrows, and proposed that she use the screen name "Virginia", but Taylor and her parents refused.
National Velvet became a box-office success upon its release on Christmas 1944.
Taylor later called it "the most exciting film" of her career and stated that her childhood ended when she became a star, as MGM started to control every aspect of her life. She described the studio as a "big extended factory", where she was required to adhere to a strict daily schedule: days were spent attending school and filming at the studio lot, and evenings in dancing and singing classes, and in practising the following day's scenes.
Following the success of National Velvet, MGM gave Taylor a new seven-year contract with a weekly salary of $750, and cast her in a minor role in the third film of the Lassie series, Courage of Lassie (1946). The studio also published a book of Taylor's writings about her pet chipmunk, Nibbles and Me (1946), and had paper dolls and coloring books made after her.
When Taylor turned 15 in 1947, MGM began to cultivate a more mature public image for her by organizing photo shoots and interviews that portrayed her as a "normal" teenager attending parties and going on dates.
Taylor's last adolescent role was as Amy March in Mervyn LeRoy's Little Women (1949). While this version did not match the popularity of the previous 1933 film adaptation of Louisa M. Alcott's novel, it was a box-office success. The same year, Time featured Taylor on its cover, and called her the leader among Hollywood's next generation of stars, "a jewel of great price, a true sapphire".
Taylor made the transition to adult roles when she turned 18 in 1950.
In may 1950, Taylor married hotel-chain heir Conrad Hilton Jr. in a highly publicized ceremony.
The event was organized by MGM, and used as part of the publicity campaign for Taylor's next film, Vincente Minnelli's comedy Father of the Bride (1950), in which she appeared opposite Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett as a bride preparing for her wedding. The film became a box-office success upon its release in June, grossing $6 million worldwide, and was followed by a successful sequel, Father's Little Dividend (1951), ten months later.
Taylor's next film release, George Stevens' A Place in the Sun (1951), marked a departure from her earlier films. According to Taylor, it was the first film in which she had been asked to act, instead of simply being herself, and it brought her critical acclaim for the first time since National Velvet. Based on Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy (1925), it featured Taylor as a spoiled socialite who comes between a poor factory worker (Montgomery Clift) and his pregnant girlfriend (Shelley Winters). Stevens cast Taylor as she was "the only one ... who could create this illusion" of being "not so much a real girl as the girl on the candy-box cover, the beautiful girl in the yellow Cadillac convertible that every American boy sometime or other thinks he can marry".
A Place in the Sun was a critical and commercial success, grossing $3 million.
Taylor next starred in the romantic comedy Love Is Better Than Ever (1952). According to Alexander Walker, MGM cast her in the "B-picture" as a reprimand for divorcing Hilton in January 1951 after only nine months of marriage, which had caused a public scandal that reflected negatively on her. After completing Love Is Better Than Ever, Taylor was sent to Britain to take part in the historical epic Ivanhoe (1952), which was one of the most expensive projects in the studio's history and became one of MGM's biggest commercial successes, earning $11 million in worldwide rentals.
Despite her grievances with the studio, Taylor signed a new seven-year contract with MGM in the summer of 1952. Although she wanted more interesting roles, the decisive factor in continuing with the studio was her financial need; she had recently married British actor Michael Wilding, and was pregnant with her first child. In addition to granting her a weekly salary of $4,700, MGM agreed to give the couple a loan for a house, and signed her husband for a three-year contract.Due to her financial dependency, the studio now had even more control over her than previously.
In the fall of 1954, Taylor starred in two films. The first was Beau Brummell, a Regency era period film. Taylor disliked historical films in general, as their elaborate costumes and make-up required her to wake up earlier than usual to prepare. She later said that she gave one of the worst performances of her career in Beau Brummell. The second film was Richard Brooks' The Last Time I Saw Paris, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story. Taylor liked the film, and later stated that it "convinced me I wanted to be an actress instead of yawning my way through parts". While The Last Time I Saw Paris was not as profitable as many other MGM films, it garnered positive reviews. Taylor became pregnant again during the production, and had to agree to add another year to her contract to make up for the period spent on maternity leave.
