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 Interrogation of Count Cagliostro Part 4

I have been pretty negligent in my efforts to translate and bring to you bits of the interrogations of various prominent characters in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. I last brought you part 3 of this interrogation in 2013. I have (finally!) gotten around to translating the fourth and final part of Count Cagliostro’s interrogation.

Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3

As a reminder, Count Cagliostro was a friend of Cardinal Prince Louis de Rohan. In 1785, Rohan was arrested on suspicion of defrauding the royal jewelers out of a very, very expensive diamond necklace. As it happens, he was duped by a woman named Jeanne de La Motte, who claimed to be an intimate of the queen’s. Cagliostro, a mystic and charlatan, was arrested because he was, at the time of the Affair, living in Rohan’s household. Mme de La Motte had also implicated him (and Rohan) as the masterminds and perpetrators of the theft.

Previously, the interrogator asked about a seance of sorts that took place in Rohan’s palace and was apparently conducted by Cagliostro. He described a seance that took place in the Cardinal’s household. He does his best to characterize it as harmless, while the interrogator tries his best to characterize the little event as suggestive and damning.

He was previously asked about whether he’d seen the missing diamond necklace and whether he’d seen the contract (no and yes). Now the questions turns to some diamonds that Cagliostro and his wife were seen to possess . . . 

The Interrogation of Count Cagliostro Part 4

We asked whether it was true that the Cardinal gave diamonds to the respondent’s wife, whether she had not been seen there [in Paris] with several [diamonds] [“si on ne lui en a pas vu beaucoup”], and whether those diamonds came from the necklace.

He replied that he had told [the Cardinal] about a very rare and precious gem of gold and diamonds that comprised the head of a cane [“qui fait une pomme de canne”], inside of which was a very curious bell and which the Cardinal found very appealing. He [Cagliostro] asked the Cardinal to accept it [as a gift], which is what the Cardinal did. [Presumably, this elaborate cane belonged to Cagliostro. The Cardinal saw it and expressed his admiration of it, which in this context more or less obligated Cagliostro to give it the Cardinal as a “gift”.] He [the Cardinal] wanted to show his gratitude and gave him [Cagliostro] some presents in return, which he [Cagliostro] refused; except, on various occasions, notably on the fête [presumably, “name day”] of his wife, the Cardinal gave him various pieces of diamond jewelry. Namely: a small “saint-esprit”, a frame for a portrait of the respondent [“l’entourage du portrait de lui répondant”], and a jeweled necklace [“chaîne garnie”], all of them in diamonds, and a small clock [or watch]. He [Cagliostro] did try to return them all several times, but the Cardinal always obliged him to keep [the gifts]. Moreover, every one of his wife’s diamonds that came from him is right here [“tous les diamants tant de sa femme que de lui sont ici’]. His wife never had never had any others, and those are known in every court he has travelled to. [He seems to be saying that all the diamonds they own were gifts from the Cardinal or were in his and his wife’s possession before they came to Paris.]

We asked whether he had not persuaded the Cardinal that his wife was a close friend of the queen and that she visited and corresponded with her. [Basically, the interrogator is suggesting that Cagliostro’s wife—instead of Jeanne—is the one who was conning the Cardinal.]

He responded that he never said that. His wife never knew the queen, she had never been to Versailles, and she could have had no correspondence with anyone, being unable to write. [Cagliostro’s wife was illiterate.]

We presented to him a copy of a note containing clauses relating to the necklace, and we challenged him to declare whether he knew of it and whether the Cardinal had sent it to him [Cagliostro] or his wife. We requested that he initial it.

After examining it, he responded that he did not know it and that the first time he had seen it was that very day and he did not want to initial it, considering it as inappropriate. As a result, the said note was not initialed either by the respondent, who refused to do so, or by us, whom he was before.

We asked whether he convinced the Cardinal that he would get as high as the ministry [i.e., rise as high as becoming Prime Minister, which was Cardinal Rohan’s dearest desire].

