Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

1835

Memoirs of Vigée Lebrun: Chapter 2 — Up The Ladder Of Fame

MY detestable stepfather, annoyed no doubt by the public admiration shown my mother, forbade us to go for any more walks, and informed us that he was about to take a place in the country. At this announcement my heart beat with joy, for I was passionately fond of the country. I had been sleeping near the foot of my mother's bedstead, in a dark corner where the light of day never penetrated. Every morning, whatever the weather might be, my first care was to open the window wide, such was my thirst for fresh air.

So my stepfather took a small cottage at Chaillot, and we went there on Saturday, spent Sunday there, and returned to Paris on Monday morning. Good heavens, what a country! Imagine a tiny vicarage garden, without a tree, without any shelter from the blazing sun but a little arbour, where my stepfather had planted some beans and nasturtium, which refused to grow. At that we only occupied a quarter of this delightful garden, for it was divided into four by slender railings, and the three other sections were let out to shopboys, who came every Sunday and amused themselves by shooting at the birds. The incessant noise threw me into a desperate state of mind, besides which I was terribly afraid of being killed by these marksmen, so inaccurate was their aim. I could not understand why this stupid, ugly place, the very recollection of which makes me yawn as I write, was "the country." At last my good angel brought to my rescue a friend of my mother's, who one day came to dine with us at Chaillot with her husband. Both were sorry for me in my exile, and sometimes took me out for a charming drive.

We went to Marly-le-Roi, and there I found a more beautiful spot than any I had seen in my life. On each side of the magnificent palace were six summer-houses communicating with one another by walks embowered with jessamine and honeysuckle. Water fell in cascades from the top of a hill behind the castle, and formed a large channel on which a number of swans floated. The handsome trees, the carpets of green, the flowers, the fountains, one of which spouted up so high that it was lost from sight – it was all grand, all regal; it all spoke of Louis XIV. One morning I met Queen Marie Antoinette walking in the park with several of the ladies of her court. They were all in white dresses, and so young and pretty that for a moment I thought I was in a dream. I was with my mother, and was turning away when the Queen was kind enough to stop me, and invited me to continue in any direction I might prefer. Alas! when I returned to France in 1802 I hastened to see my noble, smiling Marly. The palace, the trees, the cascades., and the fountains had all disappeared; scarcely a stone was left.

I found it very hard to quit those lovely gardens and go back to our hideous Chaillot. But we at last went back to Paris, and settled there for the winter. The time left over from my work I now spent in a most agreeable manner. From the age of fifteen I had been going out into the best society; and I knew all the celebrated artists, so that I received invitations from all sides. I very well remember the first time I dined in town with the sculptor Le Moine, who was then enjoying a great reputation. It was there I met the famous actor Lekain, who struck terror into my heart because of his wild and sinister appearance; his huge eyebrows only added to the fierce expression of his face. He scarcely talked at all, and ate enormously. At Le Moine's I made the acquaintance of Gerbier, the noted advocate, and of his daughter Mme. de Roissy, who was very beautiful, and one of the first women I made a portrait of. Grétry and Latour, an eminent pastellist, often came to these dinners at Le Moine's, which were highly convivial and amusing. It was then the custom to sing at dessert. When the turn of the young ladies came – to whom, I must admit, this custom was torture – they would turn pale and tremble all over, and consequently often sing very much out of tune. In spite of these dissonances, the dinners ended pleasantly, and we always rose from the table with regret, although we did not immediately order our carriages, as the fashion is to-day.

I cannot, however, speak of the dinners of the present day excepting through hearsay, in view of the fact that soon after the time I have just mentioned I stopped dining in town for good. A slight adventure I had made me determine to go out only in the evening. I had accepted an invitation to dine with Princess Rohan-Rochefort. All dressed and ready to get into my carriage, I was seized with a sudden desire to take a look at a portrait that I had begun that same morning. I had on a white satin dress, which I was wearing for the first time. I sat down on my chair opposite my easel without noticing that my palette was lying on the chair. It may readily be conceived that the state of my gown was such as to compel me to remain at home, and I resolved thenceforth to accept no invitations excepting to supper.