After lobbying director George Stevens, she won the female lead role in Giant (1956), an epic drama about a ranching dynasty, which co-starred Rock Hudson and James Dean. Its filming was a difficult experience for Taylor, as she clashed with Stevens, and was often ill, resulting in delays. To further complicate the production, Dean died in a car accident only days after completing filming; grieving Taylor still had to film reaction shots to their joint scenes. When Giant was released a year later, it became a box-office success.
MGM re-united Taylor with Montgomery Clift in Raintree County (1957), a Civil War drama which it hoped would replicate the success of Gone with the Wind (1939). Taylor was nominated for the first time for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance.
Taylor considered her next performance as Maggie the Cat in the screen adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) a career "high point." But it coincided with one of the most difficult periods in her personal life.
After completing Raintree Country, she had divorced Wilding and married producer Mike Todd. She had completed only two weeks of filming in March 1958, when Todd was killed in a plane crash. Although she was devastated, pressure from the studio and the knowledge that Todd had large debts led Taylor to return to work only three weeks later. She later said that "in a way ... [she] became Maggie", and that acting "was the only time I could function" in the weeks after Todd's death.
During the production, Taylor's personal life drew more attention when she began an affair with singer Eddie Fisher, whose marriage to actress Debbie Reynolds had been idealized by the media as the union of "America's sweethearts". The affair – and Fisher's subsequent divorce – changed Taylor's public image from a grieving widow to a "homewrecker".
MGM used the scandal to its advantage by featuring an image of Taylor posing on a bed in a slip in the film's promotional posters. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof grossed $10 million in American cinemas alone, and made Taylor the year's second-most profitable star. And she was nominated for an Academy Award.
Taylor's next film, Joseph L. Mankiewicz' Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), was another Tennessee Williams adaptation, and co-starred Montgomery Clift and Katharine Hepburn. The independent production earned Taylor $500,000 for playing the role of a severely traumatized patient in a mental institution. Although the film was a drama about mental illness, childhood traumas, and homosexuality, it was again promoted with Taylor's sex appeal; both its trailer and poster featured her in a white swimsuit. The strategy worked, as the film was a financial success. Taylor received her third Academy Award nomination and her first Golden Globe for Best Actress for her performance.
Taylor’s last film with MGM BUtterfield 8 (1960), a drama about a high-class sex worker, won her Academy Award.
After completing her MGM contract, Taylor starred in 20th Century-Fox's Cleopatra (1963). This historical epic made her more famous than ever before. She became the first actress to be paid $1 million for a role; Fox also granted her 10% of the film's profits, as well as shooting the film in Todd-AO, a widescreen format for which she had inherited the rights from Mike Todd.
Life proclaiming it the "Most Talked About Movie Ever Made", mostly due to her affair with Richard Burton, her co star.
Filming began in England in 1960, but had to be halted several times because of bad weather and Taylor's ill health. It was finally completed in July 1962in Rome. The film's final cost was $62 million, making it the most expensive film made up to that point.
Cleopatra became the biggest box-office success of 1963 in the United States; the film grossed $15.7 million at the box office. Regardless, it took several years for the film to earn back its production costs, which drove Fox near to bankruptcy. The studio publicly blamed Taylor for the production's troubles and unsuccessfully sued Burton and Taylor for allegedly damaging the film's commercial prospects with their behavior. In retrospect, Taylor called Cleopatra a "low point" in her career.
Hollywood film producers were eager to profit from the scandal surrounding Taylor and Burton, and they next starred together in Anthony Asquith's The V.I.P.s (1963), which mirrored the headlines about them. Taylor played a famous model attempting to leave her husband for a lover, and Burton her estranged millionaire husband. Released soon after Cleopatra, it became a box-office success.
After completing The V.I.P.s, Taylor took a two-year hiatus from films, during which Burton and she divorced their spouses and married each other.
