Vigée Le Brun at the Met

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So, as I mentioned in a previous post, there is an exhibit going on right now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City highlighting the work of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. She was one of the most sought-after and talented portrait painters of her time, and as this previous post explains, one of her paintings played a part in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. Vigée Le Brun painted Queen Marie-Antoinette multiple times, and her paintings were prominent in the public mind: in addition to the portrait of the

la reine en gaulle

Marie Antoinette en Chemise [or “en gaulle”], 1783 by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Queen “en chemise” that caused a minor scandal in 1783, there was the painting of the queen with her children which didn’t entirely succeed in softening the queen’s reputation.

 

But Vigée Le Brun painted many more people than just Marie-Antoinette. She began painting as a young woman, was sought after among the elite of French society, escaped the French Revolution just before it exploded, moved from capital to capital painting prominent people, and continued to paint late into her life (she died at 86).

The exhibit at The Met includes 80 paintings, some of them of familiar figures to those of us familiar with late-18th-century France: Madame du Barry, the Duchesse de Polginac, Calonne, and Mesdames Adelaide and Victoire. There are also less familiar figures, some of them important men’s mistresses, some of them princes and princesses from across Europe, some of them noted intellectuals. What they all have in common, at least in Vigée Le Brun’s portraits, is a vibrancy and movement that you don’t see in many portraits. There are expressions on their faces, and they all look like they’re about to do or say something. They portraits are engaging. The commentary I listened to during my walk-through of the exhibit (I spent

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Portrait of Marie Antoinette, 1783 by Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

two hours there) suggested that this was because Vigée Le Brun herself was engaging and personable, and she drew out her subjects’ personality. It’s hard to say–one suspects that a large part of it was simply her skill as an artist.

The paintings are also visually stunning. I’ve seen images of the paintings, via the Internet, but they simply don’t do justice to the originals. There is an exquisite delicacy to the way  Vigée Le Brun handled fabrics, especially sheer fabrics like muslin fichus or wraps in ladies’ hair. The white dress worn by the Comtesse de La Châtre in her portrait, for instance, has delicate matte-white dots spread across the white satin fabric below. It’s a subtle but beautiful detail.

In fact, I’d say that “beauty” more or less characterizes all of Vigée Le Brun’s work. Everything she painted has a heightened elegance to it–it’s very much like arranged flowers. This wasn’t an artist interested in capturing people “warts and all”; she was interested in aesthetically beautiful paintings.

And that is more than alright by me. I’m not fond of modern art because it feels so self-indulgent; instead of creating something pleasurable, art is supposed to make us “think” (usually about humanity’s failings). I admit to just wanting a pretty picture. And boy does Vigée Le Brun deliver those!

I should also make a note of the colors: Vigée Le Brun used the most remarkable colors. They’re bright and bold and perfectly chosen. There are blues paired with golds, dramatic reds with black and white, a punch of pastel-colored flowers amid more somber grays and blues, and forest greens paired with royals blue and vibrant whites.

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Comtesse de la Châtre. 1789. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Did I mention that I adored this exhibition?

It was definitely worth the five-hour drive in the pouring rain, worth braving the streets of New York City, worth the $35 for parking and the $40 in tolls (yeah . . . the I-95 corridor is expensive!). And it was definitely worth the two hours that I spent there, drooling over the beauty of it all.

I was definitely intensely pleased when I got to see Marie Antoinette en Chemise and Marie Antoinette avec une Rose side-by-side. As the audio guide explained, it’s the first time the two have been exhibited side-by-side.

Why was I so excited? Well, again, I refer you to this post, but to give a quick overview of the story behind these paintings: Vigée Le Brun painted the portrait of Marie-Antoinette “en chemise” and presented it in public at a salon in 1783. “En chemise” means that Marie was in a white muslin or “chemise” dress. Now, a chemise was an undergarment that went beneath everything else, stays (“corset”) included. It was scandalous to show the queen in a portrait in what looked like her underclothing. It was too informal, too suggestive. So Vigée Le Brun took down that painting and quickly dashed off another one, with the queen in the same pose but wearing a more appropriate/regal blue satin gown.

In both portraits, you’ll notice, the queen is holding the same thing in her left hand: a rose. Not long after this painting was displayed, in 1785, a young adventuress named Jeanne de La Motte-Valois convinced a credulous Cardinal that she was friends with the Queen (she did it to steal a very expensive necklace). To win him over, she hired a prostitute (Nicole d’Oliva) to play the part of the queen (oh dear!), dressed her  in a white muslin dress and gave her a rose to hand to the Cardinal. Sound familiar? It seems pretty likely that Jeanne got the idea from the portrait of the Queen en chemise. In fact, one of Jeanne’s friends, Jacques Claude Beugnot, remembered that Jeanne had a candy box with a copy of Marie Antoinette en chemise painted on the inside of its lid!

