☀ You can borrow and read The Memoirs of Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun free below. ☀
The Memoirs of Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun is a fascinating look at the life of a gifted, frank, and intrepid Frenchwoman who earned her living painting exquisite portraits of the aristocracy, at a time when women were not supposed to show such independence — although she makes a good case that women actually “reigned” in the years before the French Revolution. Vigée-Le Brun’s access to the inner sancta of the French upper crust gave her a front-seat view of the crumbling of the class system into the hands of some vile people, and put her and her daughter in danger of their lives. It is interesting to, for once, view the French Revolution from the side of the aristocrats.
portrait painter to the rich and famous
Vigée-Le Brun started painting the aristocracy when she was just 17 and by the time she was 23 she was painting the Queen, Marie Antoinette.
It was in the year 1779, my dear, that I first painted the Queen; she was then at the height of her youth and beauty…. Her features were not at all regular; she bore the long, narrow, oval face of her family, typical too of the Austrian race. Her eyes were not particularly large and a shade approaching blue. Her expression was intelligent and sweet, her nose fine and pretty, her mouth was not wide, although her lips were rather full. Her most outstanding feature, however, was the clarity of her complexion. I have never seen another glow in the same way, and glow is exactly the right word, for her skin was so transparent that it could not catch shadow. Indeed I was never satisfied with the way I painted it; no colour existed which could imitate that freshness or capture the subtle tones which were unique to this charming face. I never met another woman who could compete in this regard.
Pretty, talented, and in demand by the highest strata of society, she soon found herself wickedly gossiped about:
Since my entry into society I have been the target of stupidity and malice. Firstly my works were not mine at all! M. de Menageot painted them, even my portraits, despite the fact that the people who sat for me could stand as witness to the contrary…. Although I believe I was the most inoffensive creature who ever breathed, I still had enemies; these were partly women who felt aggrieved because I was not as ugly as they, and partly people who never forgave me for being the fashion and therefore being able to charge more for my paintings than they could for their own. There were a thousand unkind rumours about me…. There were a thousand ridiculous stories concerning the style of payment for the portrait; some spread about the idea that the Controleur-General had given me a quantity of sweets called butterflies, each wrapped in a bank note; others claimed that I had received a sum big enough to bankrupt the treasury, and this hidden in a pie! In short there were endless lies, some more ludicrous than others….
fleeing the french revolution for the courts of europe
As the French Revolution approached, Vigée-Le Brun’s life became more and more alarming, as she heard of or saw horrors happening to people she knew and liked.
M. de Sombreuil, as highly thought of for his personal virtues as for his military skills, found himself one of a number of prisoners due to -executed on September 2. The executioners allowed him to live, having been witness to the tears and supplications of his heroic daughter: but dreadful even in their pardon, they forced Mlle de Sombreuil to drink a glass of the blood that flowed in waves from beneath the prison door. For a long time after, the very sight of anything red caused the poor young woman to vomit violently. Later in 1794, M. de Sombreuil was sent to the scaffold by the Revolutionary Tribunal. These two events inspired the poet Legouve to write the most beautiful of all his poems: Pardoned by hangmen, murdered by judges.
When the National Guard heard she intended to leave Paris, they burst into her rooms, drunk and menacing, and told her she would not be allowed to go. Finally, disguised as peasants, she and her daughter managed to get away:
Opposite me inside the coach sat a very dirty man; he stank like the plague and told me quite simply that he had stolen some watches and other personal effects. Fortunately he could see nothing about me worth stealing, for I had brought very few clothes and only the eighty louis for the journey. I had left all my belongings in Paris, including my jewels, and the fruit of all my work remained in the hands of my husband who spent it all, as I have already told you. Once abroad, I lived solely off the money I made through painting there. Although M. LeBrun never sent me any money, he wrote me such pitiful letters on his own financial distress that I once sent him a thousand écus and another time a hundred louis, and I also sent the same amount to my mother later. The thief was not content just to tell us about his noble deeds but spoke continually of stringing up this person or that person, naming a crowd of people I knew personally. My daughter found the man wicked and he frightened her; this gave me the courage to say: ‘Please Monsieur, do not talk of murder in front of this child.’ He stayed quiet, and ended up playing war games with my daughter….
Vigée-Le Brun worked her way around Italy and Russia and Austria, painting the rich, the aristocratic, and the celebrated. Her anecdotes of the goings-on she encountered are composed of the sorts of meaningful details that never make it into the usual history books. There are hundreds of stories, tales of discomforts in travel and lodging and food, hard work at her easel, visits to numerous cultural and scenic spots, formal dinners with some very strange people whom she describes engagingly, and her personal triumphs and tragedies, miseries and joys. And always the intrigues of the great cast of characters that filled her extraordinary life.
*As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.