The supercouple continued starring together in films in the mid-1960s, earning a combined $88 million over the next decade; Burton once stated, "They say we generate more business activity than one of the smaller African nations."
Their film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), an adaptation of a play of the same name by Edward Albee, featured the most critically acclaimed performance of Taylor's career. The film also became one of the biggest commercial successes of the year. Taylor received her second Academy Award, and BAFTA, National Board of Review, and New York City Film Critics Circle awards for her performance.
Taylor's career was in decline by the late 1960s. She had gained weight, was nearing middle age, and did not fit in with New Hollywood stars such as Jane Fonda and Julie Christie.
After several years of nearly constant media attention, the public was tiring of Burton and her, and criticized their jet set lifestyle.
Taylor and Burton's last film together was the Harlech Television film Divorce His, Divorce Hers (1973), fittingly named as they divorced the following year.
Taylor took fewer roles after the mid-1970s, and focused on supporting the career of her sixth husband, Republican politician John Warner, a US senator.
After a period of semi-retirement from films, Taylor ook on her first substantial stage role, playing Regina Giddens in a Broadway production of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes.
The production premiered in May 1981, and had a sold-out six-month run despite mixed reviews.
Encouraged by the success of The Little Foxes, Taylor and producer Zev Buffman founded the Elizabeth Taylor Repertory Company. Its first and only production was a revival of Noël Coward's comedy Private Lives, starring Taylor and Burton.
It premiered in Boston in early 1983, and although commercially successful, received generally negative reviews, with critics noting that both stars were in noticeably poor health – Taylor admitted herself to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center after the play's run ended, and Burton died the following year.
From the mid-1980s, Taylor acted mostly in television productions.
In the 1990s, Taylor focused her time on HIV/AIDS activism. Her last theatrically released film was in the critically panned, but commercially successful, The Flintstones (1994).
Taylor received American and British honors for her career: the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1993, the Screen Actors Guild honorary award in 1997, and a BAFTA Fellowship in 1999. In 2000, she was appointed a Dame Commander in the chivalric Order of the British Empire in the millennium New Year Honours List by Queen Elizabeth II.
Taylor was one of the first celebrities to participate in HIV/AIDS activism and helped to raise more than $270 million for the cause.
Taylor began her philanthropic efforts in 1984 by helping to organize and by hosting the first AIDS fundraiser to benefit the AIDS Project Los Angeles. In August 1985, she and Dr. Michael Gottlieb founded the National AIDS Research Foundation after her friend and former co-star Rock Hudson announced that he was dying of the disease.
In 1991, Taylor founded the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF) to raise awareness and to provide support services for people with HIV/AIDS, paying for its overhead costs herself.
Taylor also founded the Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center to offer free HIV/AIDS testing and care at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D. C., and the Elizabeth Taylor Endowment Fund for the UCLA Clinical AIDS Research and Education Center in Los Angeles.
Taylor was honored with several awards for her philanthropic work. She was made a Knight of the French Legion of Honour in 1987, and received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1993, the Screen Actors' Guild Lifetime Achievement Award for Humanitarian service in 1997, the GLAAD Vanguard Award in 2000, and the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2001.
Taylor was the first celebrity to create her own collection of fragrances. In collaboration with Elizabeth Arden, Inc., she began by launching two best-selling perfumes – Passion in 1987, and White Diamonds in 1991. Taylor personally supervised the creation and production of each of the 11 fragrances marketed in her name.
In 2005, Taylor also founded a jewelry company, House of Taylor, in collaboration with Kathy Ireland and Jack and Monty Abramov.
According to biographers Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, she earned more money through the fragrance collection than during her entire acting career, and upon her death, the British newspaper The Guardian estimated that the majority of her estimated $600 million-$1 billion estate consisted of revenue from fragrances.
Throughout her adult years, Taylor's personal life, especially her eight marriages (two to the same man), drew a large amount of media attention and public disapproval.