The dinners of Princess Rohan-Rochefort were delightful. The nucleus of the society was composed of the handsome Countess de Brionne and her daughter the Princess Lorraine, the Duke de Choiseul, the Cardinal de Rohan, and M. de Rulhières, the author of the "Disputes"; but the most agreeable without question of all the guests was the Duke de Lauzun; no one could possibly have been cleverer or more entertaining; we were all fascinated by him. The evening was usually filled up with playing and singing, and I often sang to my own accompaniment on the guitar. Supper was at half-past ten; we were never more than ten or twelve at table. We all vied with one another in sociability and wit. As for me, I was only a humble listener, and, although too young to appreciate the qualities of this conversation to the full, it spoiled me for ordinary conversation.

My life as a young girl was very unusual. Not only did my talent – feeble as it seemed to me when I thought of the great masters – cause me to be sought after and welcomed by society, but I sometimes was the object of attentions which I might call public, and of which, I avow, I was very proud. For example, I had made portraits of Cardinal Fleury and La Bruyère, copied from engravings of ancient date. I made a gift of them to the French Academy, which sent me a very flattering letter through the permanent secretary, d'Alembert. My presentation of these two portraits to the Academy also secured me the honour of a visit from d'Alembert, a dried up morsel of a man of exquisitely polished manners. He stayed a long time and looked my study all over, while he paid me a thousand compliments. After he had gone, a fine lady, who happened to be visiting me at the same time, asked me whether I had painted La Bruyère and Fleury from life. "I am a little too young for that," I answered, unable to refrain from a laugh, but very glad for the sake of the lady that the Academician had left before she put her funny question.

My stepfather having retired from business, we took up residence at the Lubert mansion, in the Rue de Cléry. M. Lebrun had just bought the house and lived there himself, and as soon as we were settled in it I began to examine the splendid masterpieces of all schools with which his lodgings were filled. I was enchanted at an opportunity of first-hand acquaintance with these works by great masters. M. Lebrun was so obliging as to lend me, for purposes of copying, some of his handsomest and most valuable paintings. Thus I owed him the best lessons I could conceivably have obtained, when, after a lapse of six months, he asked my hand in marriage. I was far from wishing to become his wife, though he was very well built and had a pleasant face. I was then twenty years old, and was living without anxiety as to the future, since I was already earning a deal of money, so that I felt no manner of inclination for matrimony. But my mother, who believed M. Lebrun to be very rich, incessantly plied me with arguments in favour of accepting such an advantageous match. At last I decided in the affirmative, urged especially by the desire to escape from the torture of living with my stepfather, whose bad temper had increased day by day since he had relinquished active pursuits. So little, however, did I feel inclined to sacrifice my liberty that, even on my way to church, I kept saying to myself, "Shall I say yes, or shall I say no?" Alas! I said yes, and in so doing exchanged present troubles for others. Not that M. Lebrun was a cruel man: his character exhibited a mixture of gentleness and liveliness; he was extremely obliging to everybody, and, in a word, quite an agreeable person. But his furious passion for gambling was at the bottom of the ruin of his fortune and my own, of which he had the entire disposal, so that in 1789, when I quitted France, I had not an income of twenty francs, although I had earned more than a million. He had squandered it all.

My marriage was kept secret for some time. M. Lebrun, who was supposed to marry the daughter of a Dutchman with whom he did a great business in pictures, asked me to make no announcement until he had wound up his affairs. To this I consented the more willingly that I did not give up my maiden name without regret, particularly as I was so well known by that name. But the keeping of the secret, which did not last long, was nevertheless fraught with disastrous consequences for my future. A number of people who simply believed that I was merely considering a match with M. Lebrun came to advise me to commit no such piece of folly. Auber, the crown jeweller, said to me in a friendly spirit: "It would be better for you to tie a stone to your neck and jump into the river than to marry Lebrun." Another day the Duchess d'Aremberg, accompanied by Mme. de Canillas, and Mme. de Souza, the Portuguese Ambassadress, all very young and pretty, came to offer their belated counsels a fortnight after the knot had been tied. "For heaven's sake," exclaimed the Countess, "on no account marry M. Lebrun! You will be miserable if you do!" And then she told me a lot of things which I was happy enough to disbelieve, but which only proved too true afterward. The announcement of my marriage put an end to these sad warnings, which, thanks to my dear painting, had little effect on my usual good spirits. I could not meet the orders for portraits that were showered upon me from every side. M. Lebrun soon got into the habit of pocketing my fees. He also hit upon the idea of making me give lessons in order to increase our revenues. I acceded to his wishes without a moment's thought.

