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CHAPTER IV
Marie Antoinette—Birth of Mme. Le Brun’s daughter—The Royal Family—Brussels—Antwerp—The charms of French society—The Opera ball—An incident in the Terror—A Greek supper—Le jeu de la Reine.
Capital letter I

IN 1779 Mme. Le Brun painted for the first time the portrait of the Queen, then in the splendour of her youth and beauty.
Madame Vigée Le Brun
MARIE ANTOINETTE, QUEEN OF FRANCE

Marie Antoinette was tall, well-formed, with perfectly shaped arms, hands and feet, a brilliant complexion, bluish-grey eyes, delicate though not regular features, a charming expression and a most imposing air, which very much intimidated Mme. Le Brun during the first sitting. But the kindness and gentleness with which the Queen talked to the young artist soon set her at ease, and when the portrait, which was to be presented to the Emperor Joseph II., was finished, she was desired to make two copies of it; one to be sent to the Empress Catherine of Russia, the other to be placed in the royal apartments, either at Versailles or Fontainebleau. After these she painted several portraits of the Queen, one of which, in a straw hat, was, when exhibited in the Salon, 1786, declared by one of those malicious slanders then becoming frequent, to be the Queen en chemise.

[46]

There was by this time a perfect rage to be painted by Mme. Le Brun. At a performance at the Vaudeville, called “La Réunion des Arts,” Painting was represented by an actress made up into an exact copy of Mme. Le Brun, painting the portrait of the Queen.

Mme. Le Brun was present, having been expressly invited to the box of some friends who wanted to surprise her, and was deeply gratified and touched when all the audience rose and turned towards her with enthusiastic applause.

Her first child, the only one that lived, was born in February, 1780.

Her extraordinary carelessness about everything but her painting, caused her to make no sort of preparations for this event; and even the day her child was born, although feeling ill and suffering at intervals, she persisted in going on working at a picture of Venus binding the wings of Love.

Mme. de Verdun, an intimate friend of hers, came to see her in the morning, and regarding her with disapprobation, asked whether she had got everything ready that she would require; to which Lisette, still occupied with her picture, replied with a look of astonishment that she did not know what she would require.

“There you are exactly!” cried her friend; “you are just like a boy. Well, I warn you that you will be confined this evening.”

“No! No!” exclaimed Lisette, “I have a sitting to-morrow. I shan’t be confined to-day.”

Mme. de Verdun said no more, but went away and sent the doctor. Lisette dismissed him, but he [47] remained concealed in the house until night. The child was born about ten o’clock, and Lisette was at once passionately fond of it, and as unfortunately foolish in her management of it as she was in the way she conducted all her affairs except her painting. She indulged and spoilt it in so deplorable a manner that she ruined her daughter’s disposition and her own comfort and happiness.

She had another daughter a year or two later that only lived a short time.

Mme. Le Brun took the greatest pleasure in her intercourse with the Queen. Having heard that she had a good voice and was passionately fond of music, Marie Antoinette asked her to sing some of the duets of Grétry with her; and scarcely ever afterwards did a sitting take place without their playing and singing together.

Besides all these portraits of the Queen, Mme. Le Brun painted the King, all the rest of the royal family except the Comte d’Artois; the Duke and Duchess of Orléans, the Princesse de Lamballe, the Duchesse de Polignac, and, in fact, almost everybody.

Louis XVI., who liked talking to her about her pictures, said one day—

“I know nothing about painting, but you make me like it.”

The last time Marie Antoinette ever sat to her was at Trianon, when she painted her head for the great picture in which the Queen is represented with her children, the first Dauphin, [20] Madame Royale, [21] and the Duc de Normandie, [22] which was [48] hung in the Salon of 1788, and excited universal admiration. It was afterwards taken to Versailles and hung in one of the salons through which the Queen always passed on her way to mass.

After the death of her eldest boy, the sight of this picture so affected the Queen that she had it removed, taking care to explain to Mme. Le Brun that this was done only because she could not bear to see it, as it so vividly recalled the child whose loss was at that time such a terrible grief to her.

The days were rapidly approaching when she would be thankful that an early death had saved him from the fate of his brother.

In 1782 business took M. Le Brun to Flanders, and his wife, who had never travelled, was delighted to accompany him.

They began by attending the sale of a magnificent collection of pictures at Brussels, and were received with great kindness and attention by the Princesse d’Aremberg, Prince de Ligne, and many of the most distinguished persons in society.