Film tycoon Howard Hughes also wanted to marry her, and offered to pay her parents a six-figure sum of money if she were to become his wife. Taylor declined the offer.
Taylor was 18 when she married Conrad "Nicky" Hilton Jr., heir to the Hilton Hotels chain, at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills on May 6, 1950. MGM organized the large and expensive wedding, which became a major media event. In the weeks after their wedding, Taylor realized that she had made a mistake; not only did she and Hilton have few interests in common, but he was also abusive and a heavy drinker. She was granted a divorce in January 1951, eight months after their wedding.
Taylor married her second husband, British actor Michael Wilding – a man 20 years her senior – in a low-key ceremony at Caxton Hall in London on February 21, 1952. They had two sons: Michael Howard (b. January 6, 1953) and Christopher Edward (b. February 27, 1955). As Taylor grew older and more confident in herself, she began to drift apart from Wilding, whose failing career was also a source of marital strife. Taylor and Wilding announced their separation on July 18, 1956, and were divorced in January 1957.
Taylor married her third husband, theater and film producer Mike Todd, in Acapulco, Guerrero, Mexico, on February 2, 1957. They had one daughter, Elizabeth "Liza" Frances (b. August 6, 1957). Todd, known for publicity stunts, encouraged the media attention to their marriage. His death in a plane crash on March 22, 1958, left Taylor devastated. She was comforted by Todd's and her friend, singer Eddie Fisher, with whom she soon began an affair. As Fisher was still married to actress Debbie Reynolds, the affair resulted in a public scandal, with Taylor being branded a "homewrecker". Taylor and Fisher were married at the Temple Beth Sholom in Las Vegas on May 12, 1959; she later stated that she married him only due to her grief.
While filming Cleopatra in Italy in 1962, Taylor began an affair with her co-star, Welsh actor Richard Burton, although Burton was also married. Rumors about the affair began to circulate in the press. The scandal caused Taylor and Burton to be condemned for "erotic vagrancy" by the Vatican, with calls also in the US Congress to bar them from re-entering the country. Taylor was granted a divorce from Fisher on March 5, 1964 in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico, and married Burton 10 days later in a private ceremony at the Ritz-Carlton Montreal. Burton subsequently adopted Liza Todd and Maria Burton (b. August 1, 1961), a German orphan whose adoption process Taylor had begun while married to Fisher.
Dubbed "Liz and Dick" by the media, Taylor and Burton starred together in 11 films, and led a jet-set lifestyle, spending millions on "furs, diamonds, paintings, designer clothes, travel, food, liquor, a yacht, and a jet".
They divorced for the first time in June 1974, but reconciled, and remarried in Kasane, Botswana, on October 10, 1975. The second marriage lasted less than a year, ending in divorce in July 1976. Taylor and Burton's relationship was often referred to as the "marriage of the century" by the media, and she later stated, "After Richard, the men in my life were just there to hold the coat, to open the door. All the men after Richard were really just company."
Soon after her final divorce from Burton, Taylor met her sixth husband, John Warner, a Republican politician from Virginia. They were married on December 4, 1976, after which Taylor concentrated on working for his electoral campaign. Once Warner had been elected to the Senate, she started to find her life as a politician's wife in Washington, D.C., boring and lonely, becoming depressed, overweight, and increasingly addicted to prescription drugs and alcohol. Taylor and Warner separated in December 1981, and divorced a year later in November 1982.
She met her seventh – and last – husband, construction worker Larry Fortensky, at the Betty Ford Center in 1988. They were married at the Neverland Ranch of her long-time friend Michael Jackson on October 6, 1991. The wedding was again subject to intense media attention, with one photographer parachuting to the ranch and Taylor selling the wedding pictures to People for $1 million, which she used to start her AIDS foundation.