The number of portraits I painted at this time was really prodigious. As I detested the female style of dress then in fashion, I bent all my efforts upon rendering it a little more picturesque, and was delighted when, after getting the confidence of my models, I was able to drape them according to my fancy. Shawls were not yet worn, but I made an arrangement with broad scarfs lightly intertwined round the body and on the arms, which was an attempt to imitate the beautiful drapings of Raphael and Domenichino. The picture of my daughter playing the guitar is an example. Besides, I could not endure powder. I persuaded the handsome Duchess de Grammont-Caderousse to put none on for her sittings. Her hair was ebony black, and I divided it on the forehead, disposing it in irregular curls. After the sitting, which ended at the dinner hour, the Duchess would not change her headdress, but go to the theatre as she was. A woman of such good looks would, of course, set a fashion: indeed, this mode of doing the hair soon found imitators, and then gradually became general. This reminds me that in 1786, when I was painting the Queen, I begged her to use no powder, and to part her hair on the forehead. "I should be the last to follow that fashion," said the Queen, laughing; "I do not want people to say that I adopted it to hide my large forehead."

As I said, I was overwhelmed with orders and was very much in vogue. Soon after my marriage I was present at a meeting of the French Academy at which La Harpe read his discourse on the talents of women. When he arrived at certain lines of exaggerated praise, which I was hearing for the first time, and in which he extolled my art and likened my smile to that of Venus, the author of "Warwick" threw a glance at me. At once the whole assembly, without excepting the Duchess de Chartres and the King of Sweden – who both were witnessing the ceremonies – rose up, turned in my direction, and applauded with such enthusiasm that I almost fainted from confusion.

But these pleasures of gratified vanity were far from comparable with the joy I experienced in looking forward to motherhood. I will not attempt to describe the transports I felt when I heard the first cry of my child. Every mother knows what those feelings are.

Not long before that event I painted the Duchess de Mazarin, who was no longer young, but whose beauty had not yet faded. This Duchess de Mazarin was said to have been endowed on her birth by three fairies, Wealth, Duty and Ill-luck. Certain it is that the poor woman could undertake nothing, not even so much as entertaining a party of friends, without some mishap befalling. A number of tales of all sorts of untoward happenings were current. Here is one of the least known: One evening, having sixty people to supper, she conceived the plan of putting on the table an enormous pie, in which were imprisoned a hundred tiny living birds. At a sign from the Duchess the pie was opened, and the whole fluttering flock beat their wings against the faces of the guests and took refuge in the hair of the women, making nests of their elaborately built-up head-dresses. It may be imagined what consternation and excitement there was! It was impossible to get rid of the unfortunate birds, and at last the company was obliged to leave the table, while they blessed such a silly trick.

The Duchess de Mazarin was very stout; it took hours to lace her. One day, while she was being laced, a visitor was announced. One of her maids ran to the door and exclaimed: "You can't come in until we have arranged her meat." I remember that this excessive corpulency evoked the admiration of the Turkish Ambassadors. When asked at the opera to point out the woman that pleased them most of all the occupants of the boxes, they pointed without hesitation to the Duchess de Mazarin – because she was the fattest.