The Prince de Ligne invited them to see his splendid gallery of pictures, chiefly Rubens and Vandyke; they also visited him at his beautiful country place, and after enjoying themselves in Brussels, which was extremely gay, they made a tour in Holland. Mme. Le Brun entered with enthusiasm into all she saw. The quiet, ancient towns of North Holland, with their quaint streets of red-roofed houses built along canals, with only such narrow pavements on each side that no carts or carriages could come there, traffic being carried on by the great barges and boats gliding down the [49] canals, or on foot and on horseback as the pavements permitted; and Amsterdam with its splendid pictures; after seeing which they returned to Flanders to look again at the masterpieces of Rubens in public and private collections.

The most important part of the tour to Mme. Le Brun was her visit to Antwerp, then a medi?val city of extraordinary beauty and interest, which have only, in fact, of comparatively recent years been destroyed by the vandalism of its inhabitants. So striking was its appearance, with its walls, gates, and forest of towers rising from the broad Scheldt, that Napoleon, enchanted with its beauty, said it looked like an Arab city, and he gazed upon it with admiration.
E. H. Bearne
ANTWERP

The walls and fortifications were demolished within the last fifty years, and before and since then many a beautiful historic tower and gateway, many a lovely old house and interesting bit of architecture has vanished before the destroying mania of a stupid town council devoid of either education to comprehend or taste to appreciate and preserve the characteristic beauty which, if they had carefully restored and maintained all that was possible of the old, and carried out the new buildings in harmony with them, would have made their city the pearl of Belgium, as Nuremberg is of Germany.

But what to Mme. Le Brun was of great importance during her stay at Antwerp was a portrait by Rubens, the famous Chapeau de Paille, then in a private collection, where she saw and was fascinated by it. The effect of light and shade caused by the arrangement of the two different lights, the ordinary [50] light and the sunlight, was what chiefly struck her, and having studied the picture with deep attention she proceeded, on returning to Brussels, to paint her own portrait with the same kind of effect: wearing a straw hat with a wreath of wild flowers, and holding a palette in her hand.

It had great success at the Salon, was engraved by Müller, and was one of those amongst her works which decided Joseph Vernet, shortly after her return, to propose her as a member of the Royal Academy of Painting. She was duly elected, in spite of the opposition of M. Pierre, who was painter to the King, and a very bad painter too.

The following lines were circulated by Mme. Le Brun’s friends upon the occasion:
“Au salon ton art vainqueur
Devrait être en lumière
Pour te ravir cet honneur,
Lise, il faut avoir le c?ur
De Pierre, de Pierre, de Pierre.”

Mme. Le Brun now worked so hard that she made herself ill, often having three sittings a day, and she soon became so thin and out of health that her friends interfered, and by order of the doctor she henceforth, after working all the morning and dining in the middle of the day, took a siesta, which she found invaluable all her life. The evenings were always devoted to society.

She still lived in the rue de Cléry, where M. Le Brun had a large, richly furnished apartment, but as he used nearly the whole of it as a picture gallery, his wife had only two simply furnished rooms for herself, which, however, on her at-home nights [51] were thronged with everybody of any distinction, either at court or in the town, in fact, so great was the crowd that people were to be seen sitting on the floor, from which, on one occasion, the Maréchal de Noailles, being very old and fat, could hardly be got up again.

Such brilliant assemblies are not to be seen in these days. Not only the great political and social personages, but all the celebrated literary and scientific men, poets, painters, composers, musicians, and actors, were to be found there, and the music was the best to be heard in Paris.

Often the composers Grétry, Sacchini and Martini had portions of their operas performed there before their first representation at the theatre, the singers were Garat, Asvédo, Richer, Mme. Todi, and many well-known amateurs. Cramer and Hulmandel played the piano, Salentin the hautbois, Viotti, Jarnovick, Maestrino, and Prince Henry of Prussia the violin.

In those days, as Mme. Le Brun remarks in one of her letters, “people had both time and inclination to amuse themselves,” and the love of music was just then so strong and so general that the disputes between the rival schools of Glück and Piccini sometimes even amounted to quarrels. She herself was a Glückist, but the Queen and many others preferred the Italian music to the German.