And of course, the reason I started this blog way back when was to tell more of this story. I’d written an entire novel about it, but I wasn’t nearly done. Yes, this blog has shifted focus, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have an abiding interest in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace and everything related to it. I was even willing to make a harrowing trip into New York City to see this exhibition, just to get a glimpse of the originals of these two paintings. I was rewarded by more beauty than I’d even imagined. I went for the pair of paintings of Marie-Antoinette, but I stayed for the 78 other exquisite pieces of art.

(I would be lying if I said I didn’t sneak a few pictures while inside the exhibit, but I don’t want to share them on principle, and they aren’t very good anyway!)

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The National Gallery of Art and Vigée-Le Brun

So, I was at the National Gallery of Art the other day for a guided tour of the gallery’s statues. It was a great tour, and I really liked getting to know more about the statues that most people just walk by. But it was on my way out that I found something that totally made my day. I was on my way out of the gallery, walking past an open doorway, when what to my wondering eyes should appear, hanging on the wall above a roll-top desk, but this:

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I just about flipped out. I may have made some sounds of excitement that surprised the guard keeping watch over that set of rooms. I whipped out my camera and started snapping pictures. Glare is always a major problem when trying to take pictures, but I did my best.

Why was I so excited? Well, somewhat obviously, that is Marie-Antoinette. Perhaps less obviously, this image played an integral part in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. I wrote a post on it here. The summary is this: Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, one of the finest painters of her day, was the queen’s favorite artist, and the queen had a penchant for discarding decorum. A fashion trend she helped set off was the craze for light, white muslin dresses like the one she’s wearing in this portrait. The trouble is that this dress resembled the underclothing of the day that people were shocked when this painting by Vigée-Le Brun was put on public display. Why has she been painted in her underwear? How tacky! Marie-Antoinette’s reputation took a hit.

Oh, but that wasn’t all. This painting also inspired the “Grove of Venus” scene in which a prostitute named Nicole d’Oliva dressed up in a very similar outfit to the one in this painting and handed a rose to Cardinal Rohan. (Also, there was a candy box with a copy of this painting on the underside of its lid. See this post.) This little stunt would later blow up into one of the most sensational trials of the century, one that deeply affected the public’s view of the Queen.

In any case, having written a whole novel about the topic, I was delighted to see this portrait hanging in the National Gallery. I had no idea it was there (silly me!). From what I understand, however, this is actually a period copy, not the original. A Google search seems in to indicate the original Vigée-Le Brun painting is in a private collection. I really don’t care, though. I was so incredibly pleased to see it that I almost started jumping up and down and pointing. People would have had no idea what the heck was so exciting, so I restrained myself.

Nearby was another lovely portrait, this one of Madame du Barry, the mistress of Louis XV and a lady who was not well-liked by Marie-Antoinette:

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The National Gallery also has two other Vigée-Le Bruns on display (she’s a fantastic portraitist, and I love almost everything she painted) and one not on display. So, if you happen to be in the Washington DC area and want to see these paintings (as well as all the other fabulous art), then stop by the National Gallery. It’s more than worth your time. (By the way, it’s not a Smithsonian; it’s funded/run by the Federal government, as I found out when I tried to get a discount with my Smithsonian membership card.)

Here’s a link to the National Gallery’s listing for the painting (notice the “Anonymous”):

http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.46065.html

And here’s a link to the National Gallery’s listing for Vigée-Le Brun:

http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/artist-info.1953.html?artistId=1953&pageNumber=1

Marie-Antoinette in Pop Culture

Just for a little bit of fun, here’s a tidbit of Marie-Antoinette in popular culture. Hole, Courtney Love’s band, released nobody’s daughter in April this year. The album cover (aside from a spiffy parental advisory label) shows (most of) a portrait of Marie-Antoinette.

This particular portrait (history lesson alert!) is a redone version of the painting of the queen in her white muslin dress, known as en gaulle. People were so scandalized by the portrait because it looked as though the queen had been painted in her undergarments. The painter, Elizabeth Vigee-Le Brun, reworked it with this pretty blue gown and a different hat.

With a touch of wit, the portrait is–ahem–cut off at the neck. Turn the CD over, and the back cover is of Anne Boleyn given a similar cropping. I guess being queen can be a dangerous occupation if you aren’t careful.

