Madame Le Brun

THE Souvenirs of Madame Vigée le Brun (née Elisabeth Louise Vigée), though shorn somewhat of their original proportions, and sufficiently ill translated, form an important and acceptable addition to the literary treasures we already possess in the form of French memoirs. Her life of eighty-seven years, extending from April, 1755, to May, 1842, comprised the most tremendous epoch of modern, perhaps of all, history ; and she lived constantly in the forefront of the great world, at the focal centre of all the most thrilling interests and events of her era. A glance at the table of contents, even of this abridged edition of her memoirs, will suffice to show the extreme distinction, yet almost endless variety, of the company which she saw. All the literary and artistic society of Paris in the consummate prerevolutionary period, all the royal family of France in the reigns of Louis XVI. and his two brothers, the Duke and Duchess of Choiseul, Turgot and Talleyrand, the Rohans, the Broglies, and the Neckers, the royal family of Naples, Angelica Kauffmaun, Nelson, Sir William and Lady Hamilton, Joseph II. of Austria, Kaunitz and Esterhazy, three sovereigns of Russia, Catherine the Great, Paul I., and Alexander I., Strogonoff, Schouvaloff, Prince Joseph Poniatowsky, the king of Sweden, Count Axel de Fersen, and the incomparable Prince de Ligne; and later, in England, beside royal personages too numerous to mention, Herschel, West, Reynolds, and the Duchesses of Devonshire and Dorset, — all these were, so to speak, upon her visiting list. It was of course in her professional capacity of portrait-painter that she first made the acquaintance of this illustrious crowd ; but she was so charming in her own person, her social tact was so exquisite, and the blending in her of deference and independence so preëminently graceful that official intercourse, in very many cases, passed insensibly into a cordial personal intimacy, where there was no more any question or remembrance of relative social rank. Her naïve and confidential book is, in fact, a manual of behavior toward social superiors ; but in order rightly to profit by it, one must first acknowledge the existence of social superiors, which too many of her American readers will not be ready to do. Like all honorable and thoroughly accomplished courtiers, she was far above the clumsy necessity of lying. “ How do you think I sing, Madame le Brun ? ” inquired of her the vain and vulgar Count of Provence, afterwards Louis XVIII, during a sitting, when he had voluntarily favored her with a performance. “ Like a prince, monseigneur,” was her perfect reply. Her ultimate rank as an artist has perhaps not yet been exactly assigned, and need not be discussed here. Her place is not among the greatest, but it is far more than respectable, and we owe it to her indefatigable brush that the look of very many of the most commanding and memorable characters of the last century has not faded, and is not likely to fade, from the memory of men. Especially are we indebted to her for a perfectly clear and altogether captivating vision of the supreme loveliness, in her prime, of Marie Antoinette, whom she painted many times: now in white satin and crown diamonds; now in a white muslin gown, so simply made that the brutish and snarling populace of Paris called it a chemise ; now in a daring orange costume, seated at a table arranging brilliant flowers ; and repeatedly with her elder children. There is also a pen-and-ink portrait of the hapless queen on page 40 of the present volume, which is as vivid as word-painting can be. Of course she described people the more graphically for her long professional studies of personal appearance ; but also, no doubt, she owed something of her success in catching a likeness with the pencil to that subtle and sympathetic quality of her nature which enabled her so readily to divine and adapt herself to a great variety of characters. So her different gifts reacted upon and enhanced one another. She could make an interesting and pleasing picture of almost any subject, and did this repeatedly in her own case; notably in the study of herself and her daughter clasped in each other’s arms, which is familiar to us all from photographs. This visible image of herself is curiously identical with the character photograph presented in her memoirs. The two women are precisely the same ; utterly graceful, because utterly natural, simple and yet romantic, tender and animated, picturesque and unconscious. In her entire absence of affectation, she freely reveals the weaknesses and frivolities of her nature, and sometimes — for all the original and indeed perpetual kindness of her heart — she shocks us by a certain apathy and levity in view of the unprecedented convulsions and catastrophes it was her lot to witness. She floated along, waywardly, airily, as a bit of thistle-down might float over a lava torrent, and dropped lightly upon the desolated shore when the descent of scorching tragedy was stayed. It is not from such a one as this that we look for profound reflections upon great events ; yet now and then her quick intelligence seizes upon a remarkable point of view, as where she acutely says of those, the high-bred women in particular, who suffered in the Terror, “ I am convinced that had the victims of that awful time not died so courageously the Terror would have ceased much sooner. Men whose intellects are not fully developed have too little imagination to feel touched by internal suffering, and the pity of the populace is more easily aroused than its admiration.”

Again, in the case of Madame le Brun, as in that of so many of the distinguished women of the past, we are impressed to note how prompt and gracious and generous is the welcome which society, when let alone, accords to the rare woman with a preëminent gift a distinct and indisputable vocation. Even Elisabeth Louise Vigée might never have made painting a profession if the clever father who taught her to draw and mix color, himself a member of the Academy of St. Luke, had not died poor, and left a wife largely dependent upon her daughter’s exertions. But the career thus indicated was ardently accepted and most loyally followed. Had it not been so, the distractions of that very seductive society, which began straightway to flatter and invite the beautiful and engaging young artist, would surely have engrossed her time and spoiled the worth of her performance.

“ I cannot speak much of the great dinners,” she says, in one of the most entertaining of her earlier chapters, “seeing that, shortly after the time of which I write, I ceased to dine in Paris at all. The daylight [people dined by daylight then] was really too precious for me to give its hours to society, and an accident which happened to me decided me to go out only in the evening. I had accepted a dinner with the Princesse de Rohan-Rochefort; I was dressed and ready to step into a carriage, when I thought I would go and see a portrait which I had begun that morning. I wore a white satin dress, which I had put on for the first time, and I sat down on a chair which was opposite to my easel, without noticing that my palette was placed upon it. You may judge that I made my dress in such a mess that I was obliged to remain at home, and from that day I formed a resolution only to accept suppers.”

A calling embraced in this simple and disinterested fashion offers no detriment to the most delicate womanhood, and is likely to be facilitated and encouraged, as was Mademoiselle Vigée’s, in a manner far transcending her own modest dreams. But callings of this high and authentic nature are not sought out and peremptorily or peevishly demanded. Rather they await, or go themselves to seek, the elect who are to practice them.

The first half, or more properly the first third, of the present volume is by far the most fascinating portion. It consists of letters to a beloved Russian friend, the Princess Dolgo Kourakin, at whose earnest entreaty it was that Madame le Brun undertook to write out her memoirs. So long as this lady lived and the reminiscences were addressed to her, they have a warmth and spontaneity and informality which fail somewhat when, after the death of the princess, they are continued, with no affectionate motive. We have called the translation bad, but it is not very bad. The language is, for the most part, a tolerably transparent medium for the story. But if the anonymous translator ever undertakes another work of the kind, it might be well for him to remember that a sentence like this, “ My mother was compelled to remarry, and espoused a rich jeweler, who we had never suspected of being avaricious,”is neither French nor English.

  1. Souvenirs of Madame Vigée le Brun. New York: R. Worthington. 1879.