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.