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CHAPTER II
The childhood of Lisette—Extraordinary talent—The convent—The household of an artist—Death of M. Vigée—Despair of Lisette—Begins her career—Re-marriage of her mother—The Dauphine.
Capital letter T

THE early years of the childhood of Elisabeth Vigée were peaceful and happy enough, and already at a tender age the genius which was to determine and characterise her future life began to appear. According to the usual custom she was placed in a convent to be educated, and though only six years old when she was sent there, she had then and during the five years of her convent life, the habit of drawing and scribbling perpetually and upon everything she could lay her hands on, much to the displeasure of the good Sisters and of her companions.

For nothing was safe from her pencil: her books, her copy-books, even those of her schoolfellows, the walls of the dormitory, every available space was covered with heads, figures, and landscapes in crayon or charcoal, and when out in the playground she drew with a stick upon the sand.

Little did the other children who made complaints that their books were “spoiled,” or the nuns [16] who gave reproofs and decreed punishments, imagine what valuable possessions these scribbled, spoilt books and papers would have become in future years if they had taken care of them, for the artistic genius was in them even then. One evening, when she was seven or eight years old, the child drew the head of a man with a beard which she showed to her father. Transported with delight, he exclaimed:

“Tu seras peintre, mon enfant, ou jamais il n’en sera.” [9]

She always kept this drawing, her foretaste of the brilliant success that began so early and never forsook her.

Lise, or Lisette, as she was generally called, was a delicate child, and her parents, who were devotedly fond of her and very anxious about her, frequently came and took her home for a few days, greatly to her delight. With them and her brother Louis, their only child besides herself, she was perfectly happy. Louis was three years younger, and did not possess her genius for painting, but the brother and sister were always deeply attached to one another.

Her mother was extremely beautiful, of rather an austere character, and very religious. With her the children attended High Mass and the other offices of the Church, especially during Lent; and upon the sensitive, impressionable girl the solemn beauty of the music, and especially the deep notes of the organ, produced an almost overpowering effect. Often as she sat or knelt by her mother the rich, [17] melodious tones echoing through choir and nave in the dim, religious gloom would throw her into a kind of rapture, and end in a passion of tears which she could not always conceal. This intense feeling for music, especially religious music, lasted all her life.

But her greatest love was for her father; it was almost adoration. Louis Vigée was exactly opposite in disposition to his wife, to whom he was, however, devoted. Kindly, affectionate, light-hearted, and thoughtless, his love for her did not interfere with his admiration for other women; a pretty grisette was quite able to turn his head, and on New Year’s day he would amuse himself by walking about Paris, saluting the prettiest young girls he met, on pretence of wishing them a happy new year.

Among his friends he was universally popular; every evening at his house were to be found some of the artists, poets, and other literary men who formed the society in which he delighted, and came to the suppers the gaiety and pleasantness of which were quite appreciated by the child who was always allowed to be of the party, but not to sit up after the dessert was upon the table. She would lie awake in her room, listening to the laughter and songs which she enjoyed without understanding, long after she was in bed.

The days were as happy as the evenings, for they were spent in her father’s studio, where he allowed her to paint heads in pastel and to draw all day long with his crayons.

At eleven years old Lisette was taken from the convent to live at home, after having made her first Communion. She had so outgrown her strength [18] that she stooped from weakness, and her features gave at present little promise of the well-known beauty of her after-life. Her brother, on the contrary, was remarkably handsome, full of life and spirits, distinguished at his college by his talents and intelligence, and the favourite of his mother, while the father’s preference was for the daughter whose genius was his pride and delight, and to whom his indulgence and tenderness made up for the strictness or inequality she observed in the dealings of her mother with her brother and herself. Speaking in her “Souvenirs” [10] of her deep affection for her father, she declares that not a word he ever said before her had she forgotten.

Amongst the friends who frequented their house her surprising talent naturally excited much attention and interest. One of those she liked best was the historical painter, Doyen, [11] a man full of culture, information, and good sense, whose remarks upon persons and things, as well as upon painting, she found very useful.

