Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun was born on 16 April 1755 in Paris, daughter of the portrait painter Louis Vigée (1715-1767), under whom she first studied. By 1770 she was practising on her own account as a portrait painter, and also copying Greuze, Rubens and Van Dyck. During a visit to the Netherlands in 1781 she further studied the work of Dutch and Flemish masters. She quickly became a highly sought-after portrait painter of French high society.
In 1774, she became a member of the Académie de Saint-Luc, both because his father was a member and because it was easier to access for female artists than the Académie Royale. 1776 she married the art dealer Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun (1748-1813), by whom she had one daughter. Their Paris hôtel became a centre of fashionable society. This circle became a spring board for her career as a highly fashionable portrait painter producing flattering and pleasing images to a rich clientele. In 1776 she painted her first portrait for the royal family, in 1778 her first portrait of Marie-Antoinette. The highly impopular queen increasingly used Vigée-Le Brun for her attempts to improve her popular image.
In 1783, she was admitted as a member of the Academy after Louis XVI had intervened. The Academy had hesitated to accept her because of her close links with the art trade that was forbidden to Academy members. She submitted a history painting as her reception piece ('Peace and Abundance', Paris, Musée du Louvre), but her academic rank as either history or portrait painter was never officially clarified. She exhibited at the Salon 1783-91, 1798, 1802, 1817 and 1824.
Because of her close ties with Marie-Antoinette's inner circle and her staunchly royalist stance, she quickly left Paris in 1789. During her thirteen years of emigration, she practised with eminent success in Italy 1789-92, Vienna 1792-95, St. Petersburg 1795-1801 and in Prussia on her way back to Paris. She was able to return to Paris in January 1802. She visited London in 1803-4 and the Netherlands in 1805. On two trips to Switzerland she produced important landscape studies and paintings. Her later years were passed in Paris and Louveciennes. She died in Paris on 29 May 1842.
Through her close connection with Marie-Antoinette, Vigée-Le Brun has always been a figurehead for royalists and a reference point for Ancien-Régime nostalgia exceeding the importance of her portraits that combine painterly brilliance with a lack of psychological penetration.