He responded no, that instead of encouraging him to pursue [a place as Prime Minister], he suggested on the contrary that the Cardinal should remain in his current station.

We asked whether the Cardinal had not given to him [Cagliostro] or his wife a portion of the diamonds from the necklace [“provenant du collier”] or money from the sale [“le prix de la vente”] of these diamonds.

He responded no, that his actions had all been public since arrived there [in Paris]. He had never bought or sold diamonds here, and he had no diamonds except the ones he brought with him.

We asked whether he was in the process of buying a house worth 50,000 écus [a denomination of money] and whether he was going to pay cash.

He responded no.

We represented to him that, according to what he had told us, he always practiced medicine for free and most often on behalf of the poor than on behalf of others. It was astonishing that he was able to support his level of spending. We demanded of him where his fortune came from.

He replied that he draws on several bankers, notably Sarrasin de Bàle and de Hans Costard at Lyon and that he has considerable resources. Wherever he goes, he always pays exactly what he owes and leaves behind no debt.

We asked whether he would like to confront the witnesses. [I believe that’s what is being asked here; as part of the French legal system, defendants were often put in the same room with witnesses/accusers in hopes that the confrontation would produce the truth.]

He said yes, it they tell the truth.

“How to Ruin a Queen” by Jonathan Beckman: New Nonfiction on the Diamond Necklace Affair

There is a story associated with this little shout-out, but it is neither here nor there. There is a recently-published nonfiction book out about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace: How to Ruin a Queen by Jonathan Beckman. I haven’t read it yet; I’m currently working through a history of the 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign. This book, however, is next on my list. Until then, I’m sure the book is worth mentioning to all who stumble upon this blog:

http://www.amazon.com/Jonathan-Beckman-How-Ruin-Queen/dp/B00N4GH4VA/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1412721552&sr=8-3&keywords=how+to+ruin+a+queen

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

A Crash Course in French and the Diamond Necklace Affair

I will be the first to admit that I don’t really know French. I sometimes pretend I do, though. There are plenty of sources in English regarding the ancien-régime France (see what I did there?), the French Revolutionary, Marie-Antoinette, and even the Affair of the Diamond

A young Marie Antoinette as dauphine.

A young Marie Antoinette as dauphine.

Necklace. You don’t need to learn French to learn about the history. But as you read, you’ll probably pick up more than a few French phrases. I know I did.

French is more than a language; it’s a state of mind. That probably sounds silly, but there’s a reason that there’s an institution (the Académie Française) that is dedicated to preserving French (and similarly, there’s a reason why there’s no equivalent for the English language; but that is neither here nor there, n’est ce-pas? See what I did there?). As a result of the Académie, modern French hasn’t deviated greatly from the version of French that was spoken by the heroes of our 18th-century misadventure. Compare that to English, which has changed markedly since the same time period. Writings from the 1700’s are perfectly understandable but sound strange (and just plain old) to modern ears. Have we lost or gained by allowing our language to morph? After all, the slight changes in language put a distance between us and the Founding Fathers (for instance). They didn’t speak quite like us and, therefore, they weren’t quite like us: they thought differently; they felt differently; they were just plain different. That conclusion isn’t precisely true, of course. But the difference in language does put a wedge between us and our ancestors. (As a side-note to my digression, the same isn’t true of, say, the Civil War era; the English of that era sounds very much more familiar to the modern ear than that of the Revolutionary era.)

The French, at least as far as language goes, don’t have the same kind of distance between themselves and their ancestors. They are, however, distanced from the past by culture. The cultural difference between ancien-régime France and modern France is, I think, greater than that between colonial America and the modern United States.

So, let’s just say you don’t know much French, but you’re studying the Affair of the Diamond Necklace (as you should!). What French phrases might you come across,  what do they mean, and what do they say about 18th-century France?

Let’s start with one that’s already come up in this post:

Ancien régime: Literally, the old/former regime. More specifically, in this context the phrase means France before the Revolution. More loosely, the phrase is used to describe the government (or way of doing things) that is now passed. So, it can be used to describe the previous administration when the new one is in office.

