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I MADAME VIGéE LE BRUN CHAPTER I
The ancien régime—Close of the reign of Louis XIV.—The Regent Orléans—The court of Louis XV.—The philosophers—The artists—M. Vigée.
Capital letter W

WHEN Elisabeth Louise Vigée was born at Paris, April, 1755, the French court and monarchy were still at the height of their splendour and power.

Only a few years since, the chronicler Barbier had remarked, “It is very apparent that we make all Europe move to carry out our plans, and that we lay down the law everywhere.” [2]

Louis XV. was upon the throne; the manners and customs of the ancien régime were in full force, though mitigated and softened by the growing enlightenment and liberalism which were spreading not only in the literary and professional circles, but amongst the younger generation in all classes.

Middle-aged men and women had seen Louis XIV., Louis le Grand, “le Roi Soleil,” as an old man; old people could remember him in the prime of his life, the most magnificent King with the most stately court in Christendom. The Cardinal de Luynes, the [4] Maréchal de Croz, the Duc de Richelieu and other grands seigneurs who preserved the manners and traditions of that time, were looked upon as models of courtly manners and high-breeding by those who complained that in the reaction and licence of the regency and court of Louis XV., vice and corruption were far more unrestrained, more scandalous, less disguised and altogether more indecorous than under the ceremonious and stately rule of his great-grandfather. [3]

The Queen, Marie Leczinska, daughter of Stanislaus, ex-King of Poland, was a harmless, uninteresting woman, who had no ambition, no talent, no influence, and a great many children.

The King had been married to her when he was fifteen and she two-and-twenty; and after the first few years had lived in an open immorality which was very general at his court, and for a long time did not much affect his popularity with the nation, though every now and then caricatures and epigrams more witty than prudent appeared; as, for instance, the following, written upon the base of the pedestal of an equestrian statue of him, around which were grouped the figures of Strength, Prudence, Justice, and Peace:
“Grotesque monument, infame piédestal.
Les vertus sont à pied, le vice est à cheval.”

And a few days afterwards upon the same monument:

[5]
“Il est ici comme à Versailles
Il est sans c?ur et sans entrailles.” [4]

Louis, however, was more selfish and indifferent than cruel. He was by no means like Frederic William of Prussia, a savage to his family and his subjects, or like three out of the four Georges of England, who were not only outrageously immoral themselves, but brutal tyrants to their wives [5] and bitter enemies of their parents and children.

His court was the most splendid, the most extravagant, and the most licentious in Europe; the cruelty and oppression of many of the great nobles and especially the princes of the blood, were notorious; the laws were harsh and unjust to a frightful extent, but they were not of his making. He neglected the Queen, but did not ill-treat her; he was fond of his children and indulgent to them; while, far from being disliked by his subjects, he was called Louis le Bien-aimé.

Barbier, writing in December, 1758, gives another sarcastic verse going about in society, which, as it was directed against the King’s all-powerful mistress, the Marquise de Pompadour, attracted general attention, irritated the King, and caused the author, who was discovered to be an officer of the guards, to be sentenced to a year’s imprisonment, after which to be banished to Malta, as he belonged to the order of St. John of Jerusalem.

The lines are as follows, and refer to a chateau then being built by Louis for the Marquise de [6] Pompadour, whose original name was Jeanne Antoinette Poisson:
“Fille d’une sangsue, et sangsue elle-même
Poisson d’une arrogance extrême,
étale en ce chateau sans crainte et sans effroi
La substance du peuple et la honte du Roi.”

Barbier, a lawyer and man of the world, whose journal of eight volumes gives a vivid impression of the life of that time, after remarking that the sentence was a very lenient one, [6] that the chateau was not so large as that of many a fermier général, and that the building thereof gave employment to many poor people, goes on to say, “As for ‘shame,’ ... if it is because the King has a mistress, why who has not? except M. le duc d’Orléans. [7]... The Comte de Clermont, Abbé de Saint-Germain-des-Près, openly keeps Mlle. le Duc, who was an opera dancer; she spends three-quarters of the year at Berny, the Abbé’s country house, where she does the honours. She has a fine house in the rue de Richelieu, where the Prince often spends a week. The fathers of the abbey who have business with him go to him there in the morning, for he does not lodge in the palace of the abbey. This goes on in sight of every one, and nobody says a word about it.

