Click on the image to see Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun’s Lady Folding a Letter in High Resolution!
The same year that I went to Flanders I made a stay of some length at Raincy. The Duke d’Orléans, the father of Philippe Egalité, who was then living there, sent for me to paint his portrait and Mme. de Montesson’s. I cannot recall a certain incident without laughing, though it annoyed me considerably at the time. During Mme. de Montesson’s sittings the old Princess de Conti came to see her one day, and this Princess persisted in addressing me as “Miss.” It is true that it had formerly been the custom for great ladies to behave in this way toward their inferiors, but that sort of court snobbery had gone out with Louis XV.
Another noted country estate, Gennevilliers, belonged to the Count de Vaudreuil, one of the most amiable of men. The Count de Vaudreuil had bought this property largely for His Highness the Count d’Artois, because it included fine hunting-grounds. The purchaser had done much to embellish the place. The house was furnished in the best taste, and without ostentation; there was a small but charming theatre in the house, where my sister-in-law, my brother, M. de Riviére and I often played in comic operas with Mme. Dugazon, and Garat, Cailleau, and Laruette. The Count d’Artois and his company witnessed our performances. The last given in the theatre at Gennevilliers was “The Marriage of Figaro” by the actors of the Comédie-Française. Mlle. Contat was delightful in the part of Suzanne. Dialogue, couplets, and all the rest were aimed against the court, of which a large part was present. This extravagance benefited no one, but Beaumarchais was none the less intoxicated with joy. As there were complaints of the heat, he allowed no time for the windows to be opened, but smashed all the panes with his walking-stick.
The Count de Vaudreuil came to repent of having given his patronage to the “Marriage of Figaro.” In fact, very soon after the performance mentioned Beaumarchais asked for an audience. This being at once granted, he arrived at Versailles at such an early hour that the Count had only just got up. The dramatist then broached a financial project which he had hatched out, and which was to bring in a vast fortune. He concluded by proposing to hand over to M. de Vaudreuil a large sum if he would engage to carry the affair through successfully. The Count listened quite calmly, and when Beaumarchais finished speaking, answered: “M. de Beaumarchais, you could not come at a more favourable time, for I have spent a good night, my digestion is in good order, and I never felt better than I do to-day. If you had made such a proposition to me yesterday I would have thrown you out of the window.”
Another fine country place I visited was Villette. The Marquise de Villette, nicknamed Lovely and Lovable, having invited me, I went to pass a few days there. On one occasion we found a man painting fences in the park. This painter was working with such expedition that M.de Villette complimented him upon it. “Oh!” was the reply, “I’d undertake to cover up in a day all that Rubens painted in his whole life!”
Click on the image to see Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun’s Portrait of Marie Gabrielle de Gramont, Duchesse de Caderousse in High Resolution!
In 1782 M. Lebrun took me to Flanders, whither he was called by affairs of business. A sale was then being held in Brussels of a splendid collection of pictures belonging to Prince Charles, and we went to view it. I found there several ladies of the court who met me with great kindness, among them the Princess d’Aremberg, whom I had frequently seen in Paris. But the acquaintance upon which I congratulated myself most was that of the Prince de Ligne, whom I had not known before, and who has left an historic reputation for wit and hospitality. He invited us to visit his gallery, where I admired various masterpieces, especially portraits by Van Dyck and heads by Rubens, for he owned but few Italian pictures. He was also good enough to receive us at his magnificent house at Bel-Oeil. I remember that he made us ascend to an outlook, built on the top of a hill commanding the whole of his estate and the whole of the country round about. The perfect air we breathed up there, together with the delightful view, was something enchanting. What was best of all in this lovely place was the greetings of the master of the house, who for his graceful mind and manners never had an equal.
The town of Brussels seemed to me prosperous and lively. In high society, for instance, people were so wrapped up in pleasure-seeking that several friends of the Prince de Ligne sometimes left Brussels at noon, arriving at the opera in Paris just in time to see the curtain go up, and when the performance was over returned to Brussels, travelling all night. That is what I call being fond of the opera!
We quitted Brussels to go to Holland. I was very much pleased with Saardam and Maestricht; these two little towns are so clean and so very well kept that one envies the lot of the inhabitants. The streets being very narrow and provided with canals, one does not ride in carriages, but on horseback, and small boats are used for the transportation of merchandise. The houses, which are very low, have two doors – the birth door, and the death door, through which one only passes in a coffin. The roofs of these houses shine as if they were of burnished steel, and everything is so scrupulously clean that I remember seeing, outside a blacksmith’s shop, a sort of lamp hanging up, which was gilded and polished as though intended for a lady’s chamber. The women of the people in this part of Holland seemed to me very handsome, but were so timid that the sight of a stranger made them run away at once. I suppose, however, that the presence of the French in their country may have tamed them.
We finally visited Amsterdam, and there I saw in the town hall the magnificent painting by Van Loo representing the assembled aldermen. I do not believe that in the whole realm of painting there is anything finer, anything truer; it is nature itself. The aldermen are dressed in black; faces, hands, draping – all done inimitably. These men are alive; you think you are with them. I persuaded myself that this picture must be the most perfect of its kind; I could not tear myself away from it, and the impression it made on me was strong enough to make it ever present in my mind.
Click on the image to see Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun’s Charles Alexandre de Calonne in High Resolution!
My detestable stepfather, annoyed no doubt by the public admiration shown my mother, forbade us to go for any more walks, and informed us that he was about to take a place in the country. At this announcement my heart beat with joy, for I was passionately fond of the country. I had been sleeping near the foot of my mother’s bedstead, in a dark corner where the light of day never penetrated. Every morning, whatever the weather might be, my first care was to open the window wide, such was my thirst for fresh air.
So my stepfather took a small cottage at Chaillot, and we went there on Saturday, spent Sunday there, and returned to Paris on Monday morning. Good heavens, what a country! Imagine a tiny vicarage garden, without a tree, without any shelter from the blazing sun but a little arbour, where my stepfather had planted some beans and nasturtium, which refused to grow. At that we only occupied a quarter of this delightful garden, for it was divided into four by slender railings, and the three other sections were let out to shopboys, who came every Sunday and amused themselves by shooting at the birds. The incessant noise threw me into a desperate state of mind, besides which I was terribly afraid of being killed by these marksmen, so inaccurate was their aim. I could not understand why this stupid, ugly place, the very recollection of which makes me yawn as I write, was “the country.” At last my good angel brought to my rescue a friend of my mother’s, who one day came to dine with us at Chaillot with her husband. Both were sorry for me in my exile, and sometimes took me out for a charming drive.
We went to Marly-le-Roi, and there I found a more beautiful spot than any I had seen in my life. On each side of the magnificent palace were six summer-houses communicating with one another by walks embowered with jessamine and honeysuckle. Water fell in cascades from the top of a hill behind the castle, and formed a large channel on which a number of swans floated. The handsome trees, the carpets of green, the flowers, the fountains, one of which spouted up so high that it was lost from sight – it was all grand, all regal; it all spoke of Louis XIV. One morning I met Queen Marie Antoinette walking in the park with several of the ladies of her court. They were all in white dresses, and so young and pretty that for a moment I thought I was in a dream. I was with my mother, and was turning away when the Queen was kind enough to stop me, and invited me to continue in any direction I might prefer. Alas! when I returned to France in 1802 I hastened to see my noble, smiling Marly. The palace, the trees, the cascades., and the fountains had all disappeared; scarcely a stone was left.
Click on the image to see Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun’s Portrait of Princess Alexandra Golitsyna and her son Piotr in High Resolution!