While speaking of ambassadors, I must not forget to say how I once painted two diplomats, who, though they were copper-coloured, nevertheless had splendid heads. In 1788 some envoys were sent to Paris by the Emperor Tippoo Sahib. I saw these Indians at the opera and they appeared to me so remarkably picturesque that I thought I should like to paint them. But as they communicated to their interpreter that they would never allow them selves to be painted unless the request came from the King, I managed to secure that favour from His Majesty. I repaired to the hotel where the strangers were lodging, for they wanted to be painted at home. On my arrival one of them brought in a jar of rose-water, with which he sprinkled my hands; then the tallest, whose name was Davich Kahn, gave me a sitting. I did him standing, with his hand on his dagger. He threw himself into such an easy, natural position of his own accord that I did not make him change it. I let the paint dry in another room, and began on the portrait of the old ambassador, whom I represented seated with his son next to him. The father especially had a magnificent head. Both were clad in flowing robes of white muslin worked with golden flowers, and these robes, a sort of long tunic with wide, up-turned sleeves, were held in place by gorgeous belts.

Mme. de Bonneuil, to whom I had spoken of my artistic sittings, very much wanted to see these ambassadors. They invited us both to dinner, and we accepted from sheer curiosity. Upon entering the dining-room we were rather surprised to see that the dinner was served on the floor, which obliged us to assume an attitude that was very much like lying down, following the example of our Oriental hosts. They helped us with their hands to the contents of the dishes. In one of these was a fricassee of sheep's feet with white sauce, highly spiced, and in another some indescribable hash. Our meal was not exactly pleasant; it was rather too much of a shock to us to see those brown hands used as spoons. The ambassadors had brought a young man with them who spoke a little French. During my sittings Mme. de Bonneuil taught him to sing a popular ditty. When we went to make our farewells the young man recited his song, and expressed his regret in parting from us by adding: "Ah! my heart! how it weepeth!" which I found very Oriental and very well put.

When Davich Kahn's portrait was dry I sent for it, but he had hidden it behind his bed and would not give it up, asserting that the picture still needed a soul. I could only obtain my painting by employing strategy. When the ambassador could not find it he put the responsibility on his valet, and threatened to kill him. The interpreter had all the trouble in the world to explain that it was not the custom to kill one's valet in Paris, and informed him, moreover, that the King of France had asked for the portrait.

It was in the year 1779 that I painted the Queen for the first time; she was then in the heyday of her youth and beauty. Marie Antoinette was tall and admirably built, being somewhat stout, but not excessively so. Her arms were superb, her hands small and perfectly formed, and her feet charming. She had the best walk of any woman in France, carrying her head erect with a dignity that stamped her queen in the midst of her whole court, her majestic mien, however, not in the least diminishing the sweetness and amiability of her face. To any one who has not seen the Queen it is difficult to get an idea of all the graces and all the nobility combined in her person. Her features were not regular; she had inherited that long and narrow oval peculiar to the Austrian nation. Her eyes were not large; in colour they were almost blue, and they were at the same time merry and kind. Her nose was slender and pretty, and her mouth not too large, though her lips were rather thick. But the most remarkable thing about her face was the splendour of her complexion. I never have seen one so brilliant, and brilliant is the word, for her skin was so transparent that it bore no umber in the painting. Neither could I render the real effect of it as I wished. I had no colours to paint such freshness, such delicate tints, which were hers alone, and which I had never seen in any other woman.

At the first sitting the imposing air of the Queen at first frightened me greatly, but Her Majesty spoke to me so graciously that my fear was soon dissipated. It was on that occasion that I began the picture representing her with a large basket, wearing a satin dress, and holding a rose in her hand. This portrait was destined for her brother, Emperor Joseph II., and the Queen ordered two copies besides – one for the Empress of Russia, the other for her own apartments at Versailles or Fontainebleau.

I painted various pictures of the Queen at different times. In one I did her to the knees, in a pale orange-red dress, standing before a table on which she was arranging some flowers in a vase. It may be well imagined that I preferred to paint her in a plain gown and especially without a wide hoopskirt. She usually gave these portraits to her friends or to foreign diplomatic envoys. One of them shows her with a straw hat on, and a white muslin dress, whose sleeves are turned up, though quite neatly. When this work was exhibited at the Salon, malignant folk did not fail to make the remark that the Queen had been painted in her chemise, for we were then in 1786, and calumny was already busy concerning her. Yet in spite of all this the portraits were very successful.

