Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

1835

Memoirs of Vigée Lebrun: Chapter 3 — Work and Pleasure

IN 1782 M. Lebrun took me to Flanders, whither he was called by affairs of business. A sale was then being held in Brussels of a splendid collection of pictures belonging to Prince Charles, and we went to view it. I found there several ladies of the court who met me with great kindness, among them the Princess d'Aremberg, whom I had frequently seen in Paris. But the acquaintance upon which I congratulated myself most was that of the Prince de Ligne, whom I had not known before, and who has left an historic reputation for wit and hospitality. He invited us to visit his gallery, where I admired various masterpieces, especially portraits by Van Dyck and heads by Rubens, for he owned but few Italian pictures. He was also good enough to receive us at his magnificent house at Bel-Oeil. I remember that he made us ascend to an outlook, built on the top of a hill commanding the whole of his estate and the whole of the country round about. The perfect air we breathed up there, together with the delightful view, was something enchanting. What was best of all in this lovely place was the greetings of the master of the house, who for his graceful mind and manners never had an equal.

The town of Brussels seemed to me prosperous and lively. In high society, for instance, people were so wrapped up in pleasure-seeking that several friends of the Prince de Ligne sometimes left Brussels at noon, arriving at the opera in Paris just in time to see the curtain go up, and when the performance was over returned to Brussels, travelling all night. That is what I call being fond of the opera!

We quitted Brussels to go to Holland. I was very much pleased with Saardam and Maestricht; these two little towns are so clean and so very well kept that one envies the lot of the inhabitants. The streets being very narrow and provided with canals, one does not ride in carriages, but on horseback, and small boats are used for the transportation of merchandise. The houses, which are very low, have two doors – the birth door, and the death door, through which one only passes in a coffin. The roofs of these houses shine as if they were of burnished steel, and everything is so scrupulously clean that I remember seeing, outside a blacksmith's shop, a sort of lamp hanging up, which was gilded and polished as though intended for a lady's chamber. The women of the people in this part of Holland seemed to me very handsome, but were so timid that the sight of a stranger made them run away at once. I suppose, however, that the presence of the French in their country may have tamed them.

We finally visited Amsterdam, and there I saw in the town hall the magnificent painting by Van Loo representing the assembled aldermen. I do not believe that in the whole realm of painting there is anything finer, anything truer; it is nature itself. The aldermen are dressed in black; faces, hands, draping – all done inimitably. These men are alive; you think you are with them. I persuaded myself that this picture must be the most perfect of its kind; I could not tear myself away from it, and the impression it made on me was strong enough to make it ever present in my mind.

We returned to Flanders to see the masterpieces of Rubens. They were hung much more advantageously than they have been since in Paris, for they all produce a wonderful effect in those Flemish churches. Other works by the same master adorn some private galleries. In one of them, at Antwerp, I found the famous "Straw Hat," which has lately been sold to an Englishman for a large sum. This admirable picture represents a woman by Rubens. It delighted and inspired me to such a degree that I made a portrait of myself at Brussels, striving to obtain the same effects. I painted myself with a straw hat on my head, a feather, and a garland of wild flowers, holding my palette in my hand. And when the portrait was exhibited at the Salon I feel free to confess that it added considerably to my reputation. The celebrated Müller made an engraving after it, but it must be understood that the dark shadows of an engraving spoiled the whole effect of such a picture. Soon after my return from Flanders, the portrait I had mentioned, and several other works of mine, were the cause of Joseph Vernet's decision to propose me as a member of the Royal Academy of Painting. M. Pierre, then first Painter to the King, made strong opposition, not wishing, he said, that women should be admitted, although Mine. Vallayer-Coster, who painted flowers beautifully, had already been admitted, and I think Mme. Vien had been, too. M. Pierre, a very mediocre painter, was a clever man. Besides, he was rich, and this enabled him to entertain artists luxuriously. Artists were not so well off in those days as they are now. His opposition might have become fatal to me if all true picture-lovers had not been associated with the Academy, and if they had not formed a cabal, in my favour, against M. Pierre's. At last I was admitted, and presented my picture "Peace Bringing Back Plenty."

I continued to paint furiously, sometimes taking three sittings in the course of a single day. After-dinner sittings, which fatigued me extremely, brought about a disorder of my stomach, so that I could digest nothing and became wretchedly thin. My friends made me consult a doctor, who ordered me to sleep every day after dinner. At first it was some trouble to me to follow this habit, but by remaining in my room with the blinds down I gradually succeeded. I am persuaded that I owe my life to this rule. All I regret about that enforced rest is that it deprived me for good and all of the amusement of dining in town, and as I devoted the whole morning to painting I never was able to see my friends until the evening. Then, it is true, none of the pleasures of society were closed to me, for I spent my evenings in the politest and most accomplished circles.