Here is a phrase not familiar to many people, even those who study French. It has a specific place in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace: Continue reading

The Artwork of Versailles

A young Marie Antoinette.

A young Marie Antoinette. By Jean-Baptiste Charpentier le Vieux. Currently hanging in the second antechamber of the Dauphin.

I was going to write a blog post based on the pictures I’d taken of various artwork at the Chateau de Versailles. This was meant to complement the other two posts I’ve created to share the pictures I took at the palace.

However.

I stumbled upon Google Earth Project’s collection of Versailles’ art and was shamed into submission. Google has officially taken over the world. I’m aware this (meaning Google Art not Google world dominance, which is old news) is not something brand new, which is comforting since the end of the Mayan calendar is near. (This whole Google Art Project makes me fear that the end of the Mayan calendar will lead directly into the beginning of the Age of Google. A Google-apocalypse.)

Too bad I didn’t cotton on to the Google Art Project earlier. Everyone from the National Ballet of Canada to the Latvian National Museum of Art are part of this amazing effort.

Here’s the link to the collection of the Chateau de Versailles: http://www.googleartproject.com/collection/palace-of-versailles/

And here, you can do a walk-through of the palace: http://www.googleartproject.com/collection/palace-of-versailles/museumview/

The entirety of the collection is, naturally, worth a look. You can click on the pictures to zoom in, and click details to get some in-depth information about each artwork. Many of them also have educational videos included.

I admit to being most interested in the portraits, especially the ones of people I don’t know well, such as Louis de France, Duke of Burgundy or Maria Leszczinska. But it’s good to see better-known portraits like this one of Louis XIV, or this one of Marie Antoinette and her family.

Read more . . . Continue reading

The Interrogation of Nicole d’Oliva Part 2

 Previously on the Affair of the Diamond Necklace . . .

My last post (here) was part 1 of my translation of Nicole d’Oliva’s testimony to the court during the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. The examiner told us how she told him that she had met Nicolas de La Motte one day while walking at the Palais-Royal. He took her to meet his wife, Jeanne de La Motte. The pair called themselves Comte and Comtesse, and

Portrait of Marie Antoinette, 1783 by Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun. The gown and headdress were changed because the queen’s white muslin dress in the original portrait was considered inappropriate. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

made Nicole part of their circle. Jeanne claimed to be a friend of the Queen’s, and on a summer night, she took Nicole out to do a little favor for the Queen. Nicole was to hand a man a rose and a letter and said, “You know what this means.” She was playing the part of the Queen in the gardens of Versailles–in particular the Grove of Venus.

Here’s the short story.

Suffice it to say that Nicole’s bit of playacting fooled a credulous Cardinal into thinking Marie-Antoinette favored him. He later acted as guarantor for what he thought was a purchase of a necklace on the Queen’s behalf. Jeanne was the go-between. The necklace disappeared (presumably, Jeanne stole it), and eventually all parties were arrested. As a result, Nicole was interrogated.

As mentioned in part 1, this is my attempt at a translation of a transcription from a book in French. I do not know French, so it was difficult. Some of the phrasing might be stilted, and some phrases were downright impossible for me to decipher confidently. But, without further ado, here is PART TWO:

We asked whether, when this person came, she lifted her hat “avec son éventail” [with her fan] and he said to her that he hoped she would forget what had happened in the past [the interrogator is asking about the Grove of Venus scene, and the person in question is Cardinal Rohan] . She answered that she did not raise the white Thérèse [a kind of hat] she had on her head, that she had no fan that night, and that she did not say she forgot the past because she was not able to say anything of the sort.

A little background is helpful here; the Cardinal had mortally offended Marie-Antoinette when she was still Dauphine by insulting her mother. He’d been trying to win back the Queen’s favor ever since (unsuccessfully). This is “the past” that Rohan wished her to forget–keep in mind that he thought he was talking to the Queen herself. Nicole’s comment implies that she was confused by the Cardinal’s words and wasn’t sure how to answer him without breaking character as it were.

Continue reading