Toward the end of the exhibition a little piece was given at the Vaudeville Theatre, bearing the title, I think, "The Assembling of the Arts." Brongniart, the architect, and his wife, whom the author had taken into his confidence, had taken a box on the first tier, and called for me on the day of the first performance. As I had no suspicion of the surprise in store for me, judge of my emotion when Painting appeared on the scene and I saw the actress representing that art copy me in the act of painting a portrait of the Queen. The same moment everybody in the parterre and the boxes turned toward me and applauded to bring the roof down. I can hardly believe that any one was ever more moved and more grateful than I was that evening.

I was so fortunate as to be on very pleasant terms with the Queen. When she heard that I had something of a voice we rarely had a sitting without singing some duets by Grétry together, for she was exceedingly fond of music, although she did not sing very true. As for her conversation, it would be difficult for me to convey all its charm, all its affability. I do not think that Queen Marie Antoinette ever missed an opportunity of saying some thing pleasant to those who had the honour of being presented to her, and the kindness she always bestowed upon me has ever been one of my sweetest memories.

One day I happened to miss the appointment she had given me for a sitting; I had suddenly become unwell. The next day I hastened to Versailles to offer my excuses. The Queen was not expecting me; she had had her horses harnessed to go out driving, and her carriage was the first thing I saw on entering the palace yard. I nevertheless went upstairs to speak with the chamberlains on duty. One of them, M. Campan, received me with a stiff and haughty manner, and bellowed at me in his stentorian voice, "It was yesterday, madame, that Her Majesty expected you, and I am very sure she is going out driving, and I am very sure she will give you no sitting to-day!" Upon my reply that I had simply come to take Her Majesty's orders for another day, he went to the Queen, who at once had me conducted to her room. She was finishing her toilet, and was holding a book in her hand, hearing her daughter repeat a lesson. My heart was beating violently, for I knew that I was in the wrong. But the Queen looked up at me and said most amiably, "I was waiting for you all the morning yesterday; what happened to you?"

"I am sorry to say, Your Majesty," I replied, "I was so ill that I was unable to comply with Your Majesty's commands. I am here to receive more now, and then I will immediately retire."

"No, no! Do not go!" exclaimed the Queen. "I do not want you to have made your journey for nothing!" She revoked the order for her carriage and gave me a sitting. I remember that, in my confusion and my eagerness to make a fitting response to her kind words, I opened my paint-box so excitedly that I spilled my brushes on the floor. I stooped down to pick them up. "Never mind, never mind," said the Queen, and, for aught I could say, she insisted on gathering them all up herself.

When the Queen went for the last time to Fontainebleau, where the court, according to custom, was to appear in full gala, I repaired there to enjoy that spectacle. I saw the Queen in her grandest dress; she was covered with diamonds, and as the brilliant sunshine fell upon her she seemed to me nothing short of dazzling. Her head, erect on her beautiful Greek neck, lent her as she walked such an imposing, such a majestic air, that one seemed to see a goddess in the midst of her nymphs. During the first sitting I had with Her Majesty after this occasion I took the liberty of mentioning the impression she had made upon me, and of saying to the Queen how the carriage of her head added to the nobility of her bearing. She answered in a jesting tone, "If I were not Queen they would say I looked insolent, would they not?"

The Queen neglected nothing to impart to her children the courteous and gracious manners which endeared her so to all her surroundings. I once saw her make her six-year-old daughter dine with a little peasant girl and attend to her wants. The Queen saw to it that the little visitor was served first, saying to her daughter, "You must do the honours."