The four women who were her most intimate friends, and were always to be found at her parties, were the Marquise de Grollier, Mme. de Verdun, the Marquise de Sabran, and Mme. le Couteux du Molay. Of the rest of her numerous acquaintances [52] she would ask a few at a time to the suppers she constantly gave. People arrived about nine o’clock, they amused themselves with conversation, music, or acting charades, supper was at ten and was extremely simple. As it was not considered necessary to give costly entertainments on every occasion, people of moderate and small fortune were able to receive and amuse their friends as often as they liked, without half-ruining themselves. A dish of fish, a chicken, a salad, and a dish of vegetables was the supper Mme. Le Brun usually provided for the twelve or fifteen people who were her guests, but those who went to these parties really amused themselves.

“No one can judge of what society in France was,” wrote Mme. Le Brun in her old age, “who has not seen the times when after the affairs of the day were finished, twelve or fifteen agreeable people would meet at the house of a friend to finish the evening there.”

The ease and gentle gaiety which pervaded these light evening repasts gave them a charm which was never found in a dinner-party; there was a kind of intimacy and confidence amongst the guests, who, being perfectly well-bred people, knew how to dispense with all formality and restraint.

Society was much smaller, people knew each other, or at any rate knew much more about each other, than could be the case after the revolution. The Comte d’Espinchal was the most extraordinary instance of this essentially social life. He passed his days and nights in going from one party or visit to another; he knew all about everything going [53] on, important or trivial. He appeared to know every one not only at the parties to which he went, but in all the boxes at the Opera, and nearly everybody he met in the streets, so that it was quite inconvenient for him to walk in them, as he was stopped every minute. Not only people at court and in society, but grisettes, employés of the theatres, persons of every class; but though a perfect mine of gossip, he never made mischief.

One evening he was at the Opera ball, then frequented by people in good society. Masked or not, they were equally known to M. d’Espinchal, who as he walked through the rooms saw a man whom he actually did not know, wandering about with distracted looks. He went up to him, asking if he could be of any use, and was told by the perplexed stranger that he had just arrived from Orléans with his wife, who had insisted on coming to the Opera ball, that he had lost her in the crowd, and that she did not know the name of the h?tel or street where they were. “Calm yourself,” said M. d’Espinchal, “Madame, your wife is sitting by the second window in the foyer. I will take you to her,” which he did. The husband overwhelmed him with thanks and asked how he could possibly have known her.

“It is perfectly simple,” replied the Count. “Madame being the only woman at the ball whom I did not know, I concluded she had just arrived from the provinces.”

Balls were not then the crushes they afterwards became. The company was not nearly so numerous; there was plenty of room for those who were not [54] dancing to see and hear what was going on. Mme. Le Brun, however, never cared for dancing, but preferred the houses where music, acting, or conversation were the amusements. One of her favourite salons was that of the chargé d’affaires of Saxony, M. de Rivière, whose daughter had married her brother Louis Vigée. He and her sister-in-law were constantly at her house. Mme. Vigée acted very well, was a good musician, and extremely pretty. Louis Vigée was also a good amateur actor; no bad or indifferent acting would have been tolerated in the charades and private theatricals in which Talma, Larive, and Le Kain also took part.

And so the time passed, each day full of interest and pleasure, in the gayest and most delightful capital in the world; while the witty, charming, light-hearted society who sang and danced and acted and talked so brilliantly, felt, for the most part, no misgivings about the future, no doubt that this agreeable, satisfactory state of things would go on indefinitely, although they were now only a very few years from the fearful catastrophe towards which they were so rapidly advancing, and in which most of them would be overwhelmed. Death, ruin, exile, horrible prisons, hardships, and dangers of all sorts were in store for them, and those who escaped by good fortune, by the devotion or kindness of others, and occasionally by their own courage, foresight, or presence of mind, met each other again years afterwards as if they had indeed passed through the valley of the shadow of death.

Amongst the latter was the singer Désaugiers, a friend of Grétry, well known for his quick and [55] ready answers. Being still in Paris during the Terror, although never of Republican opinions he was obliged, of course, to wear the tricolour cockade. One day he forgot to put it on and presented himself without it at the gate of the Tuileries in order to go into the gardens, but was brusquely stopped by the official, who asked why he was not wearing it; while a crowd of sinister faces at once began to gather round him. Désaugiers saw his danger, but with his usual presence of mind showed neither fear nor confusion. Taking off his hat he looked at it slowly with an air of surprise, saying as if to himself—

“It is true! I have not my cocarde! No doubt I must have forgotten it and left it on my night-cap.”