After my marriage I still lived in the Rue de Cléry, where M. Lebrun had large, richly furnished apartments and kept his pictures by all the great masters. As for myself, I was reduced to occupying a small anteroom, and a bedroom, which also served for my drawing-room. This was unpretentiously papered and furnished, and there I received my visitors from town and court. Every one was eager to come to my evening parties, which were sometimes so crowded that marshals of France sat on the floor for want of chairs. I remember that the Marshal de Noailles, who was very stout and very old, one evening had the greatest difficulty in getting up again.

I was fond of flattering myself, of course, that all these grand people came for my sake. But, as it always was in open houses, some came to see the others, and most of them to enjoy the best music to be heard in Paris. Such famous composers as Grétry, Sacchini, and Martini often played pieces from their operas at my house before the first performance. Our usual singers were Garat, Asvedo, Richer, and Mme. Todi. My sister-in-law, who had a very fine voice and could sing anything at sight, was very useful to us. Sometimes I sang myself, but without much method, I confess. Garat may, perhaps, be mentioned as the most extraordinary virtuoso who ever lived. Not only did no difficulties exist for his flexible throat, but as to expression he had no rival, and I think that no one has ever sung Gluck as well as he. For instrumental music I had as a violinist Viotti, whose playing, so full of grace, of force and expression, was ravishing. I also had Jarnovick, Maestrino, and Prince Henry of Prussia, an excellent amateur, who brought this first violinist besides. Salentin played the hautboy, Hulmandel and Cramer the piano. Mme. de Montgerou came once, soon after her marriage. Although she was very young then, she nevertheless astonished my friends, who were very hard to please, by her admirable execution, and especially by her expression; she really made the instrument speak. Mme. Montgerou has since taken first rank as a pianist, and distinguished herself as a composer.

At the time I gave my concerts people had taste and leisure for amusement, and even some years later the love of music was so general that it occasioned a serious quarrel between those who were called Gluckists and Piccinists. All amateurs were divided into two opposing factions. The usual field of battle was the garden of the Palais Royal. There the partisans of Gluck and the partisans of Piccini went at each other with such violence that there was more than one duel to record. The women who were usually present comprised the Marquise de Grollier, Mme. de Verdun, the Marquise de Sabran, who afterward married the Chevalier de Boufflers, Mme. le Couteux du Molay – my best friends, all four of them – the Marquise de Rougé, Mme. de Pezé, her friend, whom I painted in the same picture with her, and a host of other French ladies, whom, owing to the smallness of my rooms, I could receive but rarely, and all sorts of distinguished foreign ladies. As for men, the list would be too long to write it down.

From this crowd I selected the cleverest for invitation to my suppers, which the Abbé Delille, the poet Lebrun, the Chevalier de Boufflers, the Viscount de Ségur, and others contributed to make the most entertaining in Paris. He can form no opinion of what society once was in France who has not seen the time when, all of the day's business absolved, a dozen or fifteen delightful people met at the house of a hostess to finish their evening. The ease and the refined merriment which reigned at these light evening repasts gave them a charm which dinners can never have. A sort of confidence and intimacy prevailed among the guests; it was by such suppers that the good society of Paris showed its superiority to that of all Europe. At my house, for instance, we met at about nine o'clock. No one ever talked politics, but we chatted about literature and told anecdotes of the hour. Sometimes we diverted ourselves by acting charades, and sometimes the Abbé Delille or the poet Lebrun read us some of their compositions. At ten o'clock we sat down to table. My suppers were of the simplest. They always consisted of some fowl, a fish, a dish of vegetables, and a salad, so that if I succumbed to the temptation of keeping back some visitors there really was nothing more for any one to eat. But that mattered little; the hours passed like minutes, and at midnight the company broke up.