Poinsinet, the author, was a man of very different calibre. That he had plenty of ability was proved by the fact that on the same evening he obtained three dramatic successes, i.e., Ernelinde at the Opera, Le Cercle at the Fran?ais, and Tom Jones at the Opéra-Comique. But his absurd credulity made him the object of continual practical jokes, or mystifications as they were called.

[19]

On one occasion his friends made him believe that there existed the post of “fire-screen to the King,” and that it might possibly be given to him. In order to qualify himself, they persuaded him to stand frequently before the fire until his legs were quite scorched, assuring him when he wished to move away that if he did not persevere he would never be able to fill that post.

Yet his delineation of the society of the day was so true that somebody remarked about his play, Le Cercle, that Poinsinet must have been listening at the doors. He was drowned in Spain while crossing the Guadalquivir.

Caresne was a painter and poet whose poems and pictures were bad, but his conversation amusing. He wrote the following verses to Lisette, whose rapid progress and intelligence made her seem to be already passing out of childhood into girlhood:
Plus n’est le temps, où de mes seuls couplets
Ma Lise aimait à se voir célébrée.
Plus n’est le temps où de mes seuls bouquets
Je la voyais toujours parée.
Les vers que l’amour me dictait
Ne répétaient que le nom de Lisette,
Et Lisette les écoutait.
Plus d’un baiser payait ma chansonette,
Au même prix qui n’e?t été po?te?

He gave Lisette lessons in oil-painting for which his wife used to come and fetch her. They were so poor that on one occasion when she wished to finish a head she was painting, and accepted their invitation to stay and dine, she found the dinner consisted only of soup and potatoes.

Time passed only too quickly in the happy [20] sheltered life of the gifted child in her father’s house. The days were full of delight as she sat absorbed in the work which was a passion to her in the studio of the father she idolised. The evenings were full of pleasure, interest, and variety, as she listened to the brilliant conversation, artistic, intellectual, and political, of her father and the friends of many different ideas and opinions with whom he associated.

Louis Vigée was neither in principles nor tastes at all in sympathy with the new philosophic party; on the contrary, he looked with disapproval and uneasiness upon the future, from which they were so eagerly expecting their millenium.

Returning home one day after dinner with Diderot, d’Alembert, Helvetius, and others of their set, he seemed to be so out of spirits that his wife asked if anything were the matter.

“Ma chère amie,” he replied, “all that I have been hearing makes me think that the world will very soon be upside down.”

He was not, however, to live to see the realisation of his fears. Not much more than a year after Lisette’s return from her convent, a terrible calamity befell her in the loss of the father whose love and protection had made the sunshine of her life, and by whose death her lot was entirely changed and her happiness ruined.

The illness of Louis Vigée was caused by a fish-bone which he had swallowed, and which had become fixed in the stomach. Although the mania for operations amongst English doctors of the twentieth century, which in this country adds a [21] new terror to illness, did not exist at that time in France; under the circumstances, nevertheless, more than one operation was considered necessary; in spite of, or perhaps because of which, although the most skilful surgeon was employed, and was a personal friend who bestowed devoted and incessant care and attention upon the invalid, it soon became apparent that he had not long to live. Heartbroken, Lisette stood by her father’s bedside with her mother and brother to receive his last blessing and farewell, and an hour afterwards he breathed his last.

With her father’s death vanished for ever the bright, unclouded happiness of her childhood; her life henceforth was chequered with brilliant success, artistic and social, and acute sorrows in her domestic life; like a picture in which the brightness of the lights seem to deepen the gloom of the shadows. They were very badly off, for Louis Vigée had left scarcely any provision for his family, and Lisette for some time was so stunned with the shock and grief that she seemed to be sunk in despair, taking no interest in anything, and giving up even the painting which had been her passion. Doyen, amongst other friends of Vigée, used to come to see them; his visits were the greatest consolation to them all, especially to the young girl, who appreciated the affection he had always shown for her father, and by him she was persuaded to resume the studies and work which alone had power to divert her mind in some degree from her sorrow. She began to paint from nature, and did several portraits both in oil and in pastel, working [22] chiefly with another young girl about a year older than herself, Mlle. Boquet, whose father kept a curiosity shop in the rue Saint Denis where he lived, and where Lisette used to go in the evenings to draw from casts by candlelight with her friend.