Most of the rabid mob believed him to be so fanatical a republican that he wore the tricolour by night as well as by day; a few, who guessed the truth, admired his presence of mind and let him escape.

Poppo, the celebrated violinist, was also seized and dragged before the bloodthirsty comité de salut public.

“Votre nom?” [23]

“Poppo.”

“Votre profession?”

“Je joue du violon.”

“Que faisiez-vous au temps du tyran?”

[56]

“Je jouais du violon.”

“Que faites vous maintenant?”

“Je joue du violon.”

“Et que ferez-vous pour la nation?”

“Je jouerai du violon.”

Wonderful to say, he was acquitted.

It was only to be expected that her brilliant success, both professional and social, would expose Lisette to a considerable amount of gossip, scandal, and jealousy, the usual penalty of distinction of any kind; and she was constantly being annoyed by some false accusation or preposterous story being circulated about her.

Amongst other absurd inventions it was reported that she had given a supper in the Greek style which had cost twenty thousand francs. This story had been repeated first at Versailles, then at Rome, Vienna, and St. Petersburg, by which time the sum mentioned had risen to eighty thousand francs.

The truth was that this famous supper, which did take place, cost about fifteen francs, and consisted of a chicken and a dish of eels, both dressed after Greek recipes, taken from the “Voyages d’Anacharsis,” which Louis Vigée had been reading to his sister; two dishes of vegetables, a cake made of honey and little currants, and some old Cyprus wine, which was a present to her.

[57]

The idea was suddenly suggested to the brother and sister by the book they were reading, and as she expected several people to supper, she arranged the rooms with draperies after the ancient Greek fashion, borrowed from the Comte de Parois, who lived in the house and had a collection of Greek things, all the vases, pitchers, pots, and cups she wanted, arranged the table in the same style, and as her friends arrived, proceeded to dress them one after another in Greek costumes, which she took from the mass of costumes and draperies in her studio.

The poet Le Brun-Pindare, dressed in a long purple cloak, represented Anacreon. The other guests were M. and Mme. Vigée, her brother, M. de Rivière, Mme. Chalgrin, daughter of Joseph and sister of Charles Vernet, Mme. de Bonneuil and her pretty child, afterwards Mme. Regnault de Saint-Jean d’Angely, the Marquis de Cubières, the Comte de Vaudreuil, M. Boutin, M. Ginguéné, and the famous sculptor Chaudet.

Mme. Le Brun was asked by several persons of importance to repeat this supper, but always declined.

That the Marquis de Cubières was present proved to be fortunate, as the King, vexed by the reports he heard of the enormous expense of this supper, spoke to him about it and was promptly undeceived.

However, in the earlier days of Marie Antoinette, especially while she was still Dauphine, the play that went on at court, and in which she took a conspicuous part, was high enough to give rise to grave scandal.

[58]

The Queen was in the habit of playing pharaon every evening, and on one occasion she noticed that M. de Chalabre, who kept the bank, whilst he was picking up the money of those who had lost, took advantage of a moment when he thought nobody was looking, to put a rouleau of fifty louis into his pocket.

When every one was leaving she signed to him to remain, and when they were alone said to him—

“Monsieur de Chalabre, I wish to know why you took from the game to-night a rouleau of fifty louis?”

“A rouleau, Madame!”

“Yes, Monsieur; you put it into the right-hand pocket of your coat.”

“Since your Majesty saw me, I must inform the Queen that I removed that rouleau of gold because it is false.”

“False! Your proof, Monsieur?”

Taking the rouleau out of his pocket, he tore the envelope and showed that it was lead skilfully worked.

The Queen turned pale.

“Did you notice who put it on the table?” she asked.

M. de Chalabre at first denied, but on the Queen’s insisting confessed that it was the young Comte de ——, whose father was an ambassador, and was then abroad. The Queen desired him to keep the affair secret, and the next evening when the young Count approached the tables she said, smiling—

“Monsieur le Comte, I promised Madame, your mother, to take you under my guardianship during [59] her absence. Our play is too high for a young man; you will play no more pharaon at Court.”

The lad understood, blushed crimson, and retired, profoundly grateful for being let off so easily. Neither was the lesson lost upon him; after this he played no more.


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