I not only gave suppers at my own house, but frequently supped in town. Sometimes there was dancing, and there was no crowding to suffocation, as there is nowadays. Eight persons only performed the square dances, and the women who were not dancing could at least look on, for the men stood behind them. I often went to spend the evening at M. de Rivière's, in charge of the Saxon legation, a man distinguished as much by his wit as by his good qualities. We played comedies there, and comic operas. His daughter (my sister-in- law) sang excellently, and could pass for a good society actress. M. de Rivière's eldest son was charming in comic parts, and I was given the use of a few professionals in opera and drama. Mme. Laruette, some years retired from the stage, did not disdain our troupe. She played with us in several operas, and her voice was still fresh and fine. My brother Vigée played leading parts with very great success. In short, all our actors were good – excepting Talma. My saying this will no doubt make my readers laugh. The fact is, that Talma, who acted lovers' parts with us, was so awkward and diffident that no one could then possibly have foreseen how great an actor he would become. My surprise was therefore very great when I saw our leading man surpass Larive and take the place of Lekain. But the time it took to operate this change, and all of the same kind, proves to me that the dramatic talent takes longer to reach perfection than any other.

One evening, when I had invited a dozen or more friends to hear a recital by the poet Lebrun, and while we were waiting for them, my brother read aloud to me a few pages of "Anacharsis." Arriving at the place where, in the description of a Greek dinner, the method of preparing various sauces is explained, "We ought," said my brother, "to try this to-night." I at once ordered up my cook and instructed her properly, deciding that she was to make a certain sauce for the chicken and another for the eel. As I was expecting some very pretty women, I conceived the idea of Greek costumes, in order to give M. de Vaudreuil and M. Boutin a surprise, knowing they would not arrive until ten o'clock. My studio, full of things I used for draping my models, would furnish me with enough material for garments, and the Count de Parois, who lived in my house in the Rue de Cléry, owned a superb collection of Etruscan pottery. It happened that he came to see me that evening. I confided my project to him, so that he supplied me with a number of drinking-cups and vases, from among which I took my choice. I cleaned all these articles myself, and arranged them on a table of mahogany without a tablecloth. This done, I put behind the chairs a large screen, which I took the precaution of concealing under some hangings looped up at intervals, as may be seen in Poussin's pictures. A hanging lamp threw a strong light on the table. All was now prepared except my costumes, when Joseph Vernet's daughter, the charming Mme. Chalgrin, was first to arrive. I immediately took her in hand, doing her hair and dressing her up. Then came Mme. de Bonneuil, so remarkable for her beauty, and Mme. Vigée, my sister-in-law, who, without being pretty, had the most beautiful eyes imaginable. And there they were, all three, metamorphosed into veritable Athenians. Lebrun came in; we wiped off his powder, undid his side curls, and put a wreath of laurels on his head. Then the Marquis de Cubières arrived. While we sent for a guitar of his, which he had turned into a gilded lyre, I attended to his costume, and then likewise dressed up M. de Rivière, and Chaudet, the famous sculptor.

The hour was waxing late. I had little time to think of myself. But as I always wore white gowns in the form of a tunic – now called a blouse – it was sufficient to put a veil and a wreath of flowers on my head. I took particular pains in costuming my daughter, darling child that she was, and Mlle. de Bonneuil, now Mme. Regnault d'Angély, who was as lovely as an angel. Both were ravishing to behold, bearing a very light antique vase, in readiness to serve us with drink.

At half past nine the preparations were ended, and at ten we heard the carriage of the Count de Vaudreuil and of Boutin roll in, and when these two gentlemen arrived before the door of the dining-room, whose two leaves I had thrown open, they found us singing Gluck's chorus, "The God of Paphos," with M. de Cubières accompanying us on his lyre. Never in all my days have I seen two such astonished faces as those of M. de Vaudreuil and his companion. They were so surprised and delighted that they stood motionless for a long time before they could make up their minds to take the seats we had reserved for them.

Besides the two courses I have mentioned, we had for supper a cake made with honey and Corinth raisins, and two dishes of vegetables. I confess that that evening we drank a bottle of old Cyprus wine, which had been presented to me. But that was the whole of our dissipation. We nevertheless remained a long time at table, where Lebrun recited to us several odes of "Anacreon," which he had translated, and I think I never spent a more amusing evening. M. Boutin and M. de Vaudreuil were so enthusiastic that the next day they told all their friends about the entertainment.

Some of the women of the court asked me to repeat the performance. I declined for various reasons, and some of them felt hurt by my refusal. Soon the report spread in society that this supper had cost me twenty thousand francs. The King spoke of it with annoyance to the Marquis de Cubières, who fortunately had been one of my guests, and who therefore was able to convince His Majesty how foolish the accusation was. Nevertheless, what was estimated at Versailles at the modest price of twenty thousand francs was increased at Rome to forty thousand. At Vienna the Baroness de Strogonoff informed me that I had spent sixty thousand francs on my Greek supper. At St. Petersburg the sum fixed upon was eighty thousand francs. In reality, the supper had occasioned an outlay of nearly fifteen francs!