“For more than twenty years M. le Comte de Charolois has detained in captivity, against her will, Mme. de Conchamp, wife of a Ma?tre-des-Requêtes, whom he carried off, and who would have been [7] much happier in her own house. Fifteen out of twenty men at the court do not live with their wives but have mistresses, and even amongst private people at Paris, nothing is more frequent; therefore it is ridiculous to expect the King, who is absolutely the master, to be in a worse position than his subjects and all the kings his predecessors.”

There had, in fact, been a strong reaction against the restraint and dullness of the last few years of the reign of Louis XIV., when the magnificent, pleasure-loving King, whose victorious armies had devastated Europe, who had made princes of his illegitimate children, lavished the riches of the country upon his mistresses, and yet in his stately beauty and fascination been the idol of France; had changed into a melancholy old man, depressed and disillusioned, looking with uneasiness upon the past, with fear upon the future; while the brilliant beauties and splendid festivities of bygone days had given place to virtue, strict propriety, and Mme. de Maintenon.

When Louis XIV. died, people were very tired of this altered state of things. For some time they had been extremely dull and were eager for change and amusement.

With a King of five years old, and such a Regent as the Duke of Orléans, they were tolerably sure of both. The reign of pleasure, luxury, and licence began with enthusiasm. Never, during the life of Louis le Grand, had the atmosphere of the Court been what it became under the regency, and under his great-grandson.

The Regent Orléans was not, like the Princes of [8] Condé, Conti, Charolois, and others of the blood royal, cruel, haughty, or vindictive; on the contrary, he was good-natured, easy, and indulgent; but he was dissipated, extravagant, and licentious to such a degree that he himself, the court, and his family were the scandal of Europe. The same frenzied pursuit of enjoyment, the same lavish, sensual, reckless, luxurious life, characterised the whole of the reign of Louis XV.

In reading the memoirs and chronicles of that time one scarcely realises the existence of the many families and households, especially among the noblesse de province [8] or country gentlemen, and the middle classes, amongst whom the principles of order and religion were observed; and of an increasing circle of literary and philosophic persons who inveighed against the crimes, vices, and abuses of the age.

Those whose ideas of France in the eighteenth century are derived only from such books as Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities,” or even from a casual acquaintance with a few of the histories and chronicles of the time, are apt vaguely to picture to themselves a nation composed partly of oppressed, starving peasants, and partly of their oppressors, a race of well-bred ruffians and frivolous, heartless women; all splendidly dressed, graceful, polite, and charming in their manners amongst themselves; but arrogant, cruel, and pitiless to those beneath them.
Rigaud
LOUIS XV.

Many such undoubtedly there were; the laws [9] were terribly oppressive, the privileges of the favoured classes outrageously unjust; while as for public opinion, Barbier himself remarks that the public is a fool, and must always be unworthy of the consideration of any man.

But still, in all ages human nature is the same, and has to be reckoned with under all circumstances, and that people in general are much better than the laws which govern them is evident.

If the cruel, unjust marriage laws of England, which until a few years ago were in force, had been universally and fully carried out, making the husband an almost irresponsible tyrant and the wife a helpless, hopeless slave, domestic life would have been hell upon earth. But as the great majority of men had no wish to ill-treat their wives, confiscate their money, deprive them of their children or commit any of the atrocities sanctioned by the laws of their country, families upon the whole went on in harmony and affection. It was only now and then, when a man did wish to avail himself of the arbitrary power placed in his hands, that the results of such iniquitous laws were brought before the public. At the same time, however, the knowledge of their existence and the tone of thought, prejudices, and customs which consequently prevailed, had an influence upon men who were not the least tyrannically inclined, but merely acted in accordance with the ideas and opinions of every one around them.

And amidst all the oppression, vice, and evil of which we hear so often in France of the eighteenth century, there was also much good of which [10] we hear little or nothing. The reason is obvious. Good people are, unfortunately, seldom so amusing to write or read about as bad ones. Has any one ever met with a child who wanted to be told a story about a good little girl or boy? And is it not true, though lamentable, that there are many persons who would rather read a book about a bushranger than a bishop?

The noblesse d’epée was the highest, most brilliant, and most scandalous in France; but in its ranks were to be found heroic examples and saintly characters; while far away in the convents and chateaux scattered over the country and in quiet bourgeois families in the towns lives were led of earnest faith, devotion, and self-denial.

Many an abbess, many a chatelaine spent time and money amongst the rich and poor; and there were seigneurs who helped and protected the peasants on their estates and were regarded by them with loyalty and affection. To some extent under the influence of the ideas and prejudices amongst which they had been born and educated, yet they lived upright, honourable, religious lives, surrounded by a mass of oppression, licence, and corruption in the destruction of which they also were overwhelmed.