The last sitting I had with Her Majesty was given me at Trianon, where I did her hair for the large picture in which she appeared with her children. After doing the Queen's hair, as well as separate studies of the Dauphin, Madame Royale, and the Duke de Normandie, I busied myself with my picture, to which I attached great importance, and I had it ready for the Salon of 1788. The frame, which had been taken there alone, was enough to evoke a thousand malicious remarks. "That's how the money goes," they said, and a number of other things which seemed to me the bitterest comments. At last I sent my picture, but I could not muster up the courage to follow it and find out what its fate was to be, so afraid was I that it would be badly received by the public. In fact, I became quite ill with fright. I shut myself in my room, and there I was, praying to the Lord for the success of my "Royal Family," when my brother and a host of friends burst in to tell me that my picture had met with universal acclaim. After the Salon, the King, having had the picture transferred to Versailles, M. d'Angevilliers, then minister of the fine arts and director of royal residences, presented me to His Majesty. Louis XVI. vouchsafed to talk to me at some length and to tell me that he was very much pleased. Then he added, still looking at my work, "I know nothing about painting, but you make me like it."

The picture was placed in one of the rooms at Versailles, and the Queen passed it going to mass and returning. After the death of the Dauphin, which occurred early in the year 1789, the sight of this picture reminded her so keenly of the cruel loss she had suffered that she could not go through the room without shedding tears. She then ordered M. d'Angevilliers to have the picture taken away, but with her usual consideration she informed me of the fact as well, apprising me of her motive for the removal. It is really to the Queen's sensitiveness that I owed the preservation of my picture, for the fishwives who soon afterward came to Versailles for Their Majesties would certainly have destroyed it, as they did the Queen's bed, which was ruthlessly torn apart.

I never had the felicity of setting eyes on Marie Antoinette after the last court ball at Versailles. The ball was given in the theatre, and the box where I was seated was so situated that I could hear what the Queen said. I observed that she was very excited, asking the young men of the court to dance with her, such as M. Lameth, whose family had been overwhelmed with kindness by the Queen, and others, who all refused, so that many of the dances had to be given up. The conduct of these gentlemen seemed to me exceedingly improper; somehow their refusal likened a sort of revolt – the prelude to revolts of a more serious kind. The Revolution was drawing near; it was, in fact, to burst out before long.

With the exception of the Count d'Artois, whose portrait I never did, I successively painted the whole royal family – the royal children; Monsieur, the King's brother, afterward Louis XVIII.; Madame Royale; the Countess d'Artois; Madame Elisabeth. The features of this last named Princess were not regular, but her face expressed gentle affability, and the freshness of her complexion was remarkable; altogether, she had the charm of a pretty shepherdess. She was an angel of goodness. Many a time have I been a witness to her deeds of charity on behalf of the poor. All the virtues were in her heart: she was indulgent, modest, compassionate, devoted. In the Revolution she displayed heroic courage; she was seen going forward to meet the cannibals who had come to murder the Queen, saying, "They will mistake me for her!"

The portrait I made of Monsieur favoured me with the occasion to become acquainted with a prince whose wit and learning one could extol without flattery; it was impossible not to find pleasure in the conversation of Louis XVIII., who talked on all subjects with equal degrees of taste and understanding. However, for the sake of variety no doubt, at some of our sittings he would sing to me, and he would sing such common songs that I was unable to understand how these trivial things had ever reached the court. He sang more out of tune than any one in the whole world. "How do you think I sing?" he asked me one day. "Like a prince, Your Highness," was my reply.

The Marquis de Montesquiou, equerry-in-chief to Monsieur, would send me a fine carriage and six to bring me to Versailles and take me back with my mother, who accompanied me at my request. All along the road people stood at the windows to see me pass, and every one took their hats off. This homage rendered to six horses and an outrider amused me, for on returning to Paris I got into a cab, and nobody took the slightest notice of me.

About this time I also painted the Princess de Lamballe. Without being actually pretty, she appeared so at a little distance; she had small features, complexion of dazzling freshness, superb blond locks, and was generally elegant in person. The unhappy end of this unfortunate Princess is sufficently well known, and so is the devotion to which she fell a victim. For in 1793, when she was at Turin, entirely out of harm's way, she returned to France upon learning that the Queen was in danger.

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