Although, as I am sure, I was the most harmless creature who ever drew breath, I had enemies. A few years before the Revolution I did the portrait of M. de Calonne, which I exhibited at the Salon of 1785. I painted that minister in a sitting position and as far as the knees, which caused Mlle. Arnould to say, when she looked at it: "Mme. Lebrun cut off his legs, so that he should not get away." Unfortunately, this little witticism was not the only one my picture evoked; I was made the butt of calumnies of the most odious description. There were a thousand stories circulated as to the payment of the portrait, some asserting that the minister had given me a quantity of sweetmeats wrapped in bank-notes, others that I had received in a pasty a sum large enough to ruin the treasury. The fact is, that M. de Calonne had sent me four thousand francs in a box worth twenty louis. Some of the people who were with me when the box arrived can certify this. They were even surprised at the smallness of the amount, for not long before, M. de Beaujon, whom I had painted in the same style, had sent me eight thousand francs, without any one considering this fee too large.

I cared so little about money that I scarcely knew the value of it. The Countess de la Guiche, who is still alive, can affirm that, upon coming to me to have her portrait painted and telling me that she could afford no more than a thousand francs, I answered that M. Lebrun wished me to do none for less than two thousand. My closest friends all know that M. Lebrun took all the money I earned, on the plea of investing it in his business. I often had no more than six francs in my pocket and in the world. When in 1788 I painted the picture of the handsome Prince Lubomirskia, who was then grown up, his aunt, the Princess Lubomirska, remitted twelve thousand francs to me, out of which I begged M. Lebrun to let me keep forty; but he would not let me have even that, alleging that he needed the whole sum to liquidate a promissory note.

My indifference to money no doubt proceeded from the fact that wealth was not necessary to me. Since that which made my house pleasant required no extravagance, I always lived very economically. I spent very little on dress; I was even reproached for neglecting it, for I wore none but white dresses of muslin or lawn, and never wore elaborate gowns excepting for my sittings at Versailles. My head-dress cost me nothing, because I did my hair myself, and most of the time I wore a muslin cap on my head, as may be seen from my portraits.

One of my favourite distractions was going to the play, and I can vow that so many talented actors were on the Paris stage that many of them have had no successors. I remember perfectly having seen the renowned Lekain act, whose ugliness, monstrous as it was, was not apparent in all his parts. But when he played the rôle of Orosmane, in which I once saw him, I was very near the stage, and his turban made him so hideous that, although I admired his fine bearing, he frightened me. Mlle. Dumesnil, although she was short and very ugly, sent her audiences into transports in her great tragic rôles. It sometimes happened that Mlle. Dumesnil acted through a portion of the play without producing any impression; then, all of a sudden, she would change; her gestures, her voice and her features all became so intensely tragic that she brought down the house. I was assured that before coming on the stage she was in the habit of drinking a bottle of wine, and that another was held in reserve for her in the wings. The most brilliant first appearance I can remember was Mlle. Raucourt's in the part of Dido, when she was eighteen or twenty at the most. The beauty of her face, her figure, her voice, her declamation – everything foreshadowed a perfect actress. To so many advantages she added an air of remarkable decency and a reputation of severe morals, which caused her to be sought after by our greatest ladies. She was presented with jewelry, with theatrical costumes, and with money for herself and her father, who was always with her. Later on she changed her habits very much.

Talma, our last great tragic actor, in my opinion surpassed all the others. There was genius in his acting. It may also be said that he revolutionised the art, in the first place through banishing the bombastic and affected style of delivery by his natural, sincere elocution, and secondly through bringing about an innovation in dress, attiring himself like a Greek or a Roman when he played Achilles or Brutus – for which I was heartily grateful to him. Talma had one of the finest heads and one of the most mobile countenances imaginable, and, however impetuous his acting became, always kept dignified, which seems to me a prime quality in a tragic actor. He was a very good man, and the best tempered individual in the world. It was his custom to make no fuss in society; in order to make him respond, it needed something in the conversation which would stir one of his deepest interests, and then he was well worth listening to, particularly when he talked about his art. Comedy was perhaps better off still for talent than tragedy. I often had the good fortune to see Préville on the stage. There, indeed, was the perfect, the inimitable artist! His acting, so clever, so natural, and so full of fun, was at the same time most varied. He would play in turn Crispin, Sosie, and Figaro, and you would not know it was the same man, so inexhaustible were his comic resources. Dugazon, his successor in humorous parts, would have been an excellent comedian if a desire to make the public laugh had not often led him into being farcical. He played certain parts of valets admirably. Dugazon behaved villainously in the Revolution: he was one of those who went for the King to Varennes, and an eyewitness told me that he had seen him at the carriage door with a gun on his shoulder. Be it observed that this man had been overwhelmed with favours by the court, and especially by the Count d'Artois.