Amongst the philosophic set, the “encyclop?dists,” so-called from the encyclop?dia which had been started by Diderot, and to which Grimm, d’Alembert, Buffon, Marmontel, and many other well-known men were contributors, there was a spirit of passionate revolt against the cruelties and abuses of the time, an ardent thirst for liberty, [11] much generous sympathy with the poor and oppressed, and desire to alleviate the sufferings of humanity.

They were, as usual, men of all sorts, shades, and aims. Many, inspired with lofty but unpractical enthusiasm, dreamed of an impossible republic founded upon that of Plato; the ideal of others was a constitutional monarchy and free parliament such as existed in England; there were also, of course, numbers who desired to upset the present order of things so that they might usurp the power and seize the property of everybody for themselves.

But besides their hostility to religion, the private characters of these philosophers did not, in many cases, by any means correspond with their writings and professions.

Rousseau, notwithstanding his assumption of superior virtue, his pretence of being a leader and teacher thereof, his especial exhortations and instructions to parents about the care and education of their children, and his theories on friendship and love, was absolutely without gratitude for the help and kindness of his friends, ill-tempered, conceited, and quarrelsome; saw no degradation in his liaison with a low, uneducated woman, and abandoned all his children in their infancy at the gate of the enfants trouvés.

Freethinkers, deists, or open atheists most of them were, delighting in blasphemous assaults and attacks, not only upon the Church and religion in general, but upon God himself; and so outrageous and scurrilous was their habitual language [12] upon such subjects that they found it necessary to disguise, by a sort of private slang known only to each other, their conversation in public places where it might be not only offensive to their hearers, but dangerous to themselves.

The salon of the famous Mme. Geoffrin was the great resort of philosophers, literary men of different kinds, painters, musicians, and celebrities of various countries, people distinguished in the political world, or belonging to the court and the great noblesse, French and foreign.

In art, as in everything else, it was still the age of the artificial. The great wigs and flowing drapery of the last reign had given place to powder and paint, ribbons and pompons, pink roses, and pale blue satin or velvet, à la Pompadour.

When people in Parisian society thought of the country, they thought of lambs with ribbons round their necks, shepherdesses in fanciful costumes with long crooks, or a “rosière” kneeling before the family and friends of the seigneur to be crowned with flowers and presented with a rose as the reward of virtue, in the presence of an admiring crowd of villagers; of conventional gardens, clipped trees, and artificial ruins; but wild, picturesque mountain scenery was their abhorrence.

The taste of the day was expressed in the pictures of the favourite artists, Watteau and Greuze, who painted the graceful groups and landscapes every one admired: charming women sitting in beautiful gardens dressed in costumes suitable for a ball or court festivity, or anything on earth but being out of doors in the country.

[13]

Fragonard, the Proven?al, had more depth and dramatic feeling, the passion of the south and the love of nature in his work gave a stronger, truer, more impressive tone to his pictures; but Boucher, the favourite painter of Louis XV., the Marquise de Pompadour, and the court would seem from his pictures to have looked upon everything in life as if it were a scene in a carnival or fête. His goddesses and saints, even the holy Virgin herself, were painted from models from the theatre, and looked as if they were; his gardens, roses, silks, satins, nymphs, fountains, and garlands were the supreme fashion; every one wanted him to paint their portrait; he had more commissions than he could execute, and his head was turned by the flattery lavished upon him.

David, Chardin, the celebrated genre painter, Van Loo, Gérard, La Tour, Joseph Vernet, and many others were flourishing. Louis Vigée was also an artist. He painted portraits in pastel, of which his daughter says that they were extremely good, many of them worthy of the famous La Tour; also charming scenes after the style of Watteau, in oil.

Although not a great painter he was absolutely devoted to his art, in which he would become so absorbed as to forget everything else. On one occasion he was going out to dinner and had already left the house, when he remembered something he wanted to do to a picture upon which he was working. He therefore went back, took off the wig he was wearing, put on a night-cap, and began to retouch the picture. Presently he got up, went out again, forgetting all about the night-cap which [14] he still had on, and which formed a singular contrast to his coat trimmed with gold braid, and the sword at his side; and would certainly have presented himself at the party to which he was going in this costume had he not fortunately met a neighbour, who stopped him and pointed out the strangeness of his appearance.



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