Taylor and Fortensky divorced in October 1996, but remained in contact for life. She attributed the split to her painful hip operations and his obsessive-compulsive disorder. In the winter of 1999, Fortensky underwent brain surgery after falling off a balcony and was comatose for six weeks; Taylor immediately notified the hospital she would personally guarantee his medical expenses. At the end of 2010, she wrote him a letter that read: "Larry darling, you will always be a big part of my heart! I'll love you for ever." Taylor's last phone call with Fortensky was on February 7, 2011, one day before she checked into the hospital for what turned out to be her final stay. He told her she would outlive him. Although they had been divorced for almost 15 years, Taylor left Fortensky $825,000 in her will.
Taylor struggled with health problems for most of her life. She was born with scoliosis and broke her back while filming National Velvet in 1944. The fracture went undetected for several years, although it caused her chronic back problems. In 1956, she underwent an operation in which some of her spinal discs were removed and replaced with donated bone. Taylor was also prone to other illnesses and injuries, which often necessitated surgery; in 1961, while filming Cleopatra she survived a near-fatal bout of pneumonia that required a tracheotomy.
In addition, she was addicted to alcohol and prescription pain killers and tranquilizers. She was treated at the Betty Ford Center for seven weeks from December 1983 to January 1984, becoming the first celebrity to openly admit herself to the clinic. Taylor also struggled with her weight – she became overweight in the 1970s, especially after her marriage to Senator John Warner, and published a diet book about her experiences, Elizabeth Takes Off (1988).
Taylor was a heavy smoker until she experienced a severe bout of pneumonia in 1990.
Taylor's health increasingly declined during the last two decades of her life, and she rarely attended public events after about 1996. She underwent hip replacement surgery in the mid-1990s, underwent surgery for a benign brain tumor in 1997, and was successfully treated for skin cancer in 2002. She used a wheelchair due to her back problems, and was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2004.
Six weeks after being hospitalized, she died of the illness at age 79 on March 23, 2011, at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Her funeral took place the following day at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. The service was a private Jewish ceremony presided over by Rabbi Jerome Cutler. At Taylor's request, the ceremony began 15 minutes behind schedule, as, according to her representative, "She even wanted to be late for her own funeral". She was entombed in the cemetery's Great Mausoleum.
Taylor was one of the last stars of classical Hollywood cinema, and one of the first modern celebrities. During the era of the studio system, she exemplified the classic film star. She was portrayed as different from "ordinary" people, and her public image was carefully crafted and controlled by MGM. When the era of classical Hollywood ended in the 1960s, and paparazzi photography became a normal feature of media culture, Taylor came to define a new type of celebrity, whose real private life was the focus of public interest.
Regardless of the acting awards she won during her career, Taylor's film performances were often overlooked by contemporary critics. Five films in which she starred – Lassie Come Home, National Velvet, A Place in the Sun, Giant, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – have been preserved in the National Film Registry, and the American Film Institute has named her the seventh greatest female screen legend of classical Hollywood cinema.
Taylor is considered a fashion icon both for her film costumes and personal style. At MGM, her costumes were mostly designed by Helen Rose and Edith Head, and in the 1960s by Irene Sharaff. Her most famous costumes include a white ball gown in A Place in the Sun (1951), a Grecian dress in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), a green A-line dress in Suddenly Last Summer (1959), and a slip and a fur coat in BUtterfield 8 (1960). Her make-up look in Cleopatra (1963) started a trend for "cat-eye" make-up done with black eyeliner.
Taylor collected jewelry through her life, and owned the 33.19-carat (6.638 g) Krupp Diamond, the 69.42-carat (13.884 g) Taylor-Burton Diamond, and the 50-carat (10 g) La Peregrina Pearl, all three of which were gifts from husband Richard Burton. She also published a book about her collection, My Love Affair with Jewelry, in 2002.
Taylor helped to popularize the work of fashion designers Valentino Garavani and Halston. She received a Lifetime of Glamour Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) in 1997. After her death, her jewelry and fashion collections were auctioned by Christie's to benefit her AIDS foundation, ETAF. The jewelry sold for a record-breaking sum of $156.8 million, and the clothes and accessories for a further $5.5 million.