Very often in the mornings the two girls went together to the artist Briard, who had a studio in the Louvre, and who, though an indifferent painter, drew well, and had several other young girls as pupils.

Lisette and her friend used to stay there all day, taking their dinner in a basket, and had an especial weakness for certain slices of excellent b?uf à la mode which they bought of the concierge of one of the doors of the Louvre. Lisette always declared in after life that she could never get any so good.

Lisette was now rapidly becoming very pretty, to the great satisfaction of her mother, who, seeing that in spite of her busy life and deep interest in her work, her spirits still suffered from the loss of her father, tried to give her all the distraction possible. She would take her to walk in the Tuileries gardens, where the beauty of both mother and daughter attracted much attention; and what pleased her most, to see all the picture galleries possible. They often went to the Luxembourg, in the galleries of which were then the Rubens and many others of the old masters now in the Louvre; besides which they saw all the good private collections. By far the best at that time was the gallery of the Palais Royal, collected by the Regent, Duc d’Orléans. These pictures were sold in the Revolution. Many of them were bought by Lord Stafford.

[23]

Besides her delight in wandering through these galleries where she would stand before her favourite pictures, never tired of studying them, absorbed in their beauty, she copied heads from Rubens, Rembrandt, Vandyke, Greuze, and others, and although she was only fourteen years old, the portraits she painted were not only becoming known, but were the principal support of the family, besides paying for the school expenses, books, and clothes of her brother.

But however hard she worked, the family finances did not become sufficiently flourishing to satisfy Mme. Vigée, who, driven to desperation by their poverty, and of course anxious about the future, everything depending upon the work of a delicate girl of fourteen, resolved to marry again, and unfortunately selected a rich jeweller of her acquaintance, to whose house in the rue St. Honoré she removed with her children after the marriage.

She had far better have remained in her old home, poor and free; for directly they were married she discovered the real character of her second husband: an ill-tempered, avaricious man, who refused his wife and step-children even the necessaries of life, although Lisette was foolish enough to give him all she earned by her portraits. She hated him still more because he had taken possession of her father’s clothes, which he wore, to her grief and indignation. Joseph Vernet, who, like many of her old friends, still interested himself in her, was furious at all this, and represented to her that she ought to pay a certain pension to her odious step-father and keep the rest of the money herself; but she feared such a [24] suggestion might make matters worse for her mother, and therefore went on allowing herself to be robbed.

She really cared very little for the money she so easily made, all her love was for her art, which alone had the power to raise her above the petty miseries and troubles of her present life.

Her step-father was continually doing something or other to annoy and distress them. Their new home was immediately opposite the gardens of the Palais Royal, which in those days were not only very extensive but extremely beautiful, with great forest-trees whose deep shade the sun could not penetrate.

The great avenue was a fashionable promenade on Sundays and fêtes, and to Lisette and her friend Mlle. Boquet, both of whom grew prettier every year, it was a great amusement to walk there with the mother and step-father of the former. The Grand-Opéra being close by, when the performance was over, which then was at half-past eight, it was the fashion, on summer nights, for every one to come out and walk about these gardens, where sometimes until two o’clock in the morning it was a scene of enchantment. People belonging to the court and society, bourgeois, actors, musicians, the demi-monde all went there. Every well-dressed woman in the evening carried a large bouquet of flowers, the scent of which filled the air, groups of people scattered about sang or played the harp, violin, or guitar, especially on moonlight nights; amateurs and artistes too, the delicious music of Saint Georges, Alsoredo and Garat often attracted crowds of listeners.

[25]

The demi-monde at that time kept themselves apart from the rest of the company; Frenchmen of good position and manners did not appear with them in public. If they were with them at the theatre it was in a closed box; though in her “Souvenirs” Mme. Le Brun declares that the fortunes made by them and the men ruined by their extravagance far surpassed anything of the kind after the Revolution.