The Memoirs

This is a list of the many memoirs of the people directly involved in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. There was a widespread penchant for writing memoirs at this time, so everyone involved wrote their version of events and had it published. Since the scandal made such a major impact, the memoirs sold well, though the writers didn’t necessarily see much profit due to copyright laws of the time. However, these would have proved juicy readings for the public, as well as for the historian. Although they’re wonderful fist-hand accounts, it’s difficult to decipher fact from fiction, especially in the case of the Affair od the Diamond Necklace. Some are available in various forms in various places. In her fabulous book The Queen’s Necklace, France Mossiker conveniently and brilliantly wove together these memoirs and other primary sources. If you want to read some of these various memoirs, your best bet is to find this book, which isn’t hard to do. If, however, you want to read the entire memoirs, these are the titles of them, and a few links to those that can be found via Google Books.

The Memoirs

Boehmer and Bassenge:

Memoires des joailliers Boehmer et Bassenge, du Août 12, 1785.

Cagliostro:

Mémoire pour le Comte de Cagliostro, accuse, contro M. le Proceureur-général, accusateur, en presence de M. Le Cardinal de Rohan, de la Comtesse de La Motte et autres, co-accusés.*

Jeanne de La Motte-Valois de Saint Rémy:

Mémoires justicatifs de la comtesse de La Motte-Valois. London 1789.

Memoirs of the Countess de Valois de La Motte. Dublin 1790.

Vie de Jeanne de Saint-Rémy de Valois. London, 1791, Paris 1792.

Nicole d’Oliva:

Mémoire pour la demoiselle le Guay d’Oliva, fille mineure, émancipée d’âge, accusée, contre M. le Procurer-général.*

Jacques Claude Beugnot:

Mémoires, Paris 1823

Madame Campan [Queen’s confidante]:

Mémoires sur la vie privée de Marie Antoinette. Paris 1823

Nicolas de La Motte:

Mémoires inédits du comte de La Motte-Valois (ed. Louis Lacour). Paris, 1858).

Retaux de Villette:

Mémoires historiques des intrigues de la cour, Venice 1790.

*Not personal memoires

Links to memoirs on Google Books for your edification

Count Cagliostro [FRENCH]:

Nicole d’Oliva [FRENCH]

Jacques Claude Beugnot [ENGLISH] volume 1  . volume 2

Madame Campan, confidante of Marie Antoinette

Abbe Georgel, servant of Cardinal Rohan

Marie Antoinette: The Key to the Enigma

How does a Cardinal, a senior member of the French court, come to believe that the Queen of France is willing to meet him on a scandalous midnight rendezvous? How does the public come to believe what a fabrication cooked up by an adventuress named Jeanne de La Motte-Valois?

The “key to the enigma” as Frances Mossiker puts it in The Queen’s Necklace, is the Queen’s reputation. Our friend Comte Beugnot said, “The Queen’s reputation, sad to say, provided the key to the whole diamond necklace enigma.”

Marie Antoinette has come down to us as a tragic icon of fashion and excess. She was queen, was able to indulge her extraordinary whims (like three-foot-tall hairdos and fake miniature villages), and ended up losing her head because her people didn’t like it. Of course this impression is mostly false. Although she indulged a great love of fashion and overspent tremendously, she did gravitate towards simpler (perhaps scandalously simple) dress once

Marie Antoinette as a girl

she passed her twenties. It is also important to remember that the Queen was a target for dislike and dissatisfaction for the people. She had very little to do with the financial troubles of France, despite her spending. In an ocean of debt, her expenditures were minimal, though unfortunately for her they were conspicuous.

It might be fair to say that Marie Antoinette was insensitive of her people’s suffering, or at least that she was sheltered in her palaces. But it’s very unlikely she said, “Let them eat cake.” Marie Antoinette may not have been fully aware of the starvation and misery of the French people, but it would be unfair to say she was unfeeling or uncaring. She set aside a great deal of money for charities of different sorts. The evidence shows that she cared for suffering set before her eyes. Other suffering might have simply missed her notice.

To many people in her own time and ours, the love life of Marie Antoinette is at least as interesting as her flair for fashion and self-indulgence. There is a long list of men that Marie Antoinette was linked to in her own day. She was accused, for instance, of having an affair with her husband’s brother, the Comte d’Artois. The underground rumor mills of Paris (which put ou pamphlet with nasty pornographic or near-pornographic images of the Queen) weren’t above linking her to her female friends, either. There were rumors she was the lover of the Comtesse de Polignac and the Princesse de Lamballe. (Rather sadly, Lamballe was a loyal friend who remained in Paris and died very brutally during the Revolution at the hands of people who believed these rumors and butchered her body.)

