The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun – Chapter 7: Saint Petersburg

Memoires of Madame Vigee Lebrun - chapter 7

I entered St. Petersburg on the 25th of July, 1795, by the road from Peterhoff, which gave me a favourable idea of the city, for this road is lined on both sides by delightful country houses, with gardens of the best taste in the English style. Their residents have taken advantage of the soil, which is very marshy, to adorn the gardens – where there are kiosks and pretty bridges – by canals and little streams. But it is a pity that a dreadful dampness spoils this pleasant scene of an evening; even before sunset such a fog rises over the road that one seems to be enveloped in thick, dark smoke.

Magnificent as I had conceived the city to be, I was enchanted by the aspect of its monuments, its handsome mansions, and its broad streets, one of which, called the Prospekt, is a mile long. The Neva, clear and limpid, cuts through the town, laden with vessels and barks unceasingly moving up and down, and this greatly adds to the liveliness of the town. The quays of the Neva are of granite, like those of the large canals dug through the town by Catherine. On one bank of the river are splendid edifices: the Academy of Arts, the Academy of Sciences and a number of others are reflected in the Neva. There was no grander sight on a moonlight night, I was told, than the bulk of those majestic piles, resembling ancient temples. Altogether, St. Petersburg took me back to the times of Agamemnon, partly through the grandeur of the buildings and partly through the popular garb, which reminded me of the dress of antiquity.

Though I have just spoken of moonlight, I was unable to enjoy it at the time of my arrival, for in the month of July there is not a single hour of actual darkness in St. Petersburg. The sun sets at about half-past ten, and it is merely dusk until twilight, which begins half an hour after midnight, so that one can always see plainly. I have often supped at eleven o’clock by daylight.

My first care was to take a good rest, for, after Riga, the roads had been most horrible. Large stones, one on top of the other, gave my carriage, which was one of the roughest in the world, a violent shock at every moment. And the inns being so bad as to exclude every possibility of staying at them, we had jolted and jerked on to St. Petersburg without a stop.

I was far from recovered from all my fatigue – since the term of my residence in St. Petersburg had been only twenty-four hours – when a visitor was announced in the person of the French Ambassador, Count Esterhazy. He congratulated me on my arrival at St. Petersburg, telling me that he was about to inform the Empress of it and at the same time to take her orders for my presentation. Very little later I received a visit from the Count de Choiseul-Gouffier. While conversing with him I confessed what happiness it would give me to see the great Catherine, but I did not dissemble the fright and embarrassment I expected to undergo when I should be presented to that powerful Princess. “You will find it quite easy,” he replied. “when you see the Empress you will be surprised at her good nature; she is really an excellent woman.” I acknowledge that I was astonished by his remark, the justice of which I could scarcely believe, in view of what I had heard up to that time. It is true that the Prince de Ligne, during the charming narration of his journey in the Crimea, had recounted several facts proving that this great Princess had manners that were as gracious as they were simple, but an excellent woman was hardly the thing to call her.

However, the same evening Count Esterhazy, on returning from Czarskoiesielo, where the Empress was living, came to tell me that Her Majesty would receive me the next day at one o’clock. Such a quick presentation, which I had not hoped for, put me into a very awkward position. I had nothing but very plain muslin dresses, as I usually wore no others, and it was impossible to have an ornamental gown made from one day to the next, even at St. Petersburg. Count Esterhazy had said he would call for me at ten o’clock precisely and take me to breakfast with his wife, who also lived at Czarskoiesielo, so that when the appointed hour struck I started with serious apprehensions about my dress, which certainly was no court dress. On arriving at Mme. d’Esterhazy’s, I, in fact, took note of her amazement. Her obliging civility did not prevent her from asking me, “Have you not brought another gown?” I turned crimson at her question, and explained how time had been wanting to have a more suitable gown made. Her displeased looks increased my anxiety to such a degree that I needed to summon up all my courage when the moment came to go before the Empress.

[…]

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Eine Royalistin auf der Flucht

Paris 1789, in der Nacht des 6. Oktober flüchtet eine der erfolgreichsten Künstlerinnen der Zeit aus der Metropole. Als bekennende Unterstützerin des Königshauses ist die Lage im revolutionären Frankreich für Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842) mittlerweile zu gefährlich. Über Lyon und Turin fliehend, landet sie schließlich in Rom, wo sie bis 1792 bleibt, bevor sie nach Paris zurückkehren wird. Doch als Royalistin – Marie Antoinette ist eine ihrer Auftraggeberinnen – hat sie mittlerweile alle französischen Bürgerrechte verloren.

Erzherzogin Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), Königin von Frankreich, 1778. Öl auf Leinwand, 273 x 193,5 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Wien.
Erzherzogin Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), Königin von Frankreich, 1778. Öl auf Leinwand, 273 x 193,5 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Wien.

In dieser Situation rät man ihr, nach Wien zu gehen und dort als Porträtistin zu arbeiten. Dank ihres Rufes fällt es ihr nicht schwer, dort neue Aufträge zu erhalten. Ihre nächste Station ist Sankt Petersburg, wo sie am Hof Katharinas d. Großen arbeitet. Es folgen Aufenthalte in Moskau und Berlin. Insgesamt 12 Jahre des Exils! Aufgrund einer von zahlreichen Künstlern eingereichten Petition erhält Vigée-Lebrun ihre Bürgerrechte zurück, was ihr die Rückkehr nach Frankreich ermöglicht. 1802 kommt sie in Paris an, wo sie in der Folge auch Napoleon Bonapartes Schwester Caroline malen wird.

Marie-Annunciade-Caroline Bonaparte, Königin von Neapel (1782-1839), 1807. Öl auf Leinwand, 217 x 143 cm. Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Versailles.
Marie-Annunciade-Caroline Bonaparte, Königin von Neapel (1782-1839), 1807. Öl auf Leinwand, 217 x 143 cm. Musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Versailles.

Ihrer Reputation folgend, reist sie weiterhin durch Europa: sie geht nach England, in die Niederlande und in die Schweiz. Ihre dem Klassizismus zuzuordnenden Porträts europäischer Adliger machen aus Vigée-Lebrun eine über die Grenzen Frankreichs hinaus bekannte und an den Höfen Europas gefeierte Porträtmalerin.

Madame Vigée-Lebrun und ihre Tochter, um 1789. Öl auf Leinwand, 130 x 94 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Madame Vigée-Lebrun und ihre Tochter, um 1789. Öl auf Leinwand, 130 x 94 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

In einer Zeit des Umbruchs trifft sie auf all ihren Stationen auf die höchsten Persönlichkeiten einer sich wandelnden Gesellschaft, die sie in ihren feinfühligen Bildnissen festhält und mit ihnen einen unvergleichlichen Eindruck einer alten und einer sich anbahnenden neuen Epoche vermittelt.