The beautiful and notorious Mlle. Duthé was often to be seen, amongst others, attended by an Englishman who was not so scrupulous about appearances, and whom Mme. Le Brun saw again with the same person eighteen years afterwards at a theatre in London.

Besides the gardens of the Tuileries, Luxembourg, and Palais Royal, there were plenty of other places to which the Parisians resorted for amusement.

There was the Colysée, an immense place in the Champs-Elysées, with a lake on which were held regattas and round which were walks with seats placed about; also a large concert-room with excellent music, as the orchestra was a fine one and many of the best singers were to be heard there.

A flight of steps led up to the portico which was the entrance to this concert hall, and was the favourite lounge of the idle, dissipated young men of fashion, who would stand there in groups, making insolent remarks upon the women who came in and out. One evening as Lisette was coming down the steps with her mother, the Duke of Orléans, afterwards the infamous Philippe-égalité, stood there with the Marquis de Genlis, both making outrageous remarks to annoy whoever [26] passed them. To the relief of Lisette, however, the Duke, as he pointed her out to his friend, only remarked in a loud voice:

“Ah! there is nothing to be said against that one.”

A fashionable promenade was the boulevard du Temple, where every day, especially Thursdays, hundreds of carriages were to be seen driving up and down or standing under the shade of trees now replaced by houses, shops, and cafés. Young men rode in and out amongst them, notorious members of the demi-monde tried to surpass every one in the splendour of their dress and carriages. A certain Mlle. Renard had her carriage drawn by four horses, their harness studded with imitation jewels. It was not an age of imitation. In those days as a rule lace was real lace, jewels were real jewels, and if tawdry imitations and finery were worn it was by women of this class. Respectable people would never have dreamed of bedizening themselves with the sort of cheap rubbish with which the modern women of the lower classes delight to disfigure their houses and their dress.

On one side of the boulevard were rows of chairs on which sat many old ladies of fashion, highly rouged, according to the privilege of their class. For only women of a certain rank were allowed to wear it. There was also a garden with seats raised one above the other, from which people could see the fireworks in the evenings.

The odious step-father, whose name by the by, was Jacques Fran?ois Le Sèvre, was annoyed at the universal admiration excited by the beauty of his wife and step-daughter. At one time he tried to [27] put a stop to their walks, and told them he had hired a country place where they would go from Saturday till Monday during the summer.

Lisette rejoiced at this announcement, for she fancied she would like to live in the country, at any rate for a part of the year.

But when they saw the place, which was at Chaillot, it was a miserable little house in a still more miserable little garden, without a tree or any shelter from the sun except a deplorable looking arbour against which nothing would grow properly, while in the next plots of ground were shop boys shooting at birds according to the odious fashion one still sees in the south.

Lisette was in despair when she saw it, but fortunately some friends of her mother’s came one Sunday to dine there with them, and were so shocked that they used often to fetch her away and take her out with them on long excursions to all the parks, chateaux, and delightful places in the neighbourhood.

The one she liked best was Marly-le-Roi, a royal palace entirely destroyed in the Revolution. It was then an abode of enchantment, and she always spoke with rapture of the chateau with its six pavilions, its trellised walks covered with jasmin and honeysuckle, its fountains, cascades, canal, and pools upon which floated tame swans, its lawns shaded by enormous trees, its terraces and statues, everything recalling Louis XIV. Here for the first time she saw Marie Antoinette, then Dauphine, walking in the gardens with several of her ladies, all dressed in white.

[28]

Lisette and her mother were turning back, but the Dauphine stopped them, and speaking in the kindest manner to them begged them to continue their walk wherever they liked.

In 1802 Mme. Le Brun revisited this enchanting place, or rather the ground where it used to be. It was entirely swept away; only a stone marked the spot where had been the centre of the salon.

When the summer came to an end they gave up their visits to the horrible little villa, to the infinite joy of Lisette and her mother.


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