I also witnessed Mlle. Contat's first appearance. She was extremely pretty and well made, but did her work so badly at first that no one foresaw what a fine actress she was to become. Her charming face was not sufficient to protect her from hisses when she played the part confided to her by Beaumarchais, of Susanna in "The Marriage of Figaro." But from that moment on she advanced further and further on the path of success.

At a period when all of the great actors were beginning to age, a young talent arose that to-day is the ornament of the French stage: Mlle. Mars was then playing the parts of young girls in the most highly accomplished manner; she excelled in that of Victorine in "The Unwitting Philosopher," and in a dozen others in which she never had an equal. For it was impossible for any one else to be so true to life and so affecting; it was nature at its best. Fortunately, that face, that figure, that bewitching voice are so perfectly preserved that Mlle. Mars has no age, nor, I believe, ever will have, and the public proves every night by its applause that it shares my opinion.

I remember having seen Sophie Arnould twice at the opera, in "Castor and Pollux." I recollect that she seemed to me to possess grace and feeling. As for her abilities as a singer, the music of that epoch disgusted me so that I did not listen to it enough to be able to speak about it now. Mlle. Arnould was not pretty; her mouth spoiled her face; only her eyes conveyed the cleverness which made her famous. A great number of her witty sayings have been passed round from mouth to mouth or printed.

A woman whose superior gifts delighted us for a long time was Mlle. Arnould's successor. This was Mme. Saint Huberti, whom one must have heard in order to understand how far lyric tragedy can go. Mme. Saint Huberti had not only a superb voice, but was also a great actress. Her good fate ordained that she should sing the operas of Piccini, Sacchini and Gluck, and all this music, so beautiful, so expressive, exactly suited her talent, which was full of significance, of sincerity and of nobility. She was not good-looking, but her face was entrancing because of its soulfulness. The Count d'Entraigues, a very fine, handsome man, and very distinguished through his intellect, fell in love with her and married her. When the Revolution broke out they escaped to London together. It was there that one evening they were both murdered, without either the murderers or their motives ever being discovered.

In the ballet, likewise noted for people with great capabilities, Gardel and Vestris the elder were first. Vestris was tall and imposing, and was not to be excelled in dances of the grave and sedate order. I could not prescribe the grace with which he took off and put back his hat at the bow preceding the minuet. All the young women of the court took lessons from him, before their presentation, in making the three courtesies. Vestris the elder was succeeded by his son, the most astonishing dancer to be seen, such were his combined gracefulness and lightness. Although our dancers of the present day by no means spare us their pirouettes, certainly no one could ever do as many as he did. He would suddenly rise toward the sky in such a marvellous manner that one thought he must have wings, and this made old Vestris say, "If my son touches the ground it is only from politeness to his colleagues."

Mlle. Guimard had another sort of talent altogether. Her dancing was only a sketch; she did nothing but take short steps, but executed them with such fascinating motions that the public awarded her the palm over all other female dancers. She was short, slight, very well shaped, and, although plain, her features were such that at the age of forty-five she looked no more than fifteen when on the stage.

I now come to one whose entire dramatic career I have been able to follow – the best talent the Opéra-Comique had to show, Mme. Dugazon. Never has such reality been seen upon the stage. The actress disappeared, and gave place to the actual Babet, Countess d'Albert, or Nicolette. Her voice was rather weak, but it was strong enough for laughter, for tears, for all situations, for all parts. Grétry and Delayrac, who wrote for her, were mad about her. No one ever again played Nina like her – Nina, so decent and so passionate at once, and so unhappy and so touching that the mere sight of her made the audience shed tears. Mme. Dugazon was a royalist, heart and soul. Of this she gave the public a proof, when the Revolution was well advanced, in playing the part of the maid in "Unforeseen Events." The Queen was witnessing the performance, and in a duet begun by the valet, with "I love my master dearly," Mme. Dugazon, whose answer was "Ah, how I love my mistress!" turned toward the Queen's box, laid her hand over her heart, and sang her reply in a melting voice while she bowed to Her Majesty. I was told that the public – and such a public – afterward sought revenge by attempting to make her sing some horrible thing which had come into vogue and was often heard in the theatres. But Mme. Dugazon would not yield. She left the stage.

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