Tongues wagged about the relationship between Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen of Sweden. There is no firm evidence the two were lovers (and there probably never will be–in 2003 experts attempted but failed to determine what had been erased from letters between Marie Antoinette and Fersen). However, over the years, historians have concluded that they were, indeed, lovers. After all, the Queen installed him in rooms in her own domain at Versailles. Interestingly, the people who created and circulated the scurrilous pamphlets never linked her name with Fersen, probably the only serious candidate for a “lover” for the queen.

There are many reasons that Marie Antoinette’s behavior was viewed with so much suspicion. Her position put her in line for criticism. She was the Queen of France, which under normal circumstances is not a particularly powerful position because of the way queens were traditionally treated. They were purely there for breeding purposes, and very little gloss was put on this reality. Louis XVI, however, was not decisive and was not a born leader. He also loved his pretty wife. The result was that she had some sway over him, and that, to many eyes, she was–most unnaturally–ruling France through her husband. To compound this, Marie Antoinette had no children for the first several years of her marriage because she and Louis XVI weren’t able to consummate the marriage fully. Add to this the fact that Marie Antoinette was a foreigner from France’s old rival Austria, and there was a great deal of suspicion of the Queen. She was a powerful, foreign female, who seemed to be failing in her primary duty as a woman and queen.

Marie Antoinette’s desire for privacy and informality were suspicious, too, to her subjects. The royal family had been put on very public display since the time of Louis XIV in the mid 1600’s. Etiquette had been handed down by the Sun King, and it was expected that this etiquette would be followed to the letter. This meant waking and going to bed with an audience, dressing with an audience, and eating with an audience. While a modern person would consider this all an atrocious invasion of personal space, the French people expected to be able to view and scrutinize their sovereigns. Because Marie Antoinette tried to block this access, the people assume she was trying to hide something. She also balked at the formal rules that governed everything. For instance, she would have suppers with men in the room who were not her family, which shouldn’t have been allowed. The Queen’s desire for privacy and informality probably stems from her childhood in Austria, where her large family lived more like wealthy bourgeois than like divine beings.

Marie Antoinette was undeniably vain and spoiled. She lost great sums of money gambling, and of course she spent massive amounts on clothing and decorating. She lacked judgment, and couldn’t take advice well. Her mother and advisers warned her early and often that her behavior was offensive to the French  nobles and French people. Marie Antoinette did not heed the warnings. Though her behavior was better when she was older and had children, the damage had already been done.

Witness the Diamond Necklace Affair. If she hadn’t already damaged her reputation, no one have believed that Marie Antoinette would condescend to meet a Cardinal in the midnight gardens of Versailles. If she hadn’t gained a reputation for loving diamonds, no one would have thought her capable of duping a Cardinal and stealing from the royal jewelers. Her reputation for sexual looseness and for greed, even if unearned, were enough to condemn Marie-Antoinette in the public mind. Jeanne de La Motte-Valois was probably more clever than she realized when she orchestrated the heist of the diamond necklace. She surely knew the Queen’s reputation and used it to her advantage, but she probably had no idea just how much of her story the public would believe.

Would the French Revolution have happened if Marie Antoinette were a different person? Would the currents of politics, time, and opinion have turned against the monarchy regardless? Or did Marie Antoinette single-handedly bring down the French monarchy? Like with most things, there is no single answer. It’s a combination of all of the above. The only thing that is certain is that the Diamond Necklace Affair would never have happened under another Queen. As Frances Mossiker said, the accusations levelled at Marie Antoinette would never have stuck to a Maria Leszczynska (her predecessor as Queen of France) or a Victoria or an Elizabeth II. Not only did the culture of the day–an odd mixture of promiscuity and public prudery–create the tempest that surrounded Marie Antoinette, her own behavior gave her enemies the opportunity to accuse her of any number of things and for those accusations to be believed.

The key to the enigma–the key to why the plot to steal the necklace ultimately hurt the innocent Queen and why the Queen ended up losing her head–is her reputation. “Reputation” is a complex mixture of her actions; the appearance her actions gave; the public’s perception of her; and the fears,  anxieties, and expectations of the time. 

In the comments, someone brought up this three-part blog entry about Fersen and Marie Antoinette on the wonderful blog Tea at Trianon.

For your perusal, here is an online exhibit from The Newberry Library.

Some books worth looking up on the topic:

Chantel Thomas The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie Antoinette

Antonia Fraser Marie Antoinette: The Journey

Caroline Weber Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution